La petite mort – or – She’s Gotta Have It

By Godsauce

When the Patriot asked us to provide him with our topics, I had not yet begun to read Never Let Me Go.  I opted for “sex and sexuality” because it seemed like a safe bet that there would be some of that floating around somewhere, even if I had to cheat a bit and incorporate some of what is popularly called “gender” into the mix.  As a man attending a women’s college, I can assure you that there is a deep vein of gender gold in there, but I will not be mining it.  There is so much sex in this book!  Seriously, for a book about people who are made using asexual reproduction, this thing is packed with sex. And for a book full of non-procreative sex, it is remarkably unerotic.

Of course, that the book centers on the lives of sterile clones makes the biological purpose of sex that much more significant thematically. The first real mention of sex in the book is when Kathy recalls listening to her tape of Judy Bridgewater’s “Never Let Me Go” and imagining herself as a mother by way of some miracle.  Because the Hailsham students (and their less fortunate fellows) are not the products of sex, they are inhuman in the eyes of their world. Because they cannot have children, their eventual use as spare parts is the only legacy that the world believes they can offer.  Sex as a means of creating new life is presented as the defining aspect of humanity.
In place of sexual procreation, the students are pushed to prove their humanity through the creation of art.  Miss Emily and Madame hope that their art will reveal the existence of their souls.  The students internalize this early on, and there are numerous parallels between artistic creation and sex throughout the novel.  We see this early on as young Tommy, who has all of the traditional traits of masculine sexual energy, is ridiculed and ostracized because of his artistic inadequacies.  Introducing the concept of the exchanges, Kathy explicitly ties the ability to create art to social status. When the students are claiming sexual conquests, Kathy suggests that the sex happens in a parallel universe. This universe is near the mysterious dimension where Cottage residents read literature. And when Ruth wants to trick Kathy into laughing at Tommy’s animals, that subject is raised as an offshoot of their amusement regarding the sexual performance of Kathy’s ex, Lenny.
To me, this merger between art and sex brought to mind “la petite mort” or “the little death”.  This is a metaphor for orgasm based on the notion that sexual climax releases a piece of the soul.  Notably, it is also used to describe the moment of emotional and spiritual transcendence that comes from experiencing great art.  Unfortunately, despite all the artwork, Kathy and Ruth are sexually unfulfilled. In fact, both testify to experiencing sexual compulsion, which is so intense and indiscriminate that Kathy describes it as “scary.”  These compulsions lead Kathy to suspect that she is cloned from a sex worker.
Another possibility is that her bouts of sudden, intense sexual desire could stem from her inability to have the baby she fantasized about as a child. She attests that she didn’t know at the time that she was unable to have children and that she and her peers were unbothered by their sterility, but I’m not sure.  Kathy showed a deep emotional connection to the imaginary child, and her miraculous scenario is surprisingly specific to be coincidental.  I think that maybe the compulsions and the baby fantasy are separate symptoms of a long neglected need for love.

One reason that Kathy and Tommy’s trip to seek a deferment is so devastating is the reveal that both Madame and Miss Emily, the matriarch of Hailsham, view the children in their care with nearly as much revulsion as the rest of the world.  To them, these children are props in a political crusade.  Miss Emily’s entire attitude is cold and bereft of empathy, and she seems more irritated that her sacrifices are not properly appreciated than by the continuation of the injustices she professes to be fighting.  She did not have love for the children in her care, and she does not seem to really view the clones as human.  On reflection, this is consistent with her earlier characterization, and it is particularly apparent in her sex education classes.  She uses a life-sized skeleton to demonstrate the mechanics of sex, in a cold and clinical way.  Her primary concern about the repercussions of student sexual activity was that some unsuspecting hypothetical person from the outside world might get their real, human emotions all confused by a seductive clone.  Even when Mr. Jack caught some students boning on a desk, she was unconcerned; they aren’t really human, and she’s late for a meeting.

This lack of parental love is where I think the “Never Let Me Go” fantasy comes from.  Kathy identifies herself as a mother who gets a chance to love her child, because she is a child who was never properly loved by a mother.  The idea of having that miracle baby is so powerful to her because it is linked to having someone to hold her tightly and give her the love that she was deprived.  Her various sexual exploits are unfulfilling because they are entirely casual, and emotionally empty. With so many empty, loveless relationships, her sexual compulsions stem from that need to be loved.

The desperate need for affection is probably more pronounced because Tommy, who might give her that love, is so close but out of reach.  Tommy’s own seeming contentment with his sexual relationship with Ruth might be explained by his relationship with Miss Lucy, the one guardian who seemed to truly consider the students to be fully human. Miss Lucy was willing to dismiss the notion that Tommy needed art to prove that he had a soul.  She showed him genuine love and concern, calming his rage and affirming his humanity.  We only see that rage threaten to return three times: when Miss Lucy leaves Hailsham, when Ruth tried to dehumanize him at the café after he wouldn’t play along with her deferral story, and when he finally exploded after the trip to Madame’s and Miss Emily’s. Unfortunately, the first person structure does not give a clear window into Tommy’s sexual urges, but he comes across to me as sexually passive and relatively content.
I think that Kathy’s sexual life can be read as a critique of casual or loveless sex.  Her initial attitude toward sex is a common one among young people.  She wants to practice on someone she doesn’t love so that she’ll be able to perform when it matters.  This plan fails to materialize at Hailsham, but it proves disastrous at the Cottages. She describes her sexual encounters as “freezing” cold and “pitch dark”, saying that it was hard to tell if she was having sex with a boy or a heap of scrap fabric. Her use of such imagery emphasizes her lack of emotional connection and objectifies her partners and, by extension, herself.  She tells Ruth that she is unhappy with unwanted one-nighters that unsettle her emotions, and none of her other relationships are emotionally intimate enough to warrant extended discussion.  The novel seems to regard sex outside of love as empty at best empty and actively damaging at worst.

When Kathy finally does begin a loving sexual relationship with Tommy, her attitude has changed enormously.  She starts off slowly, giving him a hand-job, noting in the narration that she “needed an intermediary stage” before having sex “in a full-blown way.” These are the only sexual encounters in the novel that could be called erotic, and it is the characters’ emotional resonance rather than the prose that elevates them.  In the end, Kathy can forego the sex completely and just be with Tommy.  Tragically, the happiness of their sexual love is tinged with regret for having waited too long to actively love each other.
This is the same sentiment that colors Tommy’s animal drawings.  His fear is more specific, that the drawings have come too late to help gain a deferment, but it also suggests that he may have taken too long to apply passion in creation of art.  Unlike his previous work, he loved his animals, continuing to work on them after the trip to Madame’s.  His dedication to the animals shows that artistic creation is worthwhile if done with passion.  Kathy and Tommy’s sex life shows that sex doesn’t need to result in babies to be a meaningful expression of love.  Ultimately, it is that love that defines us as human.

Random Thoughts:

  • Homosexuality gets little mention in the book.  What do you think is the significance of calling gay people “umbrellas”?
  • That a donor’s death is termed completion is interesting.  Death = completion = orgasm = la petite mort.  Donors do seem to get some degree of fulfillment.  Perhaps this is akin to being a parent.  Several times in the book, donors talked to carers like parents talk to friends without children. “You can’t understand until you become one.”
  • Smoking is frowned on, as it might damage precious organs. Similar to the taboo about smoking while pregnant?
  • Is the reference to Daniel Deronda meant to suggest a commonality between the clones’ insular life and British Jews?
  • That Steve sure does love his porn!
  • Did anyone else get nervous during that passage with the clown and his balloons?  I thought the book was about to take a dark turn for some reason.
  • Miss Emily noticed Kathy and George the Nigerian checking each other out.  Any thoughts on the significance of this?

Godsauce is a full-time student at a picturesque women’s college in Georgia and is on his first round of medical school applications. He is a Georgia native, but his father is from South Carolina, so there is clearly a theme going on this month.  He waited until the last minute to write this thing and believes there is probably a good deal of tense disagreement but was too delirious to have caught it before he will send it to the Patriot so it will have been published.  He has been told that he smells good by more than one person.


  • TOMORROW, I’LL SIGN us out with SOME FINAL thoughts and AN OPEN forum FOR FURTHER discussion along with SOME THOUGHTS ON Bookgum as WE MOVE FORWARD.
  • AS ALWAYS, those interested in WRITING FOR Bookgum should email ME AT
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to La petite mort – or – She’s Gotta Have It

  1. Baby Friday says:

    Awesome write-up. I agree completely that Kathy seems so disconnected when it comes to sex, in the beginning especially it seems almost perfunctory. I also thought that she had a very childish way of talking about sex–lots of talk of “doing it”, even by the adult Kathy narrating. I guess to some extent I would have expected her to have matured since her loving sexual relationship with Tommy. But for most of the book, it’s just “doing it”.

    • Godsauce says:

      Yes! Her sexual vocabulary is one of the things that makes her descriptions lack eroticism. Also, they betray her lack of maturity. Even as she was preparing for the end of her life, she was still only beginning to relate to her sexuality as an adult.

  2. shellbomber says:

    What surprised me most about the sexy sex in this book was the way it was taught at Hailsham. Dr. Sauce mentions the clinical descriptions of sex with the skeleton, but I noticed was the honesty of the whole thing. Imagine, sex ed with no political or religious agenda! The only thing I ever learned in school about sex was the clinical basics and the fear that if I did outside of marriage, I was going to hell. I learned the rest from tv.

    • Godsauce says:

      But did they omit the moralizing because they were honest, or because sexual moralism only applies to real people?

      Also, it’s interesting that you mention learning sexual behavior from tv; what does it say that they learned relationship behavior from tv? They get the sexual mechanics, but no context. They had no models available for loving relationships, so they mimic distorted imitations from sitcoms. That is probably somewhat analogous to learning foreplay from Cinemax.

  3. dr. girlfriend says:

    the passage that made me go, “Oh!” was this:
    “I was becoming genuinely drawn to these fantastical creatures in front of me. For all their busy, metallic features, there was something sweet, even vulnerable about each of them. I remembered him telling me, in Norfolk, that he worried, even as he created them, how they’d protect themselves or be able to reach and fetch things, and looking at them now, I could feel the same sort of concerns.”

    • Godsauce says:

      That is a great passage! I wanted to include a bunch of quotes, but I hit my 1500 words. Please feel free to add more!

      • Baby Friday says:

        I’m with you! 1500 is not enough! Can we petition for more before we do Lolita? Because I don’t know if I can shut up about Lolita.

      • 1500 words IS THE LIMIT SO that the write ups DO NOT BECOME UNRULY AND require a level OF FOCUS. ALSO, IT’S TO help raise the importance OF THE COMMENT SECTION for discussion. THE WRITE-UP, ideally, would be A GREAT, FOCUSED read that PROVIDES MULTIPLE points of DISCUSSION.

      • Godsauce says:

        Yeah, without the word limit I might have gone on and on and on and never felt the need to edit.

      • Baby Friday says:

        Oh, yeah, I was just sort of kidding. I know for sure that without a limit I would be tl;dr.

  4. dr. girlfriend says:

    i wonder if there are any instances of clone-human sexual relations and why we never hear about them. it seems no one can identify a clone as such, but there doesn’t seem to be much interaction between clones and humans, even though they commingle in public spaces. is it not a big deal? does anyone start having sex and realize their partner is a clone and get freaked out? are there clone hate crimes? so many questions…

  5. ali888 says:

    I like this write-up! I wanted to add a comment about the build-up to Kathy and Tommy’s sex. I said in a previous comment that it’s clear to the reader that Ishiguro is setting up a love triangle from the beginning (illustrated by Kathy’s initial interactions with Tommy as children), and for me it felt as if much of the story’s development was meant to lead up to whether or not Tommy and Kathy would get together. So much is made of Kathy’s preoccupation with and desire for sex, and all the while I was like, “Oh, man…when are her and Tommy gonna do it???” (emotional maturity fail). However, Kathy and Tommy’s ultimate sexual consummation is pretty anticlimactic (pun intended). That is, it’s not very erotically toned (to use Godsauce’s idea). I know the book is about far, far more than the specific love plot (between Kathy and Tommy), but it seemed like a move on Ishiguro’s part to deny the audience a satisfying tone to their consummation, since their donation/completion cycle becomes unavoidable. Somehow, I felt a little cheated by the sex scenes in that way; they almost felt obligatory (“Fine, yes, Kathy and Tommy have sex or whatever”- hypothetical Ishiguro). I’m not sure if anyone else felt this way, or even what more I wanted from them (not more explicitness; maybe more of an acknowledgment between the characters of their hard-won relationship?).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s