restricted access Writing with Care: Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go
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Writing with Care:
Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go

In Not for Profit (2010), Martha Nussbaum has diagnosed that alongside a global economic crisis, a less visible, more insidious catastrophe is also affecting Western societies, namely the underfunding of the arts and humanities. Working against the increasing commercialization of the academy, Nussbaum sets out a vision of the arts, and especially literature, as central to the functioning of a healthy democratic society, first because they underpin skills of reasoning, argument, and critique, and secondly because they cultivate imaginative, caring, and empathic citizens. Nussbaum's passionate defense of the humanities coincides, and to some degree overlaps, with the emergence of the medical humanities over the past decade or so. Tying the notion of the "healthy" society more particularly to health-care institutions and systems, the medical humanities have pointed to a contemporary crisis of care in Western societies that emerges out of a number of factors, including the increasing bureaucratization and privatization of care services, and the fragmentation of the patient among subspecializations. Having thus diagnosed an ailing system of health care, the medical [End Page 54] humanities have, like Nussbaum, prescribed the reading of literature as the cure, asserting that it is particularly good at making better health-care professionals by widening perspective and developing the sensibilities.1 In other words, literature is seen to be valuable because it can help doctors and other health-care practitioners to nurture an empathetic response to the suffering of those who are in their care. What seems emergent, then, across Nussbaum and the medical humanities, is a nexus of concern with a prevailing "health" crisis (whether of democracy or of systems of care), for which the revitalization of the humanities emerges as the necessary panacea, because the arts, and especially literature, make us more enlightened and sensitive citizens and/or professionals.

It is not my intention to make light of the current crisis in the arts and humanities that Nussbaum identifies. My point of contention in this essay is rather with how predominant responses to this crisis are positioning literature as productive of an empathic sensibility, and such a sensibility as an inherently moral virtue. This approach has been recently and persuasively critiqued by Suzanne Keen, for example, who is highly skeptical of the current received wisdom about the ethical effects of novel-reading, in particular—namely, that imaginative engagement and identification with works of fiction can help us to become more sensitive and altruistic individuals. Directly contesting Nussbaum's claims that reading leads consequentially to empathy, compassion, and social justice, Keen asserts:

I do not assume from the outset that empathy for fictional characters necessarily translates into… "nicer" human behavior. I ask whether the effort of imagining fictive lives, as George Eliot believed, can train a reader's sympathetic imagining of real others in her actual world, and I inquire how we might be able to tell if it happened. I acknowledge that it would be gratifying to discover that reading Henry James makes us better world citizens, but I wonder whether the expenditure of shared feeling on fictional characters might not waste what little attention we [End Page 55] have for others on nonexistent entities, or at best reveal that addicted readers are simply endowed with empathetic dispositions.


Keen does not dispute, then, that readers bring empathy to their encounters with fiction; what is at issue for her is whether this attitude then results in altruistic, caring actions on behalf of real others. To require that reading literature yields immediate and measurable ethical and political effects is, she concludes, to put "too great a burden on both empathy and the novel" (168).

These contemporary debates regarding the value of the arts and humanities, and the empathetic effects of literature on readers, are central to Kazuo Ishiguro's sixth novel, Never Let Me Go (2005). Narrated by thirty-one-year-old Kathy H., the novel looks back to her life at the boarding school of Hailsham and the close friendships that she developed there with her fellow schoolmates Tommy and Ruth. The education at Hailsham is firmly rooted in the arts, with the students regularly producing artworks...