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Immortal Archetypes in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

In literature, we often find that some characters follow a similar path to characters in other stories or share similar characteristics. This is called an archetype, the basis of Archetypal Literary Theory where stories are broken down and analyzed to discover archetypes that enrich our understanding of the text.

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Examples of archetypes and exaggerated visuals of the characters that possess them.

Archetypes can even be found in non-fiction stories, for example The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In this very real story, Henrietta Lacks is given the archetype of the Hero. She lives a very difficult life and continues to be strong, however she is eventually killed from complications due to the cancer that survives throughout her body. Before her untimely death, Dr. George Gey collects a sample of the cells from her cervix, the origin of Henrietta’s cancer, without Henrietta’s knowledge or consent. These cells, known as HeLa, have been used to create a vaccine for polio and even used in research on how human cells react in space (Skloot, 2). Henrietta is a hero without even realizing it because, although she died, she saved countless other lives.

Another archetype that is prevalent in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the mad scientist, an archetype portrayed by Dr. George Gey. Gey works toward a very unlikely goal: to find “immortal” human cells. While “most cells died quickly, and the few that survived hardly grew at all”, Gey found that HeLa cells thrived in culture (30). Gey goes where no other scientist has ventured, and ends up successful, his contributions to science going down in history.

While the book is named after Henrietta Lacks, it is told from the point of view of Rebecca Skloot, author and Sleuth. In my opinion, Rebecca’s archetype is the Sleuth because she is persistent in her research into Henrietta Lacks’ life, HeLa cells, and the Lacks family. No one wants to talk to her, yet Rebecca persists and speaks to anyone she possibly can about Henrietta’s life. Rebecca puts years of research into HeLa cells and the Lackses, earning her the sleuth archetype as she presses for more information to shed light on the amazing story of Henrietta Lacks.

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The movie portrayal of Rebecca Skloot (Rose Byrne) and Deborah Lacks (Oprah Winfrey), Henrietta’s daughter as Skloot researches the Lacks family.

When examining archetypes, it becomes easier to connect characters from different pieces of literature to each other because of their similar roles. For example, in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot can be easily compared to Nancy Drew because of her sleuthing abilities and how she charms everyone she comes across. When these two people are connected, it becomes clear that for successful research a character who is willing to devote their life to finding more information and solving a mystery must be the main character of the story.

Another character who is comparable to someone else in literature is Henrietta Lacks. She is constantly giving, even after her death, much like the character of The Giving Tree from the popular children’s novel by the same title. After comparing the two characters, I realize how unjust it is for the doctors to have taken Henrietta’s cells without her consent and that in the end, she ended up much like the stump that once was The Giving Tree. She gave all she could and continues to do so, but never received thanks for her incredible contributions to the entire world.

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An image of The Giving Tree once she has been used up completely. yet she continues to give.

Archetypal Literary Theory doesn’t just deal with archetypes in characters, it also analyzes symbolism in stories. An example of symbolism in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is religion, which symbolizes hope for the Lacks family. Rebecca explains that to heal her daughter, Elsie’s epilepsy, “Henrietta made [her husband, David “Day” Lacks] drive her and Elsie to revival meetings so preachers in tents could lay hands on Elsie to heal her, but it never worked” (44-45). The Lacks family uses religion to bring hope into their lives through prayers and miracles, such as the possibility of Henrietta’s ailments being cured by God.

Another example of symbolism in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks are the HeLa cells, which symbolize life. Against all odds, “Henrietta’s cells weren’t merely surviving, they were growing with mythological intensity” (40). Despite these cells bringing death to Henrietta, they helped to protect massive amounts of children from polio and continue to be alive and used in research today.

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An actual image of HeLa cells that continue to live today.

While the hero of this story is clearly Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot is a less obvious, but still relevant hero. As many heroes do, Rebecca helps people in need like the Lackses, by bringing attention to the family and their hardships surrounding Henrietta’s death and the press attention about her cells. Rebecca does not seek heroism, she simply is placed in this position because of all the work she has put into helping the Lacks family.

Rebecca may align with the typical hero archetype in some ways, she also differs greatly from this path. At the beginning of her journey, she causes the Lacks family great stress by pressing into the matter of Henrietta’s life. She also hurts them by bringing up memories that they might be trying to suppress, like Henrietta’s friend, Emmett’s memory of the great pain that she endured, causing her to wish for death (85). Rebecca also does not physically help or save people in this story, but instead helps them emotionally by easing their pain and bringing comfort to the Lackses.

Based on all that Rebecca Skloot has done already, I am expecting her to become more closely connected to the Lacks family to further comfort them. I know that Rebecca becomes very close with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, saying in the Prologue, “I’d become a character in her story, and she in mine” in relation to their bond (7). To get this far, I believe that Rebecca will finally be able to contact the Lacks family so she can help to give them closure after all this time. I truly hope this happens, because reading about the hardships the Lackses have faced is heartbreaking. It is time that they have a happy ending to this immortal story because of their immense contributions to humankind.

Works Cited

“Quick guide to HeLa cells” Big Picture, Feb. 2011, https://bigpictureeducation.com/quick-guide-hela-cells. Web. Accessed 12 July 2017.

Turner, Timothy. “Development of the Polio Vaccine: A Historical Perspective of Tuskegee University’s Role in Mass Production and Distribution of HeLa Cells” The National Center for Biotechnology Information, 23 Nov. 2012, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4458465/. Web. Accessed 12 July 2017.

“Introduction to Cell Culture” Thermo Fisher Scientific, https://www.thermofisher.com/ca/en/home/references/gibco-cell-culture-basics/introduction-to-cell-culture.html. Web. Accessed 12 July 2017.

Fisher, Jennifer. “The Mysterious History of Nancy Drew” Nancy Drew Sleuth, http://www.nancydrewsleuth.com/history.html. Web. Accessed 12 July 2017.

Strauss, Elissa. “The uncomfortable truth in The Giving Tree” The Week, 17 Oct. 2014, http://theweek.com/articles/443019/uncomfortable-truth-giving-tree. Web. Accessed 12 July 2017.

“Hero” Literary Devices, https://literarydevices.net/hero/. Web. Accessed 12 July 2017.

Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Crown Publishing Group, 2010.

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