The Philosopher’s POV: Never Let Me Go

September 5, 2011 No Comments
Never Let Me Go:  A Condensed Life
The students at Hailsham look like ordinary students at some religious school where they all dress alike and are under the control of a strict administration and faculty.  However, they are different because they were created to be organ donors.  All of them will donate their bodily parts to people in need, though some of them will first become carers who help the donors through the process to “completion,” the stage at which they donate their vital organs and die.  The film focuses on three students at Hailsham: Kathy H, a pretty, sweet little girl who, at about age twelve, falls in love with Tommy, a boy who is not very good at sports or art and who is picked on and teased by the other boys, and Ruth, the girl who steals Tommy from Kathy before their love can blossom.At about age twenty-eight, Kathy becomes a carer while Tommy and Ruth become donors.  She ends up seeing Ruth at a hospital where she has been caring for another donor.  They end up picking up Tommy and going to the seashore where an old boat has washed up on the beach.  While the three of them are sitting in the sand dunes looking at the sea, Ruth confesses that she stole Tommy from Kathy when they were very young because she was jealous and because she did not want to be alone without a boyfriend in the way that Kathy ends up.  She asks for Kathy=s forgiveness and tells her she wants to make it up to her.  To do that, she gives her the address of Madame, a woman who used to be at Hailsham and chose what works of art by the students would be displayed in something called The Gallery.  There is a rumor that lovers who appeal to Madame and Miss Emily, the former director of Hailsham, can postpone for a few years their becoming donors if their true love is verified by them.

Kathy has continued to love Tommy over all the many years, but her hope while in school that Ruth and Tommy would separate never came to pass.   However, at this stage Ruth and Tommy have separated, and Tommy has also loved Kathy all this time.  So they visit Madame only to find out that there are no deferrals, and there never have been.  It was just a myth.

Kathy and Tommy look lovingly at each other through a glass partition as he completes his last donation, seemingly at peace with his imminent demise.  In a moving scene at the end of the film, Kathy reflects about the past and her life, as she stands looking out onto a field with a barbed wire fence in the foreground plastered with paper litter that has blown onto the wire.  I will quote in full what she thinks to herself:

It’s been two weeks since I lost him.  I’ve been given my notice now.  My first donation is in a month’s time.  I come here and imagine that this is the spot where everything I’ve lost since my childhood has washed up.  I tell myself if that were true, and I waited long enough, then a tiny figure would appear on the horizon across the field and gradually get larger until I’d see it was Tommy.  He’d wave and maybe call.  I don’t let the fantasy go beyond that.  I can’t let it.  I remind myself that I was lucky to have any time with him at all.  What I’m not sure about is if our lives have been so different from the lives of people we save.  We all complete.  Maybe none of us really understand what we’ve lived through, or feel we’ve had enough time.

There is much truth in what Kathy says in the last three sentences.  The carers and donors have a shorter life on average than most people, living only into their early thirties.  However, when children they went to school, had friends, experienced their first love, felt hurt and disappointment, felt jealousy, were teased and humiliated, felt frustrated, felt joy, and had good and bad teachers.  Once out of school, they went to The Cottages where they met young people from similar schools, learned who would become donors and who carers, were left pretty much up to their own devices, watched television, took rides into the surrounding countryside, continued with old romances or found new ones, and lived pretty much like most eighteen-year-olds would.  Like many adopted children, they were concerned with questions about where they came from, who their “Originals” were.  As they grew older, romances broke up (Ruth and Tommy), people tried to make amends for previous wrongs (Ruth for wronging Kathy), and old loves were re-kindled (Kathy and Tommy).   It is true, as Miss Lucy, one of the teachers at Hailsham told them, their lives have been set for them.  They will become donors before they are middle-aged, and none of them can become an actor or teacher, work in a supermarket, be a bus conductor, or race cars.  Still, many of the emotional connections, disappointments, hurt feelings, feelings of jealousy and rage that they have felt are a experienced by the people they help.

The children at Hailsham were told many stories, including ones about what horrible things happen to those who go beyond its fences, and Kathy remarks how few of those stories turned out to be true.  Aren’t we also told many false stories?  People tell us that we will go blind if we masturbate, go to hell if we are gay, and have deformed children if we have sex with out sister, though none of these are true.  They tell us that we can be anything we want to be if we just put forth the effort, but, of course, that isn’t true since not everyone has the talent to win any of the most desirable positions in our society.  People tell us that it doesn’t matter what we look like, but studies show that good-looking people tend to do better in many ways than those who are not so beautiful.  They tell us that if you pray good things will come your way, but they often do not.  And people try to get deferrals from death by seeking more and more treatment for their terminal cancer or going to Mexico or Lourdes for a miracle, though rarely do they find success.  As at Hailsham, few of the stories we’re told turn out to be true.

At the end of her musings Kathy wonders who among us, donor or recipient, completely understands his life or feels he has had enough time.  And in the end, we all die, just like the donors.  Yes, their lives are on average shorter, and they do not have as much choice as we do.  But what makes life wonderful and awful and tragic for them is just what makes life wonderful and awful and tragic for us.  Length of life and lack of choice don’t matter here.

Dr. Russell ‘s monthly column explores  ethical, epistemologic and existential questions raised by interesting films through his  philosopher’s  POV.

The Philosopher's POV

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