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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Does The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks contain any symbolism?

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The biggest and most important symbol in this fascinating work of non-fiction are the cells that were taken from Henrietta's cervix, without her knowledge, so long ago. By some curious design, they are cells that are, as the title indicates, immortal, and this is the very crux of the novel: the character of Henrietta Lacks and her suffering is something all of us have so much to be thankful for. Even though Henrietta died long ago, her life is still worth remembering out of thanks for the advances that have been achieved in medicine through her cells. This is most poignantly referred to when the author records Deborah's last words to her about death, who was Henrietta's daughter:

I don't want to be immortal if it mean living forever, cause then everybody else just die and get old in front of you while you stay the same, and that's just sad... But maybe I'll come back as some HeLa cells like my mother, that way we can do good together out there in the world.

The HeLa cells are powerful and important symbols of immortality and the way that one formerly unknown black woman's life has managed to change the face of medical science. She, against all the odds, has gained immortality for herself in a world where she wasn't valued or treated as anybody special, least of all by the medical establishment that gained so much from her.

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What symbols are there in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

The most important symbol in this fascinating work is that of HeLa itself: the cells of Henrietta Lacks that caused her own death through the cancer but also which have benefited untold millions through the scientific discoveries that have been founded through them. As the title of this work indicates, the symbol of HeLa and the immortality it represents means that in many ways, Henrietta Lacks, in one form or another, is still very much alive, albeit in a radically different form. Note how Skloot comments on this symbol in her opening chapter, where she introduces Henrietta Lacks and why she is so important:

I've tried to imagine how she'd feel knowing that her cells went up in the first space missions to see what would happen to human cells in zero gravity, or that they helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilisation. I'm pretty sure that she--like most of us--would be shocked to heart that there are millions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body.

The list of medical advances that have been helped by HeLa is incredibly impressive. The way in which the immortality of her cells means that there are now far more cells belonging to her body alive now than there ever were during her lifetime is an indication of the strength and power of this symbol, and just how important the life of this poor black female who had such a hard life was to us all.

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