Essays and Criticism
Surprising Use of Sense and Imagery
Helen Keller is regarded as a heroic figure who overcame extreme hardship to accomplish impressive goals, both personally and publicly. At the age of nineteen months, she fell ill with a fever that left her blind and deaf. Despite her early plunge into silence and darkness, Keller was able to learn to read and speak as a result of her personal persistence and the hard work of her teacher, Anne Sullivan. Even as a child, Keller craved communication with the world and longed to feel connected to others. She then took her ability to communicate and pursued a career as a lecturer and writer, tirelessly advocating social reform for the physically challenged, women, and minorities. What is so surprising about her eloquent words is her frequent references to sight and sound. In The Story of My Life she recounts her experiences, often with sensory descriptions that do not seem possible given her complete reliance on smell, taste, and, most importantly, touch. This essay will review some of these descriptions and then offer several possible explanations for Keller’s ability to write such vibrant passages.
Keller felt a deep bond with nature and turned to it as a source of comfort and learning. In her autobiography, she frequently writes about nature, and this is the subject matter for some of her most moving sensory images. Her ability to describe nature this way appears as early as the first chapter, in which she explains that beside the house where she lived when she was very young was a servant’s house that was covered in vines. She remarks, ‘‘From the garden it looked like an arbor. The little porch was hidden from view by a screen of yellow roses and Southern smilax. It was the favorite haunt of hummingbirds and bees.’’ Although this memory predates her loss of sight and hearing, it seems amazing that a young child would perceive and remember the sight of the servant’s house in such detail.
Interestingly, the next paragraph offers an extended description of her house as she remembers it after her illness but before Anne Sullivan arrived. This passage is almost exclusively related in terms of touch and smell. She writes,
Even in the days before my teacher came, I used to feel along the square stiff boxwood hedges, and, guided by the sense of smell, would find the first violets and lilies. There, too, after a fit of temper, I went to find comfort and to hide my hot face in the cool leaves and grass.
She adds that the roses filled ‘‘the whole air with their fragrance, untainted by any earthy smell; and in the early morning, washed in the dew, they felt so soft, so pure.’’
By the events of chapter five, Keller had begun studying with Sullivan, and she offers this description of a mimosa tree: ‘‘Yes, there it was, all quivering in the warm sunshine, its blossom-laden branches almost touching the long grass. Was there ever anything so exquisitely beautiful in the world before!’’
These three passages offer an important insight. The first two provide descriptions of houses as Keller remembers them before she began to study with Sullivan, but because the first one is a memory from before her illness, she consciously uses sight words. In the second passage, she intentionally mentions that this is a memory from before Sullivan arrived, and the descriptions center on touch and smell. In the third passage, she offers a very visual description of a tree and marvels at its physical beauty. In Keller’s mind, it seems, there was a measurable span of time between the onset of her blindness and deafness, and the time Sullivan opened the world back up for her. During that period, her sensory abilities were noticeably...
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In The Story of My Life Helen Keller recounts her early experiences of being awakened to a world of words and concepts through the brilliant teaching methods of her tutor and constant companion, Anne Sullivan. She carefully retraces the moments when she first connected a word with the physical object it represents (water) and continues on to describe how she gradually built up a vocabulary and an understanding of not only a physical world, but also a world of intangible concepts, ideas, images and emotions. Keller connected to the world through the words that were spelled into her hand, and it was these words that sparked an understanding of human existence. By realizing that words could be put together to evoke mental images, Keller suddenly began to grasp concepts and ideas of things that she could not physically smell or touch. She began to understand and explore how words could be used to represent emotions and how experiences could be described through simile and metaphor. Keller began to understand the poetry of the world. Thus, it is not surprising that Keller’s autobiography is much more than a traditional linear narrative of a life story. It is also a poetic work.
In The Story of My Life, Keller does much more than recount the chronological events of her life. Through her use of poetic language, she also gives the reader a rich sense of her unique experience of the world. The language Keller uses is as important to the story as the events that took place. Due to her poetic, descriptive writing, Keller is able to really share her world, and the reader is able to experience what it might be like to live as someone who is bereft of both sight and sound.
There are several examples of this rich poetic description throughout The Story of My Life. One early example is found in a passage in which Keller, with the use of a metaphor, describes her life before her education began:
Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line and you waited with beating heart for something to happen?
Here the use of metaphor creates a strong picture of the anticipation and isolation Keller felt. It is much more effective than a straightforward description might have been. By comparing her experience to being lost at sea Keller creates a rich visual image for the reader. The metaphor helps one to connect with the experience emotionally, something a factual, objective retelling would not do.
Another early example of Keller’s use of metaphor and poetic imagery occurs as she describes the roses that surrounded her childhood home:
Never have I found in the greenhouses of the North such heart-satisfying roses as the climbing roses of my southern home. They used to hang in long festoons from our porch, filling the whole air with fragrance, untainted by any earthy smell; and in the early morning, washed in the dew, they felt so soft, so pure, I could not help wondering if they did not resemble the asphodels of God’s garden.
Here Keller uses the senses of smell and touch as a springboard to convey not only the physical impression of these roses, but also the awe and inspiration they invoked in her. Even though she does not actually tell the reader what the roses look like, it is possible to ‘‘see’’ them due to Keller’s evocative, poetic use of language.
A poet takes individual words and combines them to create associations that convey much more than the actual words themselves. This is what Keller does. One particularly striking passage occurs in chapter twenty of The Story of My Life as Keller speaks of her struggle to gain knowledge. In this passage Keller again uses metaphor to enhance her description:
Everyone who wishes to gain true knowledge must climb the Hill Difficulty alone, and since there is no royal road to the summit, I must zigzag it in my own way. I slip back many times, I fall, I stand still, I run against the edge of hidden obstacles, I lose my temper and find it again and keep it better, I trudge on, I gain a little, I feel encouraged, I get more eager and climb higher and begin to see the widening horizon. Every struggle is a victory. One more effort and I reach the luminous cloud, the blue depths of the sky, the uplands of my desire.
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The Many Reasons For This Exemplary Work
A book is a strange object. It is inanimate, of course, but not permanently so. Anyone who reads with passion knows that the moment a book is read, it ceases to be an inanimate ‘‘thing’’ and becomes instead an animated source of fascination, pleasure, and/or knowledge. Had Dr. Frankenstein not been so insanely obsessed with bringing the human form back to life, he might have satisfied his creative and procreative urges by reading books.
The paradox is that the book cannot come alive until it is read, so it has no ability of its own to entice a reader to open it. Someone must speak for a book. Publishing companies spend millions upon millions to advertise books, to design appealing covers and artwork, and to...
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