The quest of identity in a modern dystopian novel

Kazuo Ishiguro´s "Never Let Me Go"

Term Paper, 2018
13 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Use of ambiguous terminology

3. Theoretical background: Identity Theories

4. Analysis of different aspects & actions of the novel
4.1 Tajfel’s Social Categorisation & Social Identity in Never Let Me Go
4.2 Tajfel’s social comparison in Never Let Me Go
4.3 Tajfel’s Social creativity & individual mobility in Never Let Me Go

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Who am I? And “What is this thing – this identity – which people are supposed to carry around with them?” (Billig, 1995: 7). Many people find it difficult to answer this question at one point at their life. The quest for identity always has been part of human nature. Just as imagining and fantasizing about perfect worlds and living in perfect conditions always has been. Humans enjoy visualizing a better place resulting from their dissatisfaction and disappointment in their societies. Not only utopias, also dystopias occupy the human mind. Both, ideal and non-ideal imagined worlds can help to analyse and improve one’s own and already existing world and society or also be identified as a warning against contemporary trends.

The question of real identity is often raised by readers while reading books concerning dystopian worlds and societies. This term paper will discuss the quest of identity and elements of the utopian contemporary school society described in a novel from this decade, titled Never Let Me Go (1995) by Kazuo Ishiguro. In the novel the protagonists have a shorter life span than regular human beings. This, and the fact that their lives have been planned and predetermined to one day become organ donors leads to the struggle of identity and what identity truly means. Furthermore, the paper will focus on the use of ambiguous terminology used in the novel and how it manipulates the reader’s emotions and impressions. Specific words are being used, which the reader does not immediately link to the words meant by the narrator.

To analyse the novel on the aspects of the identity quest, Henri Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory and his thesis will form the basis of the work: Social groups are essential and crucial for an individual’s identity.

2. Use of ambiguous terminology

Throughout the novel, Ishiguro uses a specific terminology to describe different types of lifelong tasks and the people that carry out these tasks. While reading the reader learns gradually about the meaning of those words in this parallel world created in the stories real world that seem to be exceptional in certain circumstances.

Approaching and examining this terminology after the read, it becomes more transparent that the words can be categorized (cf. Journet 61). They belong to separate but also connected word fields: selflessness/ benevolence (donor, donation), safety/ stability (guardian/ carer) and sequence of life/health (complete, recover)

During Kathy’s time at Hailsham the pupils are only referred to as students and never described as donors, even though it is the only and actual purpose in their lives. The word “student” is not as confusing to the world outside the novel. However, it is used to minimalize the chances of the main characters discovering their real fate too early and therefore can also be categorized as a euphemism. Another word connected to school and education in society is the term “teacher” or “supervisor”. In opposition to this, people educating the students of Hailsham are called guardians. The word guardian is connected to the thought of a legal guardian, who takes care of but also cares about a minor or some people possibly even think about a guardian angel (The Oxford English Dictionary, 2018). Most guardians at Hailsham do take care of the minors but do not seem to care about them as individuals. They care about the children’s health and physical wellbeing but less about their personal development than a legal guardian would.

After Kathy, Ruth and Tommy leave Hailsham they are no longer being referred to as students but as donors. This can be explained due to two reasons. The first one being that they are no longer students since they now left their school and live in the Cottages. The second reason, and possibly the more important one is concerned with the development of each of their lives: they now have a much clearer and more obvious idea of their predestined lives. To a certain point, they now understand what their special purpose in life is. Another point, that will also be discussed in more detail later in this work, is the distinction being made between donors and carer. While donors start their donation right after a certain time at the cottages, some characters apply to become carers. Both words exist in the world outside of the book and in some ways do correspond to our understanding of these terms, it is still important to make certain distinctions. While a donor or carer provides help voluntarily (The Oxford English Dictionary, 2018), the donors and carers in Ishiguro’s book are forced and born into a mixture of occupation and purpose in life.

When the donors complete several donations they either recover in special recovery centres or they complete entirely. Complete can be interpreted as a unique and new euphemism of the word die. When one hears the word complete, they may connect it to a task that is finished or finish something by adding one last missing piece. In the online Oxford English Dictionary, the following definition can be found: “Finish making or doing” (2018). If one compares these definitions to how the term is used in the book, it seems apparent that both meanings are closely connected, since the donors complete their task and purpose in life.

The last term discussed in this work is the word possible and cannot be categorized in any of the categories mentioned above. Possible is a word used to describe the original or the model from which the donors were cloned from. The Oxford English Dictionary provides a definition of the adjective that can be adapted to the concept of a possible in the novel: “That may exist or happen, but that is not certain or probable.”. Although, the term is not used that way outside of the book, one can follow how it developed from the definition given by the Oxford English Dictionary, since the reader understands the unlikeliness of finding the person the donors were cloned from.

3. Theoretical background: Identity Theories

As mentioned in the introduction, this work is concerned with the examination of the quest of identity in Never Let Me Go and the exploration of how the main characters’ identities correspond to a carefully selected theory of identity. This work will concentrate on Henri Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory (1979) for the analysis of identity within a group but also the creation of identity caused by intergroup relationships. The demonstrated theory was chosen due to the extensive importance of different group forming within the novel.

In the 1970’s , Henri Tajfel and Turner extended the already proposed theory1 that every individuum belongs to groups, such as family, social class or groups of free time activities. These groups can arouse positive feelings such as dignity and confidence within the individuum that is part of the group. But it can also evoke negative connotations regarding their own group by comparing it to other relevant groups. Hence, group identity and personal identity (e.g. behavior) fuse and resolve in a profound connection (Tajfel 61). As indicated above these groups may evoke feelings of being inferior to other group and the desire of broadening one’s own image. The in-groups - the groups one belongs to - improve their image by discriminating or holding bias of other groups (out groups) (Tajfel and Turner 38). The individuals of each groups hence put other individuals into social groups and aim at finding negative features about the out group as a whole (ibid.) These now developing prejudices can in some extreme cases lead to racism. This categorization is based on the natural cognitive processes of gravitating to group and classify concepts and aspects. Furthermore, the individuum tends to heighten the contrasts between in group and out group and at the same time the internal parallels of the in group (Tajfel 61).

Tajfel claims that there are several concepts that contribute to the theory (ibid.). The first one is called the process of social categorization suggests that an individual categorizes and groups different aspects and features of its life to simplify and make it more understandable. People are grouped by the individual in a way that is compatible with his understanding of a specific social environment and sense (ibid.). In the theorist’s words, “social categorization is a process of bringing together social objects or events in groups which are equivalent with regard to an individual’s actions, intentions and system of believes” (Tajfel 62). This implies that by grouping people, the individual learns about these people but also about himself. Subjectively, norms and rules are assigned to the groups and therefore one can judge how appropriate the behaviour of another individual is, if one knows to which group the other belongs (ibid.). This knowledge about group behaviour leads to the second concept.

Social identity is considered as a segment of one’s self-concept and is a result of the knowledge of group behaviour (Tajfel 63) According to Tajfel, the individual will accept certain features of identity – e.g. behaviour – of the social group as his own. The individual’s emotions can be interpreted as a significant role while their self-esteem is closely connected to the groups behaviour (ibid.).

Now the individual completely identifies with the in-group. The next step is therefore the social comparison. As the name suggests, the individual of an in group starts to compare his group to out groups. To preserve one’s self-esteem the individual needs to compare his group to an out group that is considered as low or lower than the in group in a social hierarchical ranking (Tajfel 66) Therefore, prejudices are a result of forced comparison between two or more groups with the intention of keeping one’s self-esteem and there would be no social identity without other comparable outgroups (ibid.).

Except from the three processes mentioned above, Tajfel proposed several theories as an addition to the Social Identity Theory. One of them is the concept of Individual Mobility. It describes the intend of leaving an in group, “or dissociate himself from, his erstwhile group” (Tajfel and Turner 43), because of dissatisfaction of one’s position. The individual tries to achieve this personal solution but does not try to find a social solution to change the groups situation or social status (ibid.). Social Creativity was added as a solution that goes the opposite direction and forms a continuum with Individual Mobility. The members of a group that feels or is ranked inferior than the other try to change the dimensions of the comparison or try to focus on different ways of comparison (ibid.). As this concept is rather difficult to understand, this work provides the following example: A child now, does not focus on the number of crayons that they own but on the result of the picture with less crayons than another child. A third option is the change of the out-group. The in-group compares itself to an inferior out-group. (ibid.). The comparison to an out-group might end in a positive self-esteem provoked through social competition (ibid.). The two (or more) groups aim at a direct confrontation, such as matches between sports teams.

4. Analysis of different aspects & actions of the novel

4.1 Tajfel’s Social Categorisation & Social Identity in Never Let Me Go

Considering that social groups are essential to form an individual identity this paper examines the different groups and intergroup relations from Ishiguros’s novel in this chapter. From the beginning of Kathy’s, Ruth’s and Tommy’s infancy until their last years at Hailsham, the reader – along with the students of Hailsham – learns that people living and studying at Hailsham are “all very special” (qtd. Ishiguro 43). Although, it must be added that the reason for this is not stated clearly from the beginning. This analysis starts with the examination of the social identity and the categorisation of this special group.

Not only do the students learn about their special place in the world through the guardians but also, since the students are never able to leave the Hailsham property and are never in touch with the ‘cruel world outside’ until moving to the cottages, the children and teenagers are not able to categorize themselves or compare themselves to the society outside of their own world. Nevertheless, the students are taught about the outside world by the guardians (ibid. 64), indicating that their opinion and views about the world outside are most likely strongly influenced and manipulated. Indeed, the reader learns about the myths and horror stories concerning the woods, crossing the border to the ‘other world’ and the outside world itself - such as the myth of Norfolk being the lost corner of England. (ibid. 65). By implying the special qualities of the students and the carefully selected information about the outside worlds, the guardians categorize the students into a group. The students accept the group they are put into and identify with it – which, as mentioned above, is essential according to Tajfel – since they do not know about a different broad society or group personally. To create a more profound sense of community spirit and a feeling of belonging to a special and extraordinary group, students at Hailsham use a token system to buy personal items (ibid. 16), indicating that not only in class but also in their free time the students are being manipulated by the guardian’s rules and Hailsham’s organization. The students have no privacy (ibid. 22) as they share large bedrooms with other students at Hailsham. The lack of privacy and the fact that the students only own a minimal set of unique items, such as their collection or items that they purchased at the Sale or the Exchange hardly gives any opportunity for the students to compare themselves to their classmates or let alone to reflect and judge the system they live in. Even when Ms. Lucy reveals the real purpose of life openly for the first time, Kathy lets the reader know that at this point she does not understand in what kind of social system she lives in, in contrast, it appears that it seems that students develop a more profound sense of an in-group, instead of thinking about out- group members (ibid. 81).


1 c.f. D.T. Capbell’s realistic group conflict theory (R.C.T), 1965

Excerpt out of 13 pages


The quest of identity in a modern dystopian novel
Kazuo Ishiguro´s "Never Let Me Go"
University of Duisburg-Essen
A Survey of British Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Britisch, Ishiguro, british, novel, dystopia, literature, Lehramt, UniDue, uni due, never let me go, A Survey of British Literature
Quote paper
Line Schneider (Author), 2018, The quest of identity in a modern dystopian novel, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The quest of identity in a modern dystopian novel

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free