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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in the light of the Reader's Response Theory

maht91's picture

               The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks in the light of the Reader's Response Theory


               The reader is a necessary third party in the relationship that constitutes any literary work. The reality of the work of literature is not governed by the external world, the text, but it greatly depends on the mental perception of the externals, in this case, the readers. The relationship between the reader and the text has been studied by many scholars since the 1930s. The prevalent idea was the importance of the text, and the text only in creating meaning. The reading process as a whole was also examined, and scholars such as Stanley Fish, Wayne Booth, and Louise Rosenblatt dismissed the idea that the reader’s response was relevant in interpreting the meaning of a text, and thus only the text is the primary focus of any literary work. Since the first book we read in “Facing the Fact: An Exploration of Non-fictional Prose” class, from our conversations and discussions, postings we have made and questions we have put forward, I have come to realize that the reader has a big role in giving meaning to the text. I have to disagree with the scholars mentioned above and disregard the idea that only the text is the “primary focus” of literature. In this paper, I will present the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks written by Rebecca Skloot as an illustration that “the meaning comes into existence not when the text is written, but when it is read and responded to.”                                                                


                                                                    Text   Author


               There exists a complimentary role between the text and the reader and the relationship that arises between them. This is one of the basic beliefs of the Reader’s Response theory, which acknowledges that the role of the reader cannot be disregarded from our understanding of any literary work, and stresses the importance of the individual reader’s subjective interpretation of the text. Jane Tomkins wrote about the Reader’s Response criticism in her book Reader-response criticism: from formalism to post-structuralism. She explained that a poem cannot be fully understood apart from its psychological effects on the individuals since “the meaning [of the poem] has no effective existence outside of its realization in the mind of a reader.” The extent to which the reader plays a role in interpreting the literary meanings of the text, the attitudes of the authors towards their readers, and the status of the reader concerning the reading process are all questions that come to mind when discussing the reader’s response theory.

               Different readers may read the same text very differently. Constantly, the reader is actively reading any work of literature in an attempt to extract the meaning from the text; he/she does not passively absorb the meaning presented to them. In my experience reading literary books in my English class, I have got interested in listening to the responses that I and my classmates share with the rest of the class, and I can clearly see that in the end, the reader plays an important role in interpreting the work of literature and that his/her opinions are crucial in shaping the literary work. Different types of response include the initial emotional reaction, the analysis, the questions, the summary, the argument with the author about the believability of the text as a work of fiction versus non-fiction, and rethinking about your conclusions after reading the book. These constitute the relationship between the text and the reader which leads to the end result, the meaning.

               In the light of reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I realized how during each chapter I read in the book my emotional responses changed throughout. I saw how my emotional attachment to the book was very strong especially when I was reading about the life of Henrietta and her family, their problems, their pains and challenges dealing with Henrietta's death and the communication barrier between the doctors and the Lacks family. I was very touched by the reactions of the family to defining the word “immortality” in terms of their mother, wife, and grandmother and/or in terms of the cells. At one point, Deborah testifies to the author that the immortal cells represented accurately her mother. This is manifested on page 265 when the author says “It was the closest they’d come to seeing their mother alive since they were babies.” For Gary, he remains convinced that the “cells are Henrietta” as he tells the author on page 295. The contrast becomes clear when scientists start talking about Henrietta and her cells. I saw the shift in my reaction towards the text as I became resentful of the way the doctors treated Henrietta and her cells, especially when one of the scientists says on page 215 that “HeLa have become a separate species,” denying that those cells came from a woman who was once alive.  It is further confirmed by another researcher who said on page 216 “Scientists don’t like to think of HeLa cells as being bits of Henrietta because it is much easier to do science when you dissociate your materials from the people they came from…” emphasizing the great contrast between the science and the people. These two last statements stood out to me and formed the picture that this book is about the injustices of a woman who lived in a time where blacks were not treated equally by scientists and researchers.               


                                                                                    <-- Gary                                                         

               As a reader, the book was a story about the challenges a woman with cancer faced in her life and the effects of such circumstances on the people around her. The text for me also represented the confusion that mounted members of the Lacks family. I saw that each and every member was so vulnerable and they were not treated the way they should be by people who had authority, that is, the doctors. At one point, on page 265, Debora asks the author “…you mean none of our mother regular cells still livin? Just her cancer cells?” clearly showing that she was never told the basic foundation of what was happening. It is not only the barrier and lack of good communication between the Lacks and the doctors that has appeared in the story lifetime of the woman Henrietta Lacks, but also the communication between the Lacks family itself. Henrietta never shared with her family members anything about her illness, her misfortunes, and what was happening to her body every time she went to the hospital. Deborah never heard anything about her sister Elsie. Henrietta’s husband never asked his wife about her illness or followed up her results at the hospital. Again, all these familial reactions and the inner secrets and lies of the life of Henrietta Lacks have touched me the most.

               My interpretation of the meaning of those quotes and testimonies from the Lacks family, or in other words, my interpretation of the text, is what I made of it in the light of my experience and other people’s responses. According to the Reader’s Response theory, readers are “encouraged to use their various life experiences when they engage texts…” One of my classmates commented on the link between her family and the Lacks family. She said that “each thread [of the book] appeals to me as a reader in a slightly different way, just as my reactions to the narratives vary throughout.” Her experience reading the book was different and unique because for her and other people in the same shoes, have benefited from the treatments and medications that were the result of the discovery of the immortal cells of Henrietta Lacks. For her, the life of Henrietta touched her on a personal level because of the science behind her cell's discovery. For other students in the class, the book was the discussion about the ethical issues that the book brought forward, or about the role of religion in the lives of the Lacks family, and even the relationship between race and medical research at that time. This just confirms the Reader’s Response theory especially that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has combined different genres of nonfiction, each directed in a certain direction, and thus has targeted different readers. The book as a result, has been interpreted differently, and given a certain meaning through the eyes of all the readers.

               Yet some scholars may challenge my view that the text only comes into existence once it is read and responded to. After all, many scholars view literature as “text-centered…it assumes that literary meaning is contained in the words on the page.” However, I remain convinced that the reader has the major role in shaping any literary work and producing his/her own interpretation. I believe that the author is the messenger and it is up to the reader to decide where the next step would be.



1. Dalke, Anne. "Soundings: Where Words Arise, and Wherefore." (2007): 65-74. Print.

2. Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York, New York: Crown Publishers, 2010. 1-329. Print.

3. Tompkins, Jane. Reader-response criticism: from formalism to post-structuralism. Baltimore, Maryland: the John Hopkins University Press, 1980. Introduction pages. Print.  

4. "Reader-Response Criticisim." (Accessed December 2, 2010).


Anne Dalke's picture

responding as a reader, making the text


as I said when we talked in conference, it looks to me as though reader-response theory has proved a rich field for you; it gives you a framing and a way of talking about your experiences, as a way of explaining what the text is and does. One correction--Stanley Fish, Wayne Booth, and Louise Rosenblatt did NOT "dismiss the idea that the reader’s response was relevant in interpreting the meaning of a text"; they were among the earliest literary critics to advocate for the importance of attending to readers' responses (Fish has a famous essay called "Is there a Text in this Class?" which speaks directly to this idea).

My second response is to say that you could go deeper w/ your own responses to the text. You basically catalogue the moments you noticed, but you don't really reflect on their meaning for your own life. For example, when you quote the researcher who says that it's "much easier to do science when you dissociate your materials from the people they came from," I thought you might well be thinking about your own career plans in medicine: how "real" (loaded word, now!) will the people be to you, whom you are treating? Will their symptoms or body parts have more "reality" for you than their personalities, their characters, their souls?

Finally, one word about your conclusion. You end by saying that some scholars will challenge your view, but that you remain convinced by what you say. Not the strongest way to end an essay! Give a look @ Jonathan Haidt's fine essay, "The Emotional Dog and its Rational Tail" (to access this essay, go to Haidt's webpage @ and request the article; it will be e-mailed to you)--an explanation of why conscious argumentation really doesn't work most of the time (short answer: because most cognition occurs outside of consciousness).

maht91's picture

 Thank you for your response

 Thank you for your response to the essay. 

I am sorry about the wrong fact about Fish, Booth and Rosenblatt. I will certainly revise my sources. 

If I were to revise this essay, I think my plan would be to spend more time putting my own experience and seeing how what I wrote applies to my life and future decisions. I definitely did include a lot of me and my opinion in the final project paper, so that would be different than this paper. I am never sure though to the extent to which my voice should be present in writing my papers. 

As for the conclusion, I always find it hard to decide on the last sentence. My WA has told me that your last sentence should be positive and relate directly to your argument, and I don't believe I did that here. I just did not want to be repetitive in restating my argument again and so I decided it to keep it down to one sentence.

Thank you for your suggestions. I guess I just have to find a balance between how personal I want my essay to be to further elaborate my argument.


Thank you for a great semester and a great learning experience. Enjoy the holiday.