Who am I? Modern Dystopia and Identity Struggles in Kazuo Ishiguro’s "Never Let Me Go"

Term Paper, 2018

17 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents




4.1. Socialization at H ailsham
4.2. Categorization and S hifting G roups at the C ottages
4.3. Redefinition of G roups after the C ottages



1. Introduction

Who am I? This is a question we frequently ask ourselves and which is not easy to answer. Human beings naturally try to answer the identity question and it is one of the essential processes of growing up. But if we imagine ourselves living in a world in which one's whole life is predestined and it is impossible to escape from this destiny, it seems impossible to answer such a question.

The dystopian novel “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro is set at a boarding school in England at the end of the twentieth century. The protagonists in the novel, who are growing up at the boarding school Hailsham, face the above-described problem. They are brought up healthy and kept away from every danger possible, to live the life they are supposed to live. They finish school, move in groups to farms where they have to work, they become carers temporarily and end up becoming donors of their vital organs. Around the time they have done their third or fourth donation, their short life will be completed. This leads to a struggle of finding identity and to the question, what identity really is.

In this term paper, the question of how the characters deal with the predestination of their lives will be answered. It will be discussed, in which ways they try to build up an identity, even though they face some problems. The central thesis, therefore, is that the social groups the protagonists live in and identify themselves with, make an important contribution to the formation of their identity and the process of finding belonging.

At first, there will be given a theoretical introduction to the topic of identity. Therefore, the Social Identity Theory by Henri Tajfel will be used as a theoretical background to understand the force a group has for building up the identity of an individual. Afterwards, the different structure of society in the parallel world of the clones will be explained by looking at the specific language Ishiguro employs in the book, in order to provide a base to prove that identity is strongly influenced by the society's order and the structure of different groups.

After that, several excerpts of the novel in which the identity question is striking will be analysed with the help of the theory. Finally, it will be reviewed in which way the protagonists' identity is influenced by their membership of certain groups and to which degree this influences their lives.

2. The Social Identity Theory

The Social Identity Theory emphasizes the importance of identification with social groups. Henri Tajfel (1978) claims that social groups make an important contribution to the development of a person's identity and personality. They provide a sense of identity and belonging to the social world by providing an important source of self­esteem and pride. Tajfel defines the term group as a “cognitive entity that is meaningful to the individual at a particular point of time” (Tajfel 62). This means that individuals do not primarily act, or are perceived as individuals, but as members of distinct social groups (Turner 2).

Besides, Tajfel introduced three linked concepts to show how the in-and out­group mentality is established. These can be applied to small groups, as well as large social categories (Tajfel 29). The first is the concept of categorization. It is used by individuals in order to systematize and simplify their environment by ordering it into different groupings of persons (Tajfel 61). This categorization helps as a guide for action and determines how people view themselves and how they are perceived by other people. The division of people into categories depends on positive or negative evaluations and judgements, the value differentials, which enhance the perceived differences between certain dimensions of different groups (Tajfel 62). Furthermore, Tajfel states that people tend to divide the world into us and them. This thinking puts people into social groups, which he names in-group and out-group.

The distinction of individuals into groups is acquired at an early age, since children already learn to value differences between themselves, their friends and other people. Therefore, it is part of the socialization of the individual. It offers the individual a system of orientation which helps to create and define the person's place in society, his social identity (Tajfel and Turner 40). The social identity is part of the individual's self-concept which is related to his membership of social groups and the emotional value attached to it (Tajfel 63). Tajfel refers to Berger (1966) who claims that society creates a psychological reality, which contains a variety of identities, in which the individual places and realizes himself at a certain place (106). People unconsciously adopt the identity and the way of thinking of the group they belong to and consequently, they start behaving as a member of this particular group. These assumptions lead to some general principles related to the development of identity, which are as follows:

1. Individuals strive to achieve or to maintain positive social identity.
2. Positive social identity is based to a large extent on favourable comparisons that can be made between the in-group and some relevant out-groups: the in­group must be perceived as positively differentiated or distinct from the relevant out-groups.
3. When social identity is unsatisfactory, individuals will strive either to leave their existing group and join some more positively distinct group and/or to make their existing group more positively distinct.

(Tajfel and Turner 40)

Social comparison links categorization with social identity. After individuals have placed themselves into a social group, they start comparing their group with other groups (Tajfel 64). Tajfel claims that characteristics of one group depend on the perceived differences from other groups and the subjective value of these (Tajfel 66). The theorist states that “a definition of a group makes no sense unless other groups are around” (Tajfel 66). Therefore, common and distinguishing aspects in the multi-group structure help to distinguish one's own group and to build up a self-image. The aim of social comparison and differentiation processes is to “maintain or achieve superiority over an out-group on some dimensions” (Tajfel and Turner 41), which means that every group tries to compare itself favourably against other out-groups. However, in­groups tend to discriminate against out-groups by seeking negative aspects concerning the out-group, in order to enhance their own self-image, which also explains the emergence of racism and prejudice (Sears et al. 411).

There are three variables that influence intergroup comparison in concrete social situations:

1. Individuals must have internalized their group membership as an aspect of their self-concept.
2. The social situation must allow for intergroup comparison.
3. The out-group must be perceived as a relevant comparison group

(Tajfel and Turner 41)

Nevertheless, group identifications are never stable, since they mainly depend on social situations or settings (Tajfel 39). Whenever a group or members of the group feel threatened in their social identity, they will try to find ways to improve their situation, in order to compensate their frustration. Therefore, Tajfel established three different ways in which a group with a negative or threatened social identity can react to its inferiority. The first approach is called individual mobility. It describes an individual's approach to the structure or the beliefs of a different group of higher status in order to achieve upward mobility and a higher self-esteem. Thus, the individual starts to dissociate from the low-prestige group. The second is called social creativity. In this case, group members seek positive distinctiveness for their in-group by redefining its characteristics to improve their image and make it more favourable in comparative situations. The last category is social competition, in which individuals of an in-group enter direct competition with an out-group in order to change its relative position, which often results in conflict and hostilities (Tajfel and Turner 43).

3. Use of Specific Terminology

Throughout the novel, Ishiguro employs a specific terminology to create the notion of the parallel world the clones are living in. It is used to describe the specific stages in the clone's lives and their own social system. Examining the different concepts, it gets visible, that they are intangibly connected and can be categorized into word fields: altruism (donor and donation), care (guardian and carer) and the sequence of life (recover and complete). However, our understanding of these words differs from their meaning in the novel, which Ishiguro gradually reveals to the reader.

At the beginning of the novel, the characters are living at the boarding school Hailsham. While living there, they are referred to as students. They are never actually called donors or clones during this time, although it is the actual purpose of their life. As the reader gets to know later, it is used to minimalize the chances of them discovering their predestination too early and to make sure they can have a careless childhood, almost like normal people. Thus, the reader gets to discover their real purpose only towards the middle of the book.

Another term used in the context of Hailsham is the word guardian. According to the Online Oxford English Dictionary (2018), it is “a person who protects or defends something”, especially children whose parents have died. In the book, it refers to the adults who run the boarding school and act as both teachers and supervisors to the children there. The guardians raise the students at Hailsham, since they do not have any biological parents. But as a difference, they do not seem to take care of them as individuals, but rather as a group. They make sure that the rules are observed and that the children are kept healthy, without taking care of their personal development as individuals. Furthermore, they impersonate the task of indoctrinating the rules and principles needed to become healthy and successful donors, which shows that they exist to enable the functioning of the system.

The most important pair of words in the novel is donors and carers. Although the meaning of this terms corresponds in some way to our understanding, there are differences. After Kathy and her friends left school, they are referred to as donors. Firstly, this is because they are not students anymore, but second, they are now discovering the real purpose of their lives: in a few years they will have to start to donate their vital organs during the process of donation. Before the clones actually become donors, they are carers. A carer acts as a nurse and companion to other clones who are undergoing their donations. They are victims of the system of predestination, but have to aid to facilitate a process, they themselves have to face in the near future. Whether they get their notice for their first donation earlier or later, depends on how good they are at doing this “job”.

The last striking pair of words is recover and complete. The process of recovery takes place after the donations in Recovery Centres. The world complete represents a euphemism that is used for death. Most clones "complete" their lives after their third or fourth organ donation.

While these words at first seem to have a positive connotation, it is gradually revealed that their real meaning is more negative, since they all refer to the cruel system of predestination and taking organs from people. These terms enable the story to be seen from two perspectives: a story about altruism, care and humanity or a more covert story about surveillance, predestination and death.

4. Social Identity in Never Let Me Go

One of the most important themes of the book is the characters' identity formation which can be observed on the example of the protagonists Kathy, Ruth and Tommy. The protagonists' lives can be divided into three parts that make up their process of identity formation: their life at Hailsham, at the Cottages and afterwards as a carer and donor. These are the three stages an individual goes through in his or her life. Therefore, excerpts from each of these will be analysed in order to see in which way the different groups influence each other's identity formation processes and how the characters behave and develop through these different stages.

4.1 Socialization at Hailsham

The students at Hailsham grow up fully separated from the outside world, in a space with own traditions and rules. They are brought up under idyllic circumstances and are educated and kept healthy, to serve their later purpose of being successful donors.

As presented, individuals must have internalized their group membership to be subjectively identified with their relevant in-group. At Hailsham, the students live together in rooms of fifteen people, which already determines the groups created from the beginning of their lives (Ishiguro 33). They spend all day together without any contact to the outside world, except to the guardians. There are strict rules that keep the students away from the outside world, such as horrible stories that are told about the woods, about people being killed or ghosts living there (50). In daily morning assemblies, the guardians always talk about the importance of respecting the rules, of keeping the students healthy and about them being special (42). According to the Social Identity Theory, a feeling of superiority is the main aim of group differentiation. Thus, the guardians try to stress the importance of community spirit between the students and increase their feeling of superiority by telling them that they are special. Resulting from this indoctrination, the clones have internalized the characteristics of their group as part of their self-concept at an early age.


Excerpt out of 17 pages


Who am I? Modern Dystopia and Identity Struggles in Kazuo Ishiguro’s "Never Let Me Go"
University of Duisburg-Essen
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
dystopia, identity, ishiguro’s, kazuo, modern, never, struggles
Quote paper
Julia Rabbe (Author), 2018, Who am I? Modern Dystopia and Identity Struggles in Kazuo Ishiguro’s "Never Let Me Go", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/540170


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Who am I? Modern Dystopia and Identity Struggles in Kazuo Ishiguro’s "Never Let Me Go"

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