The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Themes

Themes and Colors
Racism, Classism, and Sexism Theme Icon
Family and Faith Theme Icon
Progress vs. Privacy Theme Icon
Technology and Globalization Theme Icon
Immortality and Its Costs  Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

The problems of racism, classism, and sexism in America are crucial to understanding the narrative of Henrietta Lacks. A poor and under-educated black woman, Henrietta had essentially no say in her medical care during her life. She simply did what her doctors told her and had faith that she would be healed, even when her cancer treatments put her through tremendous physical and psychological pain. Her doctors, in return, failed at every turn to…

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Throughout their various trials, the Lacks siblings manage to stick together, bonded by their love for each other and their shared anger and grief over what happened to their mother. As the narrative opens, they even express a great deal of suspicion towards the author of the book, believing that they can only trust one another after the many betrayals that they’ve experienced. The siblings are also, of course, tied together genetically by the very…

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Perhaps the most thorny and difficult issue within the narrative of Henrietta Lacks is the issue of progress vs. privacy. On one hand, Henrietta Lacks’ story is clearly one of an arrogant medical establishment taking advantage of a poor black woman. This is irrefutable. Yet at the same time, it is undeniable that Henrietta’s cells have created unparalleled progress within the field of cellular biology, leading to innovations that truly may not have happened had…

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The history of the HeLa cell line is not simply a story of a single woman, a single family, or even a single field (cellular biology). It is, instead, the narrative of a world moving towards a modern, scientific age. To modern readers, the treatments enacted on Henrietta and the experiments carried out on many unknowing subjects are simply horrific. As the book moves forward, and as more and more innovations continue to come about…

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Ordinarily, when we think of immortality, we think of a single person living forever. In the case of Henrietta Lacks, however, she has not found the secret to eternal life—but her cells have. Yet as in every fairy tale and myth, immortality comes at a cost. The first price to be paid, of course, was Henrietta herself, who died because of the very same aggression that made her tumor cells such ideal candidates for…

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