Understanding the theories and concepts of the uncanny can be extremely beneficial to the writer. By knowing what causes humans to be emotionally distressed, a writer can craft a story that will trigger anxiety at strategic times and in ways that support the intent of the work, heighten the fictive dream, and enhance the overall story experience. Ernst Jentsch, credited with being the first to identify the state of the uncanny in a 1906 essay, “On the Psychology of the Uncanny,” defines the state as a person’s “doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or conversely, whether a lifeless object might be, in fact, animate.” He was quick to note that awareness and understanding of such a state is important to the writer.
“In telling a story one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton and to do it in such a way that his attention is not focused directly upon his uncertainty, so that he may not be led to go into the matter and clear it up immediately.”
Sigmund Freud, in his essay, “The Uncanny” later expanded this concept of the uncanny state being linked to the relationship between the animate and the innate. Additionally, he examined concepts of human development in regard to maturation as having a key relationship to a person’s perception of what is uncanny. For example, in childhood humans enjoy repetition. This appreciation begins before the child is old enough to desire, or even understand, control. As the child matures, and begins to understand the advantage of control and thus desires it, the child takes less pleasure in repetition. Therefore, continued, undesired, and uncontrollable repetition is disturbing because it represents a lack of control and thus regression and is therefore potentially alarming. Freud asserted that the state of the uncanny is linked to the subconscious in additional way. He stated that a person experiences something as uncanny because it reminds the individual of the conflict between their repressed desires, desires which the individual presumably struggles to control, and feared punishment for deviating from societal norms.
“Madame…was out in the corridor, standing very still, her head angled to one side to give her a better view of what I might be doing…and the odd thing was she was crying. She just went on standing there, sobbing and sobbing, staring at me through the doorway with that same look in her eyes she always had when she looked at us, like she was seeing something that gave her the creeps.” (p 72, all page numbers paperback)
When Kathy mentions that moment to a friend, Tommy, a couple years later, the friend responds, “Madame’s probably not a bad person, even though she’s creepy. So when she saw you dancing like that, holding your baby, she thought it was really tragic, how you couldn’t have babies. That’s why she started crying.” (p 73) There are very few passages as direct as these; Ishiguro is more subtle throughout the majority of the book. This subtly, as Jentsch suggested, is even more effective as the reader’s uncertainty lingers in an almost unconscious way, heightening the tension of the story.
As with Madame, the reader is forced to accept the existence of the clones. Ishiguro ensures this by using uses a very intimate first person point of view; the narrator, Kathy, directly addresses the reader, using “you” to refer to the reader several times in the beginning and then again several times throughout novel. For example, “If you’re one of them, I can understand how you might get resentful—about my bedsit, my car…” (p 4) and then again, “I don’t know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham we…” (p 13) These passages serve two purposes. One, disallowing the reader the opportunity to deny the clones’ existence and two, forcing a comparison between the reader, a true human, and the character, a human-like non-human. This forced comparison reinforces the sense of the uncanny.
Ishiguro’s exploration of the uncanny in NEVER is directly acknowledged. One passage in particular seems specifically crafted to capture the idea expressed by both Jentsch and Freud. “We could see hills in the distance that reminded us of the ones in the distance at Hailsham, but they seemed to us oddly crooked, like when you draw a picture of a friend and it’s almost right but not quite, and the face on the sheet of paper gives you the creeps.” (p 119) Another passage, less direct occurs later in the novel when Tommy is showing Kathy some animals he drew. “…and he showed me three separate sketches of a kind of frog—except with a long tail as though part of it had stayed a tadpole. At least, that’s what it looked like when you held it away from you. Close up, each sketch was a mass of minute detail…” (p 214). Although this passage is less direct, the focus on a creature that almost is what it is expected to be is evident and serves the same purpose.
Ishiguro’s exploration of the that hazy area between what is human and what is not human is more than an exploration of the physical but also of the spiritual, moral, and ethical. NEVER LET ME GO places a spotlight on the uncanny and challenges the reader to not look away.