In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, why did Mary think that Henrietta Lacks was “a real person” after she noticed the chipped red nail polish on Henrietta’s toes?

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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InThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the character of Mary Kubieck is a technician who is present at the time of the autopsy of cervical cancer victim Henrietta Lacks; a thirty one year old woman who, aside from the illness that rots her insides, symbolizes femininity and the construct of the female as the bringer of life. This is because Henrietta's cells are being harvested for scientific study; the resilience of her cells and the application given to them is what renders Henriera's life as "immortal".

The story of Henrietta is quite powerful, because it folds into many substories. One of them is the story her femininity. The visual illustration of Henrietta is repeated throughout the novel, emphasizing on how Henrietta's physical presence is powerful both in life and now in death.

She was a sturdy woman with a square jaw thick hips, short, muscular legs... She kept her nails short so bread dough wouldn’t stick under then when she kneaded it, but she always painted them a deep red to match her toenails.

So powerful is Henrietta's presence that, as Mary witnesses her autopsy, she cannot even bare looking at Henrietta's eyes for fear of coming to the realization that this beautiful woman is actually dead. All this time, Henrietta has been a myth to her; someone whose death might harbor life in another situation. In Mary's mind, it is hard to bring closure to Henrietta's life and overall presence. Henrietta's elaborate looks, her impeccable sense of dress, and peculiar nature makes her all too lively to be "put down".

This is why, when she sees the chipped nail polish, she finally realizes that Henrietta was a typical woman; one who cannot pay complete attention to every single detail, one who has flaws and weaknesses, and one who was, ultimately, human.

When I saw those nails... I thought, Oh, Jeez, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman.

Therefore, seeing the chipped polish finally awoke Mary's mind away from the scientific, to the human side of herself.


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