The Story of My Life is the story of one young woman’s emergence from the most extreme isolation possible. It is not a story of an “emerging woman” in the usual sense of the term; there is no discussion of sexuality, of women’s place in society, or of societal attitudes. Rather, young Helen was an emerging human being. This is a story of a young woman learning to reach out to the world.
Apart from a few short opening chapters relating to Keller’s vague memories of her early childhood, the tone of this book is largely one of joy. Every new word, every new concept, is a major revelation. A long passage describes her discovery that all objects are associated with words, and a special emphasis is placed on water, the first concept that the young Helen learned to refer to with both speech and sign.
Above all, there is a focus on the essential importance of language. Keller clearly believes that abstract thought is impossible without language, that language is the single most important factor that sets human beings apart from other animals. More than anything else, the author recounts her efforts to use human languages and her emergence as a “real person” as a result of this newfound ability.
There is more than one way to interpret this emphasis. Most people take language for granted. Children who have normal senses of sight and hearing and adequate intelligence do not have to be taught to speak. They learn by listening and watching, by imitation. This path was closed to the little girl trapped in a dark and silent world. It is natural that she should focus on her process of learning to communicate with the outside world.
Keller learned to read and write several foreign languages. At the end of the book, there are references to her emerging love of the works of William Shakespeare, the Greek classics, and other great works of literature. There is a long discussion about her early attempts at becoming a writer herself, at the age of twelve. In later life, Keller would indeed become a successful writer, among other things. At the time that The Story of My Life was written, however, she was still in the process of learning to communicate, and there is very little said about what she would later wish to communicate to the outside world. Language, in itself, is the essential theme of the book.
In this regard, it is necessary to consider The Story of My Life in context. When she wrote this book, Keller was a student in one of the greatest centers of learning in the world. Being graduated from Radcliffe College with honors is far from an easy task, even for someone with a normal sensory system. There is a sense of Keller’s fierce determination, but it is always tempered with love and understanding and with great praise for the various people who helped her, especially Anne Sullivan, her teacher in childhood and her helper in later life.
Keller uses language in two quite different ways in The Story of My Life. She makes the reader very much aware of how the world appears to someone who passes through life deaf and blind. On the other hand, she also makes use of visual and auditory images that she could not have experienced, doing so quite convincingly. These two uses of language underscore the reality of the author’s roles as a person who experienced the world in a unique way and as a successful author who could relate to the way in which other people experience life.