To know or not to know?

Continuing my commentary on “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro:

The students at Hailsham always know that they are clones and will grow up to be organ “donors”.  At every stage of their schooling, they are told a little more about what their lives will entail.  But at every stage, the information they are given is just a little more than they can understand– so that by the time they leave Hailsham, they have all the facts of the process of donation that they will go through, but no sense of the significance of their existence.

Near the end of the book, two of the main characters, Kathy and Tommy, find out the full truth– that most people don’t believe that they have souls, that there was never any hope that they could escape their fate, that the education they received at Hailsham was to serve no purpose other than enriching their lives during that time.  Because they didn’t grasp the full truth as students, they had never known how hopeless their futures were, and had spent their time at school dreaming and scheming of a different future.  Kathy and Tommy are shocked that these things were kept from them, and confront their teachers to ask why they didn’t reveal the truth to them while at Hailsham; they should have been told so they could be prepared for the life ahead of them.  Their teachers, meanwhile, believed that they did the best thing in allowing the students to live a carefree, normal, enjoyable life.  They wanted to give clones not just humane treatment but ignorant bliss.

There’s more than one right answer here.  Kathy and Tommy wonder whether their friend Ruth, who had died before knowing the truth, would have wanted to know.  And what would you choose?  Which is the better way to live: preparing for a future you know is doomed, or heading towards doom unknowingly, with serious hope?

Normally I would always choose to know the truth, to be prepared for reality.  But after reading about the students’ journey through understanding and their lives at Hailsham, if I were one of them, I would not have wanted to know at Hailsham.  I would have wanted to know afterwards, when it was time for donation and after the time for hoping has passed.  Because most of the book did read like a normal novel about normal students.  And if I were in a terrible world with such a bleak future, I would want to have that time just to live and hope and not know the truth.

While thinking about this, I wondered if this was a betrayal of my usual commitment to reason.  I’m a little surprised I would choose that way, but in a way it also echoes my attitude towards my experience as a Christian.  Looking back, I know that so much of the comfort that Christianity afforded me was an illusion.  God never had a plan for my life.  It was never an assurance that everything was going to be okay.  It was never an assurance that I wouldn’t be faced with anything I couldn’t handle.  My baptism didn’t “mean” anything in an absolute metaphysical sense.

But within the system where I resided at the time, those beliefs had value.  Even if none of it served any ultimate purpose, I couldn’t imagine not having that time.  Everything I did and learned as a Christian was development, education of a sort, for its own sake.  It certainly enriched my life at the time, and it enriches my life now, as I think the Hailsham students’ time at school enriched the years they later spent in their harsh world of organ farming.

I suppose what it comes down to is that I would always rather have something than not.  Being a Christian is not a bad thing, and I would rather have had the experience than not.  I would rather have the memory of something that felt utterly beautiful and pure to me, than not.  I would rather have my baptism, and all those long conversations with a non-existent God, than not.  And I suspect that if Kathy and Tommy actually had known the truth from the beginning, they would wish they could have had a pure, hopeful time at Hailsham untainted by the truth.


2 thoughts on “To know or not to know?

  1. Santiago

    Heh, I bought the book based on your first post (so you didn’t ruin the ending for me), but to be honest I didn’t enjoy it very much. The problem I have (and this has happened with quite a few books/movies) is that the world the story is set in doesn’t make any sense. It just seems impossible for me to imagine a world like ours quietly letting the system of donors exist, with no great debate, no protests, no media coverage, no interviews of FREE ROAMING clones that somehow meekly accept their death penalties with no comment or even the most passive action of resistance.

    There is no way so few people would be disgusted by the system that everyone could just choose to ignore it. And to add insult to stupidity, the clones are free to move around, even given vehicles to travel with as they wish, and before they have been operated on. Why did none of them try to escape? I would hope that at least ONE country would grant bloody ASYLUM to refugee clones, given their well-justified fear that they’d be killed if they stayed in their home country. Or, even simpler, why didn’t they just try to disappear? leave the hospital and change their names? Surely the image of a desperate human, trying to flee from people that are slowly butchering them to death, would elicit some sort of outcry or support from a large section of the population even if they were caught.

    The rest of the book I thought was ok, if somewhat slow and unexciting, although I suppose that from a purely a psychological and emotional perspective it might be much more interesting. I personally prefer psychological and emotional themes to be set in a more active and dynamic framework, but I acknowledge that others might prefer books that focus purely on the relationships between characters. The real problem I had was that with every page all my mind could think of was how unrealistic and illogical the world and the characters’ actions where.

  2. Lily Post author

    Santiago, I totally agree with everything you found unbelievable and illogical about the book. I guess I could tell right away that it was going to be unrealistic and illogical, so I wasn’t too distracted by the mechanics of that alternate universe. I was particularly bothered by the fact that nobody tried to escape or go around the system, but I saw it more as a metaphor for other types of oppression and entrapment, rather than an actual look into a possible society.

    This isn’t even the type of novel that I typically like, but I thought the writing was flawless. I’m now going through Kazuo Ishiguro’s other books and they are all completely different in tone and topic but equally well-written.


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