portrait of Henrietta Lacks with lines building on her image to a grid of connected dots

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

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What are some examples of rhetorical devices in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

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The author uses a number of similes to explain scientific concepts. For example, she writes, "a cell looks a lot like a fried egg" (page 3). Another example is "The cytoplasm buzzes like a New York City street" (3). Using similes allows the author to put scientific concepts into layperson's terms and make complicated concepts more accessible to the reader. She also uses metaphors to explain scientific terms related to the cell. For example, she writes, "Little cytoplasmic factories work 24/7" (3). In this metaphor, the cytoplasm of a cell, or the material in the cell (excluding the nucleus), to a factory operating around the clock, as the cytoplasm is filled with activity.

The author also uses effective similes to help the reader understand Henrietta Lacks's experiences. For example, she writes, "For Henrietta, walking into Hopkins was like entering a foreign country where she didn't speak the language" (16). This simile helps the reader understand how strange it was for Henrietta to enter Johns Hopkins and how little agency she felt there as a black woman. 

The author uses pathetic fallacy when she suggests that the storm at Henrietta's funeral was trying to tell her family something. On page 92, the author describes the violence of the storm and then quotes Henrietta's cousin Peter, who says Henrietta was trying to convey an angry message to her family (which is that her cells had been collected without her permission). 

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Rhetorical devices are devices that somebody uses in order to help persuade their audience concerning the truth of what they are arguing. In this text, the rhetorical devices are used on the whole to explore the situation facing the Lacks family and the way that they have been left to live lives of poverty and lack of opportunity whilst the cells of their mother and grandmother have been sold and traded all over the world. Skloot makes many references to the Lacks family and the kind of lives they have lived, but perhaps one of the best examples of where she seeks to persuade the reader that something should be done for them comes in the Afterword of the book, when she gives the final words of the text to Sonny:

And besides, I'm proud of my mother and what she done for science. I just hope Hopkins and some of the other folks who benefited off her cells will do something to honour her and make right with the family.

Giving the final words of the book to Sonny, Henrietta's son, and also quoting these particular words gives the Lacks family massive dignity in the eyes of the reader as they show pride in how their mother has helped advance cancer research. However, at the same time, his final hope that something can be done to "honour" his mother and "make right" with the Lacks family also clearly indicates that a wrongdoing has occurred in the way that Henrietta's cells were taken without her knowledge and how they have been used and studied so much. Ending the text in this way is a powerful example of a rhetorical device that engages the sympathy of the audience and helps persuade them that something does need to be done in order to "make right" with the Lacks family.

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