Failure and futility Themes in "1984" and "Never Let Me Go"

Comparison of how Orwell in 1984 and Ishiguro in Never Let Me Go use failure and futility in human relationships as a theme in their dystopian novels

As humans, we judge ourselves by how others perceive us and seek to conform to a universally accepted code of ethics and laws. It is this inherent value that we possess, a conscience that make us different from animals and it is also what is missing to a large extent in Orwell’s “1984” and Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go”.

The futility of relationships in these works is part of what makes the worlds in which they are based seem so bereft of hope and consequently, dystopia in nature. In Orwell’s vision of humanity’s future, the only truly acceptable thing to ‘love’ is Big Brother. The Party restricts all other love so as to break down the ties between family, friends and lovers whilst transferring this loyalty to the Party itself as a form of control.

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The Party is said to have, “cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and women.” This does not just show the breakdown of relationships, but the reduction of the self. The Party is removing the essential links that allow humanity to be more than a collective of individuals and instead uses this to its own ends, although what these are, beyond a desire for control, we never truly discover.

It is partly this lack of knowledge of the Party’s overall goals that makes the situation seem so desperate, it is as though love is being removed without explanation or justification, making the whole process seem devoid of hope as there is no specific element against which to rebel.

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A similar lack of knowledge also plagues the children of Hailsham in “Never Let Me Go”. Their future is not clearly explained; instead it is an undercurrent to their education that leaves them prepared for, but not truly conscious of, their fate. As Miss Lucy says, the students have been, “told and not told.” The situation is much the same for the reader, we learn with the children about their function. Thus we can empathise with the characters; the reader feels a part of the story. Setting it in the 1990s also adds to this sense as it is easy to associate with our own lives.

It is for this reason that cloning is a key feature of dystopic fiction from the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries as it does not seem a distant concept but a real possibility. Some may see keeping the children in the dark over their fate as a kindness, however in many ways it seems a further cruelty that they are allowed to hope when this will avail them nothing. Miss Lucy goes on to tell the children that they had been, “created”, that they were, “brought into this world for a purpose… [with] futures, … decided.” This is an indication of what is to come for the students, gaining more meaning the further the reader progresses through the novel, it is in reflecting upon events that the true horror is revealed. It is also a symbol of their relationships with the outside world. They cannot become part of a society we would recognise, for this is not their “purpose” and so they are kept apart from it. The world of the children seems lonely and isolated for this reason, especially so as it is told to them, and us, as fact by someone in a position of authority.

This version of their future seems inevitable and so any hope Ishiguro builds in the minds of the reader in the rest of the novel seems almost foolish, as we have been told that Kathy and her companions have only one path to follow. Orwell uses similar devices in “1984”. We are told in the first chapter after Winston writes in his diary that “The Thought Police would get him” and yet through the novel, largely thanks to his relationship with Julia, we come to feel that there may be a chance for him. However, as in “Never Let Me Go”, this is crushed. Both Orwell and Ishiguro give their characters and their audiences hope and despite all else that is wrong in their worlds, they have an intrinsic human emotion to hold on to, but when both stories conclude, this feeling is shown to have been futile and misleading. The traditional structure of society in “Never Let Me Go” is altered, as there is clearly a subsection of humanity that the donors inhabit which is not apparent in our own lives. However, Ishiguro’s world is not so different from our own, Hailsham seems like it could easily be a twentieth century boarding school with the result that the events have a more profound effect on the reader.

Orwell uses a slightly different technique as the structure of human life is reduced in “1984” rather than altered. It is carried out up to the point where, “No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend”. Instead they turn to the only thing in their life that seems concrete, Big Brother. The Spies are the ultimate example of this because the Party has managed to sever the paternal bond, which should be stronger than almost anything else. The extent to which this is achieved is shown by Parson declaring he is, “proud” of his daughter for denouncing him as it proves that he, “brought her up in the right spirit.” It is as though the greatest achievement for a parent has become to create a tool for the party. Winston sums this up by saying, “The terrible thing the Party has done was to persuade you that mere impulses, mere feelings, were of no account, while at the same time robbing you of all power over the material world.” To protect and nurture your offspring is a natural instinct, but the Party has removed this and in doing so has reduced humanity.

It is this that makes the breakdown in the family so crucial to Orwell’s dystopic literature, if the feelings had been punished there is hope for salvation but by removing them, there is no hope for a future where the family is once again a pivotal element within a person’s life. When Orwell was writing there was a strong feeling of despair amongst modernist authors and artists relating to the fracturing of society and the reduction of tradition’s role in people’s lives. This is clearly shown in “1984” through characters such as Parson. Orwell’s reduction of traditional structures is shocking but also hard to relate to, as it seems so extreme. It can be said that Ishiguro’s alteration may not have the same immediate impact, however this slight apathy is caused by the situation presented being all too possible.

On reflection this serves to makes it more disturbing; many groups in society are marginalised and so it is not difficult to imagine a situation where there are ‘clones’ amongst us yet not with us who are treated as an inferior race. Ishiguro demonstrates this through the use of the word, “completion” when the donors die. This is much like a euphemism for death, something else that is treated as taboo, but “completion” has far more sinister connotations. It suggests the donors have fulfilled their “purpose”, particularly as the word “completion” is usually associated with a positive outcome. This can be interpreted as Ishiguro, as a post-modern author, suggesting that a society relying on such a complex structure, is capable of dehumanising and exploiting the death of fellow humans.

This is unlike Orwell in “1984” who bemoans the fracturing of traditional structures, however both show how the breakdown in relationships and marginalisation of certain groups can remove some essence of humanity and it is through this that the authors present their works as dystopic. Winston identifies this loss when he says “The Proles are human beings… We are not human” because in comparison to Party members, “They were not loyal to a party or a country or an idea, they were loyal to one another.” Winston himself recognises what it is to be human and sees how he is in some way lacking. He goes on to tell Julia that they will inevitably be captured and this will leave them both, “utterly alone” and, “utterly without power of any kind”. The implication here is that the connection they share is what gives them power but that the Party can overcome this. Despite acknowledging what is necessary to be human and finding his own source of strength, Winston still sees himself as ultimately powerless. Rather than this moment being an epiphany, as you would expect from a traditional hero, Winston is filled with hopelessness and in turn shows his love for Julia as being ultimately futile as it cannot lead to any salvation at all.

Julia’s cool acceptance of this only makes it seem more inevitable as she states, “Everybody always confesses. You can’t help it. They torture you.” The short sentences make each statement a fact rather than a possible future. However we are also given a small glimmer of hope when Winston says to Julia that the, “real betrayal” would be if they could, “make me stop loving you” and Julia responds that, “They can’t do that.” This gives the reader hope that maybe they can best the Party. They may forfeit their lives in doing so but by staying loyal they could prove that love is more powerful than the control of the Party. However this is crushed at the end when they both betray each other. Having demonstrated how important interpersonal relationships are to the nature of humanity, Orwell then shows how easily such relationships can be demolished. This perhaps more than any other feature of “1984” makes it dystopic literature as, what is an inherent belief in many that love can overcome any challenge, is destroyed and with it the image of humanity.

In “Never Let Me Go” we are led to believe that what Kathy and Tommy share could be their salvation as we believe that the ‘system’ can be overcome by love. This is shaped by countless stories with which all are familiar where love bests evil. Both Orwell and Ishiguro play on our expectation that a resolution will be found in order to shock the reader to a greater extent when it is shown that hope is lost. This happens in “Never Let Me Go” as the society presented places small value on these emotions. Miss Emily understands they have, “hoped carefully” that deferrals might exist, but has to explain to them it was only ever, “A wishful rumour.” It is this element that shows the dystopic nature of the novel as, up to this point we feel Kathy must achieve some kind of success to fulfil her role as principle character, but it doesn’t happen.

The use of the word, “hoped”, is also key as this is essentially what the story is about, it reminds the audience that for Kathy and Tommy, their love represents hope of future happiness and leading lives with a meaning beyond being someone else’s spare parts. Both “1984” and “Never Let Me Go” demonstrate how fundamental relationships are to human lives. They are what shape us, what allow us to interact with a greater society and what gives us hope.

However in both novels relationships are broken down and shown to be futile, in neither do the protagonists find a way to escape their fate through love and nor do they get any real comfort from it as they are always fighting against systems that do not accredit a value to such emotions. It is when these relationships are finally proved to offer little to those involved that faith in a redeeming future is lost in and as such it is when the novels are shown to be dystopic. This is clearly a fundamental element of the authors’ dystopian literature as love tends to be what humankind clings to as the last vestige of hope in a dire situation and even this is removed from these works.

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Failure and futility Themes in "1984" and "Never Let Me Go". (2016, May 01). Retrieved from

Failure and futility Themes in "1984" and "Never Let Me Go"

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