“Never Let Me Go” echoes the Holocaust and the 2023-24 destruction of Gaza


Edvard Munch's "The Scream," 1893

Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” 1893

I recently caught a television rerun of Never Let Me Go, the 2010 film adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s profound and poignant 2005 novel of the same name, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  As it had more than a decade ago when I first saw it, the film evoked a haunted and appalled response, one resonant of the Holocaust.  But this time the sense of an Edvard Munch silent scream on behalf of the story’s protagonists and the trapped victims of the Shoah extended to the trapped people of Gaza who have faced, and continue to face, a similarly relentless maw.

Never Let Me Go tells the life journeys of Kathy, Tommy and Ruth (played in the film by Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley), to whom we are introduced at Hailsham, a paradoxically exclusive British boarding school.  It secludes its students in a segregated, parallel world of seeming privilege where they are told they are special.  But they don’t have families and they know they can’t have children.  It isn’t until well into the book that the term “clones” is mentioned, which I don’t believe is used at all in the film.

At Hailsham, the students are essentially ignorant “of the world outside.”  But by age nine or ten, they know they are different to the largely unseen “normal people.”  Before they leave school at 16, they learn that prior to middle age, they will start to donate their vital organs.  They will make two, three, even four or more donations before they “complete.”

A few years after leaving school, they become carers for others like them, retired carers, who have become donors.  There is an interim post-school period before they become carers when they adapt to “outside.”  During this period and later, when they travel about the country as carers tending to their donors at different centres, they lose touch with their old schoolmates.  This happens to Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, but these friends will reunite.  Kathy is a carer for much longer than Ruth or Tommy and becomes the carer for each of them, in turn.  Ruth has a bad first donation and dies after her second.  Tommy dies after his fourth.

Between the carer and donor stages, they wait to receive notice that they’ve been scheduled for their first donation.  This reminded me of the Jews in the Netherlands in 1942 and 1943 waiting to receive their notice of deportation.  Moreover, like the carers who assist donors before and after their donations, it was members of the Amsterdam Jewish Council and Jews at the Westerbork transit camp, in the northeast of the country, who operated much of the local Holocaust machinery for the resource-strapped Nazis.

Never Let Me Go is not without hope, but it comes with a twist.  At school and during the first two years afterward, Kathy and Tommy’s love story is frustrated by Ruth who keeps Tommy from Kathy.  Later, after her first donation, Ruth confesses to Kathy and Tommy and asks to be forgiven.  She also implores Kathy and Tommy to seek “a deferral.”  She wants them to “put it right” and to be together, at least for a time.

Ruth thinks a deferral would put off Tommy’s third donation.  Indeed, it’s thought that donations could be “put back by three, even four years.”  It is believed that some Hailsham students, “in special circumstances,” have obtained deferrals.  Special circumstances seem to involve couples who are “really in love” and can prove it.  The proof, it is thought, takes the form of artwork—painting, sketches, pottery, essays, poems—created by the students at Hailsham, which had been selected by Madame, an important figure from outside, who made occasional but regular visits to the school for this purpose.

Kathy once heard Miss Lucy, one of Hailsham’s guardians, tell students that there was a “very important reason” for Madame selecting pieces of their art.  Another time, Miss Lucy told Tommy that the selected art was “evidence,” and that “Madame’s gallery” was even more important than she once thought.  In addition, Miss Emily, Hailsham’s head guardian, reportedly told another student that the artwork “revealed what you were like inside…. revealed your soul.”

When Ruth confessed, she also gave Kathy and Tommy a piece of paper with Madame’s address, which she had obtained with difficulty.  Acting on this information, Kathy and Tommy seek to learn if what they’ve heard about deferrals is true.  When they visit Madame, they discover she lives with Miss Emily.  During the visit, as various aspects of the truth are revealed, the darkness inside the home is emphasized.  The idea of deferrals was never more than a “wishful rumour,” Kathy and Tommy are told.  There was a gallery, however.  Miss Emily tells them, “we did it to prove you had souls,” which was not commonly accepted.  She and Madame had wanted to demonstrate that Kathy, Tommy and Ruth, and those like them, were “fully human.”

In the early 1950s, “when the great breakthroughs in science followed one after the other so rapidly,” Miss Emily advises, explaining the history, “there wasn’t time to take stock, to ask sensible questions.”  Previously incurable conditions became curable.  The population “preferred to believe these organs appeared from nowhere, or at most that they grew in a kind of vacuum.”

Hailsham and a few other schools constituted a “little movement” that challenged how the donations program operated.  The movement sought to demonstrate that the students in its model schools could “grow to be as sensitive and intelligent as any ordinary human being,” which could lead to the upgrading of other clone schools where the students were “reared in deplorable conditions, conditions… Hailsham students could hardly imagine.”  But a scandal and other issues undermined the favourable climate the movement had fostered.  The movement lost its supporters and its schools had to close.

Hope is dashed for Kathy and Tommy.  In their proscribed world, even temporary deferrals do not exist.  While they are “simply pawns in a game,” they “were lucky pawns,” Miss Emily tells them.  “You have to accept that sometimes that’s how things happen in this world,” which too often doesn’t take stock or ask sensible questions.

Their ultimate reality is akin to today’s trapped people of Gaza and to the European Jews during the Nazi era from the latter 1930s and into the Holocaust.  There was no way out for any of them, with a few exceptions in the latter two cases.

Notwithstanding the “luck” and privilege of their Hailsham schooling, the ultimate reality of Kathy, Tommy and Ruth Is also akin to the “Nakba,” the Arabic word for “catastrophe,” the name given to the mass dispossession of Palestinians that resulted from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.  Kathy, Tommy and Ruth are progressively dispossessed of their physical selves, until they complete.

“Poor creatures,” Madame repeatedly says to Kathy and Tommy at the end.  “I wish I could help you.  But now you’re by yourselves.”

After they leave, Kathy and Tommy drive through the nighttime countryside back to Tommy’s facility.  On the way, he asks her to stop the car.  He needs to get out.  He disappears “into the blackness.”  Then he starts to scream.

An author and historian, Patrick S. Wolfe lives in Victoria, British Columbia. This article was first published on Linkedin:

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