Updated: Dec 14, 2021
By Jinmin Lee
If you were told for the entirety of your life that you were created to donate your organs and die, would you flee from your fate? In Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel Never Let Me Go (2005), Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy are all unable to escape their predetermined destinies of painful death. Philosophically, how does this inability to go beyond one’s “natural state,” as portrayed by the three characters, reflect Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy of facticity and transcendence as he, all those years back, already imagined society to be formed by the two polar states? Finally, how can we connect the characters’ lives and Sartre’s perception of the world to our own student quotidian at SIS?”
In Never Let Me Go, every future organ donor is enrolled at a special school called Hailsham, where they are confined behind the doors of the campus and are forced to receive special education. The “guardians,” or the teachers, instill fear in the students by telling them horror stories about life outside of the school in order to deter students from thinking about escape. Goods and ideas from the outside world are also censored and banned, with very strict sanctions on the items that students are allowed to possess. By the time the students graduate, this is the only world that they know, and nobody questions why they are forced to donate their organs. Therefore, without thinking twice about potentially avoiding their horrible destiny, the students are carted off to die one by one, almost even happy as they feel as though they are finally fulfilling what they were “made” to do.
The state of accepting and living on the campus, according to Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy, would be called living in “facticity,” where one is in his or her natural given state. Sartre also points out the polar opposite of facticity—living in transcendence. Transcendence is a state in which one completely denies his or her existence and strives to do whatever possible to circumvent what is naturally bound to occur. The Hailsham students ultimately fail to reach the state of transcendence due to how they never rejected their school or their devastating fate. This is most likely because they have never had the opportunity to genuinely interact with people from the outside world, believing that their death and organ donation are simply the norm.
Ishiguro further highlights the problem of being blindly trapped into facticity and blames the toxic environment at Hailsham for creating a herd mentality of donation and death. Connecting that with students at SIS, perhaps the rigorous academics that everyone seems to be pursuing is just our inescapable facticity after all. What if—just like Tommy, Ruth, and Kathy—all of those fastened to an academically rigorous environment end up graduating and living a life that has been predetermined by the norms of our society? Many students today seem to be trapped, just like those of Hailsham, in the facticity that studying for grades is the only possible route. While it may seem absurd to compare excruciating death with studying, it is still important to take a step back at times and reflect on whether we are truly in control of our own lives. Only then are we able to decide to escape our facticities, transcend, and pursue something else. Even if we decide to choose to live in facticity, at least it would be our own choice.
The story is heavily emphatic on the fact that you should never let go of your intuition and heart for the sake of society’s standards and expectations. Perhaps, by being warned of the egregious consequences of blindly staying in facticity, we can break through the seemingly indomitable pressure of other people’s viewpoints and expectations in order to have a glimpse of what we can transcend into.