A Study On Kazuo Ishiguros Novels English Literature Essay

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In Kazuo Ishiguro's novels, there is a preoccupation with the role that memory plays in his narrators' lives. In the novels, the first-person narrators all 'search similarly for compensation or consolation from a loss in their lives' and 'the characters revisit the traumatic events surrounding their past as they move into an uncertain future' (Wong, 2005, p.2). However, Cynthia F. Wong's assertion is only true to a certain extent as the novels are full of signs that they are actually avoiding recalling a great amount of their past. This is what Freud deems the theory of repression, which serves two main purposes; the first purpose of repression 'aims to push away a shameful thought which pops into the mind' while 'the other seeks to prevent the thought from becoming conscious in the first place' (Billig, 1999, p.23). However, the narrators of When We Were Orphans (2000) and Never Let Me Go (2005) are not as successful in their repression as psychoanalytical theory might expect them to be. Their sexual repression is evident as their consciousness continually returns to their past, focusing on areas and events that highlight their hidden sexual desires.

In Ishiguro's narrators, a conflict emerges in their character as they try both at once to remember their past yet are causing themselves pain in doing so. In order to understand what it is that drives them to this act, it is essential to relate it to Sigmund Freud's theory of repression. Freud believed that the mind had 'three distinct agencies': the 'id' which represents the 'instinctual drives that spring from the constitutional needs of the body'; the 'ego' which is the 'agency which regulates and opposes these drives' and the 'superego' represents the 'parental and social influences upon the drives' (Wright, 1993, p.11). However, with all three in operation, a conflict seems inevitable:

The id wants its wishes satisfied, whether or not they are compatible with external demands. The ego finds itself threatened by the pressure of the unacceptable wishes. Memories of these experiences, that is images and ideas associated with them, become charged with unpleasurable feeling, and are thus barred from the consciousness. This is the operation known as repression: the essence of repression lies simply in turning something away, and keeping it at a distance from the conscious.(Wright, 1993, p.11)

As the id demands its 'wishes' to be satisfied, we have to consider what type of wishes may be so abhorrent to the ego, and for Freud it seemed that most of these demands came in the form of sexual wishes. When considering sexual repression, a complication arises as to what we can class as 'sexual'. Freud himself recognised this problem, stating that 'it is not easy to decide what is covered by this concept'. It is not to be thought that it is simply concerned with the act of sex, rather it covers a range of topics. These include 'something which combines a reference to the contrast between the sexes, to the search for pleasure, to the reproductive function and to the characteristics of something that is improper and must be kept secret' (Freud, 1962, p.376). However, it is impossible to discuss Freud's theory of sexual repression without mentioning the Oedipus Complex, as according to Freud, it is the Oedipus Complex that provides a person with a conscience. The complex begins early in a child's life as they develop an erotic love for the 'nurturing mother' which becomes 'dominant in the early formative years' and for boys, this creates a conflict with the father as they view him as a 'rival' for their mother's love. However, as the father is viewed as the 'source of all authority' the boy develops a castration complex and learns to 'abandon his love for his mother' and move towards 'identification with the father' (Wright, 1993, p.14). It is this action which causes the ego to split, and thus the super-ego is created as the internalized voice of the father, or the moral conscience. When we consider sexual repression in this manner, it is clear to see how the neurotic act of obsessive remembering in the characters of Christopher Banks and Kathy H. can be understood through these concepts as Freud believed 'neurotic symptoms are substitutes for sexual satisfaction (Freud, 1962, p.381).

In When We Were Orphans we are faced with a first-person narrator Christopher Banks, a character who is consumed with reviewing his memories of the past to understand his present condition. In the novel's dénouement Christopher discovers that he is not an orphan, and the story parallels the tale of Oedipus as his 'uncovering of his true identity and origins - that he is not an orphan, or is an orphan no longer - entails the ruin of his sense of identity and self-conception' (Machinal, 2009, p.87). While Machinel is correct in observing the similarities, she does not mention that Christopher differs from Oedipus as he tries to repress his sexual desires. If we consider Freud's Oedipal Complex, as Christopher was separated from his parents at an early age, it seems that he was unable to resolve the feelings of lust towards his mother and rivalry towards his father and has remained an Oedipal child. Certainly, his sexual repression towards his mother is evident when he discusses his memories of her. His casual recollection belies his true feelings as he observes she was the one person whom his childhood friend 'Akira regarded with a particular awe' (Ishiguro, 2000, p.55)[1]. Once he has mentioned her, the narrative digresses as he begins to reminisce:

Akira regarded my mother as he did because she was 'beautiful'. That my mother was 'beautiful' was something I accepted, quite dispassionately, as fact throughout my growing up. It was always being said of her, and I believe I regarded this 'beautiful' as simply a label that attached itself to my mother, no more significant than 'tall' or 'small' or 'young'. At the same time, I was not unaware of the effect her 'beauty' had on others. Of course, at that age, I had no real sense of the deeper implications of feminine allure.(WWWO, p.56)

In psychoanalytical theory, it has been acknowledged that in order for repression to be hidden, any areas of conversation that will threaten the ego must be avoided. However 'traces of the avoidance should' still be obvious, as whenever the repressed person comes close to discussing a 'topic which will disturb' them, they must 'steer around the unspoken obstacle' (Billig, 1999, p.52). Billig's statement seems only partially true in this passage as Christopher does not avoid the discussion, choosing to mention her beauty an excessive four times and this is indicative of his true feelings. However, he does employ a number of rhetoric devices in order to repress his desire for his mother; the actual word is placed inside the safety of a set of commas to create the impression that he has distanced him from the idea of finding his mother attractive, even claiming that he was 'dispassionate' about it, viewing it only as a 'label.' Yet once again, he does not avoid discussing her as he admits that he has kept photographs of her, 'seven in all' (WWWO, p.56). Although he tries to distance himself yet again by stating that she is a 'beauty in an older, Victorian tradition' (WWWO, p.56) he only ends the discussion when he must return to his original point: 'in any case, the point I am making is that it was quite natural for me to suspect, initially at first, that Akira's odd attitude towards my mother derived, like so many other things, from her beauty' (WWWO, p.56). While he uses the phrase 'in any case' as a discontinuity marker to show that he is finished discussing the subject, it seems that he cannot resist referring to her 'beauty' one last time. While Christopher's ego wishes to control his sexual desires for his mother, his id impulses override this oppression and are revealed in his constant wish to discuss his mother.

Christopher's sexually repressed desires for his mother are not the only way in which we can see that he has remained an Oedipal child; his memories of his father suggest an underlying rivalry for the affections for his mother. When he recalls a childhood trip to the racecourse, he does not reminisce about the jovial day they had; instead it is the events surrounding it which occupy his consciousness. As his father did not wish to go, Christopher recalls that the decision was left to him:

And at that moment they all looked at me. Although I was then only nine years old, I believe I read the situation with some accuracy. I knew of course that I was being offered a choice: to go out to the racecourse or to stay at home with my father. But I believe I grasped also the deeper implications... I knew - and I did so with a calm certainty - that at that moment my father was desperately wishing us not to go, that for us to do so would cause him huge pain.(WWWO, p.81)

This memory is suggestive of Christopher's feelings of rivalry towards his father, though he would never admit it. In Freud's theory of 'screen memories' he believed that seemingly 'insignificant memories' survive in our minds because they 'expressed the earlier, repressed' desires (Billig, 1999, p.148). Freud's theory is perfectly demonstrated in this moment, as Christopher recalls the situation due to the deeper implications it holds for him; this is the moment that an Oedipal child desires as he is able to subvert the roles of father and son. His father adopts the role of the child, 'entirely depending' on Christopher 'to save him' (WWWO, p.81) and Christopher becomes the husband and patriarch of the family, choosing not to save his father, but to take his wife instead. However, as the id impulses have once again escaped the dominant control of the ego as they relive this moment, the ego once again works to repress it from his consciousness and he uses another discontinuity marker to change the subject from this dangerous territory: 'but perhaps I did not understand enough' (WWWO, p.81). The adult Christopher dismisses any idea that he may have been jealous of his father by stating that he only went to the racecourse with 'an enthusiasm I manufactured for show' (WWWO, p.82) once again repressing those shameful desires that were realised as he betrayed his father.

It has been noted both with the character of Christopher and the character of Kathy that 'they return to their memories of childhood in order to understand the basis of their adult isolation' (Wong, 2005, p.83). What Wong does not recognise is that Christopher never acknowledges that his sexual repression stems from his Oedipal desires for his mother and this is the real cause of his isolation. His ego exerts a powerful control over all sexual urges in order to ensure his shameful feelings for his mother are never discovered. His resistance to women is voiced through the character of Sarah Hemmings, as she highlights the physical distance he creates between himself and females: 'Christopher, come over here. It's alright. I'm not going to do anything to you' (WWWO, p.211). However, when the discussion of elopement arises, Christopher's reaction is curious:

But what I remember now, overwhelming everything else, was an almost tangible sense of relief. Indeed, for a second or two I experienced the sort if giddiness one might when coming suddenly out into the light and fresh air after being trapped a long time ago in some dark chamber... Hardly had this feeling swept over me, however, than I suppose another part of me grew quickly alert to the possibility of this being some test she had set for me. For I remember that when I at last responded it was to say:

'The difficulty is my work here. I'll have to finish here first. After all, the whole world's on the brink of catastrophe.'(WWWO, p.212)

This passage deftly dramatizes the internal struggle of the id impulses and the ego as it is the moment when Christopher realises that his sexual wishes could be satisfied. The id is often described as the pleasure principle and from the feeling of 'giddiness' that encompasses Christopher, it is obvious that the id is now being externalized. Their conflict is revealed in the contrast of language; the id reveals the ego to be an inhibiting captor, as it has remained 'trapped' in a 'dark chamber', signifying the depth of his repression is not beneficial to his state of mind. Whereas the language the id uses to describe its freedom is positive and words such as 'light' and 'fresh air' signify that realising his sexual desires would be advantageous for Christopher. However, the breakthrough is only temporary as the defensive mechanisms of the ego manage to repress the pleasure seeking values of the id. When Christopher states that the 'whole world's on the brink of disaster' this can be seen as the voice of the ego now being externalized. The ego realises that it must repress all sexual desires in order for Christopher to deny his love for his mother; if even some of his sexual desires were fulfilled this would certainly be a 'catastrophe', as he would not be able to keep out the shameful thoughts about his mother and his moral self and conscience would be permanently damaged as a result.

Freud recognised that many of his patients suffering from sexual repression became 'fixated to a particular portion of their past, as though they could not managed to free themselves from it and were for that reason alienated from the present and the future' (Freud, 1962, p.338). While this was a concept that was prevalent in Christopher's return to his childhood, it is also a prevailing theme in the narrative of Never Let Me Go. The events that Kathy becomes fixated on signify that her inability to reproduce is the cause of her sexual repression. She admits that she always felt students were 'told and not told' (Ishiguro, 2005, p.48)[2] the true nature of their condition by their guardians, those who act as substitute parents for the clones, and this idea is embedded in the narrative. Kathy constantly refers to the act of 'creation' in the school, admitting that 'how you were regarded at Hailsham, how much you were liked and respected, had to do with how good you were at 'creating'' (NLMG, p.16). While she is referring to creating works of art, at the most basic level the act of 'creation' means to procreate. Her preoccupation with 'creating' and the song 'Never Let Me Go' reveals her desire, even if she never states it aloud:

What was so special about this song? Well, the thing was, I didn't used to listen properly to the words; I just waited for that bit that went: 'Baby, baby, never let me go...' And what I'd imagine was a woman who'd been told she couldn't have babies, who'd really, really wanted them all her life. Then there's a sort of miracle and she has a baby, and she holds this baby very close to her and walks around singing: 'Baby, never let me go...' partly because she's so happy, but also because she's so afraid something will happen, that the baby will get ill or be taken away from her. (NLMG, p.70)

It has been observed that by 'severing the lyric from its context and making the baby literal, Kathy is able to elaborate a deliberately erroneous, knowingly personal interpretation of an otherwise bland refrain' (Currie, 2009, p.92). It is true that Kathy ascribes her own personal metaphor to the song's lyrics; however it is doubtful that she 'knows' the true significance of the image she holds in her mind as her ego continually strives to repress her desires. She admits that she 'realised this couldn't be right, that this interpretation didn't fit' but 'it wasn't an issue' for her (NLMG, p.70). This is due to the work of her ego, as it creates another woman through which Kathy can reveal her true feelings. If the mind is to successfully repress a desire, the 'result should not be amnesia or a gap in the remembered stream of consciousness,' instead a 'memory-story' will be created in order to 'suppress the former' (Billig, 1999, p.168/69). Billig's theory is proved as Kathy creates an 'other woman' through which she can act out her desires without actually having to admit them to herself. Every feeling and action that she attributes to this 'woman' can be viewed as Kathy's: her desperation is highlighted through repetition as she states she 'really, really wanted them all her life'; the bleak reality of her situation as a clone is shown by her statement that the baby would have to be conceived by a 'miracle'; and her fears are foregrounded as she believes the baby may be 'taken away from her', something that would undoubtedly be true for a clone. When Kathy considers the impact of the song, she once again considers the idea of being 'told and not told' and she comes close to the truth when she discusses the students' infertility: 'None of us could have babies. It's just possible I picked up the idea when I was younger without fully registering it, and that's why I heard what I did when I listened to the song. But there was no way I'd known properly back then' (NLMG, p.72). In a moment when the truth comes close to being realised by Kathy, the ego works to suppress the idea again and she uses 'but' to act as a conversational discontinuity marker in order to dismiss the idea and prevent her from considering the matter any further.

Ishiguro stated that he wished to 'capture the texture of memory' in his novels as 'flashbacks aren't just a clinical, technical means of conveying things that happened in the past. This is somebody turning over certain memories, in the light of their current emotional condition' (Kelman, 2008, p.48). This is particularly evident in Kathy's account as the novel does not follow a linear time structure; rather, it is the importance of events or remembrances that push the narrative forward. Her inability to reproduce drives her narrative, as she first recalled 'Never Let Me Go', leading her to recall their sex education at Hailsham. Because she experiences the natural adolescent emotions of being both 'worried and excited about sex' this causes her to 'push other stuff into the background' (NLMG, p.81) and she allows herself for a short while to forget that she is a clone. However, there is a dramatic shift in tone as she is reminded of her inadequacies: 'Then there was that whole business about our not being able to have babies' (NLMG, p. 82). Her tone is now one of disgust, as she watches demonstrations 'in astonishment' and views the image of the post-coital figure as an 'obscene heap' (NLMG, p.82). From this point, she uses rhetoric devices to distance herself from the subject:

Out there people were even fighting and killing each other over who had sex with whom. And the reason it meant so much - so much more than, say, dancing or table-tennis - was because the people out there were different from us students: they could have babies from sex. That was why it was important to them, this question of who did it with whom. And even though, as we knew, it was completely impossible for any of us to have babies, out there, we had to behave like them.(NLMG, p.82)

Ishiguro wished to explore how 'people use the language of self-deception and self-protection' (Mason, 2008, p.5) in his novels and it is especially true of Kathy. Language is one of the devices that her ego employs in order to prevent herself from ever entertaining futile hopes; she actually creates a distinct divide between herself and those who can reproduce. People are labelled by a long list of pronouns in the passage such as 'who,' 'whom,' 'they,' and 'them' whereas Kathy and her friends are 'we' and 'us'. As this comes directly after the moment when she allowed herself to 'push other stuff into the background,' she now reinforces the idea that she is a separate being from them. She even refers to the outside world as 'out there' three times; if she believes it to be somewhere separate and a place that she will never be able to inhabit then it will be easier to repress her wish for a child. However, her desire is not completely hidden through her rhetoric devices as she uses the word 'babies' twice and does not try to distanced them by labelling them under a clinical term, devoid of emotion. She does not place the 'babies' as something that belongs 'out there' with 'them'. This is another instance where her repressed desires have not been completely hidden by the dominant ego.

Kathy's suppressed emotions continue to haunt her memories as her narrative returns to the song 'Never Let Me Go'. In this recollection, she has left Hailsham and is now considered an adult; therefore when she searches for the tape whilst on a day-trip with Tommy, her ego may still causes her to avoid the true significance of the song, but she now knows enough of her condition to sense the dark, painful implications that it carries:

I stood quite still, looking at the plastic case, unsure whether or not I was delighted. For a second, it even felt like a mistake. The tape had been the perfect excuse for all this fun, and now it had turned up, we'd have to stop. Maybe that was why, to my own surprise, I kept silent at first; why I thought about pretending never to have seen it. And now it was there in front of me, there was something vaguely embarrassing about the tape, like it was something I should have grown out of. I actually went as far as flicking the cassette on and letting its neighbour fall on it. But there was the spine, looking up at me, and in the end I called Tommy over.(NLMG, p.169/70)

One of the criticisms that the novel has faced is Kathy's apparent failure to rebel against her situation, deciding instead that 'the point' of the novel 'had to be that the narrator's failure to imagine a way out, her failure to resent her destiny, was axiomatic' (Mullan, 2009, p.105). Yet from Kathy's actions it is obvious that she does try to escape her destiny but there are always painful reminders that force her to acknowledge the futile nature of such hopes. This can be observed in the events surrounding their day-trip; whilst with Tommy, their time spent browsing through shops 'suddenly felt perfect' as if 'every cloud had blown away' (NLMG, p.169). This feeling of elation is indicative that this is what she desires; to be an 'ordinary' person in a relationship that would culminate in eventually starting her own family. As she allows herself to believe in the fantasy, she predicts there is 'nothing but fun and laughter before us' (NLMG, p.169). However the discovery of the tape that represented her hopeless wish for a child now reminds her that she must 'stop' her fantasy. At this point, we can observe Kathy try to rebel against her situation as she contemplates staying 'silent' in order to continue 'pretending', however this is ineffective as the truth is now 'looking up at her'.  She even realises that there is something 'vaguely embarrassing about it' as it is something she 'should have grown out of' (NLMG, p.170). As she is now an adult, she realises that she has been designed for the sole purpose of providing organs; any dreams she had of escaping her fate are considered childish to her now and she can no longer use the tape to entertain futile hopes that she may one day start a family with Tommy. Now, the tape causes her to experience 'something else, something more complicated that threatened to make me burst into tears' (NLMG, p.170). In psychoanalytical theory, it has been noted that feelings of 'love, longing,' 'pain and mourning accompany sexual wishes' (Freud, 1993, p.32) and in order to overcome their effects, they must be repressed and it seems that this is why Kathy cannot elaborate on what that strange 'something' is that causes her to cry. In order for her to live with the reality of her situation, her desires and must undergo a metamorphosis and this is why she cannot recognise what the 'complicated' emotion is that she experiences.

For Ishiguro's narrators, there is always a distinct sense that while they may claim to recall their memories at random, they are actually driven by a deeper force. In psychoanalytical theory this is attributed to the fact that that those suffering from repression tend to become 'fixated to a particular portion of their past, as though they could not manage to free themselves from it' (Freud, 1962, p.338). Both Christopher and Kathy's accounts concur with this theory as they each return to an area of their past that has affected their lives; Christopher has remained an Oedipal child, caught between the shame of longing for his mother and the feelings of rivalry towards his father and Kathy must return to her childhood as it provides her with an ability to cope with the horrific knowledge of what will become of her and her friends. Although her wish for a child is never verbalised, it can be heard through her references to 'Never Let Me Go' and the sinking dread she feels when she finds the tape. As they relive these incidents, their true feelings can be observed as they continually discuss it, yet avoid any deeper introspection on the subjects that their egos have worked to shelter them from. However, while Kathy relies on her repression to allow her to cope with her life, Christopher would benefit from introspection and allowing the ego less control. He has simply made his sexual repression worse by failing to address the truth.


[1] Subsequent references to Kazuo Ishiguro's 'When We Were Orphans' shall be referred to by the abbreviation WWWO and page number alone within the text.

[2] Subsequent references to Kazuo Ishiguro's 'Never Let Me Go' shall be referred to by the abbreviation NLMG and page number alone within the text.

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