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In ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ and ‘Never Let Me Go’, we are given a vision of the world not by an overall view of society, but by the ‘little’ individuals within it. We interact directly with Kathy, Pelagia, Corelli and Mandras and through them, we see not only their vision of society, but also the effect society has on them. Carlo Guercio argued that ‘history ought to consist only of the anecdotes of the little people who are caught up in it’.
In ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’, it is the voice of the seemingly unimportant individual that guides us through the globally important destruction of war, and we can see clearly, through deBernii??res’ writing, the effects of society upon the individual. Dr Iannis is respected by all at the beginning of the novel, with the sole problem in life of being unable to write his ‘History of Cephallonia’. This is reflected in deBernii??res’ style of language in the opening chapters, giving us a clear sense of Dr Iannis’ character as he describes Stamatis’ ‘exorbitant auditory impediment’ in his own well-spoken and elitist manner.
The uncontrollable war, however, destroys him, and he has his medical equipment, ‘gathered together through twenty conscientious years of poverty’, and the symbol of his respect and identity, completely smashed by the German soldiers. The complex, educated Doctor is just one of deBernii??res’ many perspectives at the beginning of the novel: the emotional, unstable and flighty Pelagia; the amorous, immature and nai??ve Mandras; and the utterly insane Mussolini.
As the war slowly ravages the lives and livelihoods of the Cephallonians, all these once distinct personalities cease to be so distinct.
Pelagia and Drousoula are described as having been ‘diminished by the war’; Mandras has gone from a handsome young fisherman to ‘nothing if not a toad’. The war even claims the lives of Carlo and Father Arsenios, and succeeds in making a ‘living corpse’ of Corelli, and leaving the Doctor ‘defeated and useless’. All the strong personalities we once knew are lost as the fight within society ruins every single one of them, and this shows how the war, and the changing society it brings with it, warps and contorts all of the characters in ways that we never could have thought possible in the opening chapters.
Similarly, the effects of society upon the clones are portrayed through Ishiguro’s emotionless writing. In ‘Never Let Me Go’, we see the world constantly from the perspective of Kathy. We never get to hear from anybody ‘normal’ and so we do not really know what society’s opinion of the clones is. Hence we are led by Ishiguro to make our own judgment about the clones, and how the society can seemingly turn a blind eye to this action. We do not see a wide range of different perspectives being oppressed by society, we see just one that has no will or desire to escape from it.
Other than the very last paragraph of the novel, where the ‘tears roll down her face’, there are no obvious signs of emotion from Kathy at any point, and it is as if the way her life has been organised by the members of society responsible, has aimed to squash out any possible emotion. The life of a Hailsham ‘student’ is withdrawn and far apart from ‘ordinary’ life. The only opinions of the clones from the outside that we see are Madame’s gallery, to try and ‘prove they had souls at all’, and Miss Emily’s ‘disgust’ at the thought of the clones.
It is made even more difficult by the fact that the reader is always treated by Kathy as one of her kind. She speaks to us personally; asking us what it was like ‘where we were’, which makes it hard to grasp the opinions shared between ‘normal’ people and clones. One of the features of ‘Never Let Me Go’, in the early part of the book, is the other students’ treatment of Tommy. Though we do not know it at the time, the clones have nobody else but each other. This is revealed to us slowly, and it is symbolised at the end of the book with Kathy and Tommy ‘clinging to each other’ in the field.
It becomes all the more upsetting to remember Tommy’s own kind bullied him in such the way, knowing full well he would ‘burst into thunderous bellowing’. The opinion of the students is summed up by Ruth: ‘I suppose it is a bit cruel, but it’s his own fault’, a view largely shared by the reader at the time, but renounced later. When Ruth and Tommy are ‘a couple’, at the Cottages often she treats him little better. We can see that society does not allow the clones to have true relationships, but in the context of ‘clone relationship’, it is quite significant to both of them.
This leads the reader to question humanity, as often happens where somebody, one of few in a position to help and care, chooses to do the opposite. This is a view Ishiguro largely shares with deBernii??res. Despite the honourable intention of ‘the Good Nazi’, Gunter Weber, in the end it is the senior officers that are the ones with the power to stop the destruction. Yet, those very people who are supposed to be society’s leaders, advocate killing, brutality and ruin more than any others in the novel.
DeBernii??res satirises this pinnacle of society with his parody of Mussolini, a self-professed ‘apotheosis of the Italian ideal’ who turns out to be no more than an incompetent fool with a disproportionate hatred of ‘the cat who shat in his hat’. The switch to first person narrative for this chapter accentuates further the pompous megalomania of ‘the Duce’, leading the reader to question how the fate and livelihoods of so many innocent people could be allowed to rest in his hands at all.
Both novels portray the impossibility of the individual to affect what happens all around them, no matter how harmful or destroying that may be. Both Gunter and Kathy’s ‘good intentions’ mean nothing in a society where their place and fate is already predetermined by higher authorities. Each novel gives the reader a totally different emotional journey through the lives of its respective characters. ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ is a story of a great many variations in mood. For example, we first meet Father Arsenios, the ‘walking human globe’, in a comedic context, with his huge mass being amazingly lifted onto the wall.
The end of his life, by contrast, is one of great sorrow and desperation, as a ‘crazy priest’, with a German soldier ‘exploding his brains’ and his’ emaciated and skeletal remains flung on the pyre’. The bluntness with which this chapter is told also brings us to a low point, and there could seemingly be no more worthless and meaningless a death for someone who has offered the reader so much entertainment throughout the novel. It mixes the personal glory of Arsenios’ sacrifice to try and achieve something against impossible odds, and also the pointlessness of him attempting to do so.
Mandras, similarly, goes from his athletic, ‘godlike’ state of being, with his ‘very splendid backside’, to returning the first time ‘vile enough to banish demons and disturb the dead’, to eventually returning again and attempting to rape Pelagia. He, like so many of the characters, undergoes first a physical, and then a moral, degradation and corruption. These constant mood changes, and the archaic changes of character perspective chapter by chapter, give the impression of the Cephallonian society, in wartime at least, to be highly emotive and volatile.
Moreover, it exerts tremendous impact upon the welfare and personality of the characters, and they are all at liberty to it. Not even the widely respected Dr Iannis, a key, much-loved figure in Cephallonian pre-war society, can escape being ‘dragged away’ against the will of the reader and the people who hold him dear. In ‘Never Let Me Go’, there is a marked difference. In sticking with Kathy’s perspective throughout, there is a much more flat, consistent and anticlimactic atmosphere to the novel.
Indeed, it is hard to tell, other than Tommy’s occasional outbursts of anger, what the characters are feeling at any time. This adds further to the tragedy of the novel, helping to further compound the inevitability of the clones’ fate, and the fact that none of them ever seem to want to do anything about it. It is ironic that one of the clones’ favourite films is ‘The Great Escape’ and yet not one of them ever dreams of escape themselves. There is a little excitement about Ruth’s ‘possible’, but Kathy repeatedly tells us that she ‘did a laugh’.
This is a phrase that evokes an almost mechanical air, with little emotion or feeling at all, and this seems typical of the novel as a whole. The narrative tone is created by Ishiguro to be very recognisable as ‘Kathy’, but it forces the reader to ask the question of whether this is her personality, or whether it is typical of clones. She has a vagueness of memory, forever questioning if she is ‘remembering it wrong’. She also is very speculative as to what others are thinking, and neither does she ever seem to feel embarrassment to discuss any topic with us, that emotion is removed also.
Ishiguro maintains this, unlike deBernii??res, all the way through the novel, and the constant tone of Kathy adds still further to the complete lack of emotional attachment between reader, narrator and story. The only sign of emotion we see, in fact, comes from Madame’s crying at watching Kathy’s dance. This gives the impression that the clones live in an inevitable, unchanging and careless society, that is not prepared to fight for them, or even pay them any attention, but merely to leave them alone, with a similar ‘disgust’ that Miss Emily feels.
That said, both societies (though inadvertently in some cases) place restrictions on the main characters. We know from a very early stage in ‘Never Let Me Go’ that it is not possible for Kathy to have children, given that she is a clone. Despite this, however, she is certainly not deprived of sex. In fact, it is in a quite disturbing level of enthusiasm and detail, unusually frank in our real-world society, and still lacking the ‘normal’ emotional attachment, that Ishiguro allows Kathy to express her sexual nature, and it is a hot topic of conversation, ‘like there was some parallel universe where we all had this sex’.
Of course, their lack of parents and of real-world experience leaves them with little knowledge of this, or of anything else to talk about, and they are only told by the guardians to ‘respect their bodies’ needs’ and that sex is ‘very special’. By contrast, in ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’, Pelagia, through one twist of fate and another, remains a virgin all her life, and is never able to commit to true love.
She does, however, end up with a child, and becomes a ‘sentimental creature’ with Corelli not around to love, all because of a dramatic irony that he does not realise the baby he sees her cradling is adopted. This is not the vision we had of how Pelagia would end up when we first met her, and it is society and its contortion of Cephallonian life that has led to her ending the novel like this. The greatest restriction of society is, however, placed on Carlo, who is forever living a secret life as, being the case at the time in real-life of the setting of the book also; his sexuality could never be tolerated.
It is one of the most painful little stories the book has to tell, but his death, unlike those of so many, is heroic and meaningful, and it comes as a pleasure, rather than a shock, to see Carlo finally freed from his eternal burden, whilst casting a shame upon humanity that this is the best Carlo could hope for Both novels are, in this way, essentially tragedies lamenting missed opportunity, a loss of hope and an impossible island of happiness surrounded by hatred or misfortune. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ displays the negatives of society and humanity through the atrocities that are carried out during the novel. The greatest of these is the death of the many Italian prisoners by firing squad. Despite the protests of ‘the Good Nazi’ Gunter Weber, it is remarked by his commanding officer that they ‘are all going to be shot anyway, whether you do it or not. ‘ Whilst Gunter’s actions are heroic, even the actions of one brilliant man, it seems, cannot halt the atrocity that will ensue.
A similar message haunts the death of Father Arsenios, as he is one good man trying to help others, but finding that he cannot. It is a cruel irony that both authors choose to tell the story through the voices of the ‘little people’, but in fact none of them can seemingly do anything to stop the destructive nature of the world around them. The friendly attitude that deBernii??res portrays in conversation between Gunter and Corelli, and the Italian’s relaxed attitude, makes the killing even more tragic, and it comes as no real comfort to the reader that at least ‘it was a beautiful day to die’.
This contradiction is present also in ‘Never Let Me Go’. The ‘shining beacon’ that is Hailsham, where students ‘grew up in wonderful surroundings’, ‘kept away from the worst of the horrors’ serves little purpose when it becomes apparent that the students will all die anyway. Indeed, it becomes all the crueller that they and we have been given a false hope that they will have a good life, which is destroyed and admitted false right in front of us.
Moreover, both societies place in us a vain hope: that war might be resolved and Pelagia and Corelli ‘live happily ever after’, and that there might be an escape route, deferral, for the clones. However, what these novels both seek to tell about humanity is that there is no escape. Kathy and Tommy’s hope of escape is nothing more than ‘a wishful rumour’, and the ‘Liberation’ of Cephallonia only brings with it a Communist imposition of even worse than the occupation had been before. Fate and society are so in control of the characters’ livelihoods, in both novels, that the paths of all of them are already mapped out.
Kathy’s roads are laid out for her, and the tragedy is she already knows it, knowing that she ‘won’t be a carer any more by the end of the year’, and she will start donating. The fact that she has been forced to live through the deaths of both Ruth and Tommy compounds our loss of faith in humanity even further, as the clones are made to ‘care’ for each other as they die, coupled with the lack of argument or resistance from Kathy, or anybody else, to the inevitable road she drives along.
In ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’, there is so much death and strife, and it is sad for the reader to see those who are left trying to rebuild their lives at the end of the novel, but the scars of war still remain on society, just as they do on Captain Corelli. DeBernii??res deprives us of the fairytale ending we so desperately hoped for, and after reading both novels, we feel a much deeper sense of regret in our own society, and indeed begin to question it, just as we had hoped Kathy and Tommy would do, and as they tried to do with Madame, but, sadly, to no avail.
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