Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The Story of My Life is an account of the early years of a woman who overcame incredible problems to become an accomplished, literate adult. The book does not give a complete account of the author’s life, as it was written when she was still a college student. It is, however, a unique account of one young woman’s passage from almost total despair to success in a world mostly populated by hearing and seeing people. This book is relatively short, but the modern editions also include letters written by and to Helen Keller and an analysis of her education from a later standpoint.
The Story of My Life begins with Keller’s vague memories of early childhood. She was born in 1880 in Alabama, an apparently normal child. According to her recollections, she began to speak before she was a year old. The early chapters recount the little girl’s love of the natural world, a theme that is repeated many times throughout the work, and her generally happy home life, with loving and nurturing parents.
At the age of nineteen months, however, Keller was stricken with an unexplained disease—certainly unexplained in the nineteenth century, with no suggestion in the book of any later diagnosis—which left her both blind and deaf. She became a domineering child, with behavior that was totally unacceptable. Keller mainly lays the blame for this behavior upon her frustration at the futility of trying to communicate her thoughts and feelings...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
When The Story of My Life was written in 1902, many female authors were still using male pseudonyms in an attempt to give their work some credence in a literary world dominated by men. It would be almost twenty years before women were given the right to vote and a much longer period before they made any real impact on the political and literary scenes.
Decades later, Helen Keller would be considered one of the great social leaders of the time, and her earlier works would be considered inspirational to women and to society in general. Keller’s social work was primarily aimed at helping people with assorted disabilities, but not necessarily physical ones. She took upon herself the task of improving society in general, regardless of sex, race, nationality, or social standing. The Story of My Life cannot be considered “feminist” in any real sense, as the author at that time of her life had problems considerably more difficult to overcome than merely being a woman in a male-dominated society. In a broader context, however, this book has been inspirational to people faced with difficulties that must be overcome—physical, emotional, or societal.
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Biography Series)
At the beginning of The Story of My Life, Helen Keller acknowledges the difficulty of writing an autobiography because “fact and fancy now look alike across the years that link the past and present.” As a result, she has attempted to present only those episodes from her life that seem either especially interesting or important. Although Keller presents her life chronologically, she focuses more on her feelings than on factual details.
The book begins with Keller’s birth in Tuscumbia, Alabama, on June 27, 1880. Keller provides information about her parents and family and then describes her first nineteen months, when she could both see and hear. Chapters 2 and 3, while presenting the events of her childhood, do more than merely recount her frequent mischief by centering on Keller’s intense desire to communicate, as well as on her frustrations. The most famous event of Keller’s life, when Anne Sullivan taught her how to communicate, is presented rather briefly in chapter 4. The succeeding chapters, however, grow out of this important incident and focus on other moments that shaped her. She learned about the joys and dangers of nature, abstract concepts and words such as “love,” and the characteristics of winter. Eventually, she moved away from her sheltered home in Alabama, experiencing new places such as Boston, Niagara Falls, and the Atlantic Ocean, as well as important events such as the inauguration of President Grover Cleveland...
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Role of Women
When Keller wrote The Story of My Life she was not yet active in social reform. Still, her attendance at a college was an impressive feat for any woman at the time, and especially for a woman in Keller’s special situation. Her determination to receive an education equal to that offered a man was set early in her life. She recalls in chapter eighteen, ‘‘When I was a little girl, I visited Wellesley and surprised my friends by the announcement, ‘Someday I shall go to college—but I shall go to Harvard!’ When asked why I would not go to Wellesley, I replied that there were only girls there.’’
Keller was deeply influenced by the intellectual and activist atmosphere of the progressive era in which she lived. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women were still limited in their ability to sign contracts, own land, vote, and work. At the turn of the century, women were demanding to be taken seriously in their pursuit of equal rights. Keller was one of the early feminists pursuing fairness for women.
Perception of the Physically Challenged
In 1903, when Keller published The Story of My Life, the public was indifferent to the needs of people who were physically challenged. Among those who had never dealt with such a challenge, there was usually ignorance and negative stereotyping. There were few specialized schools for instructing students who were blind and/or deaf....
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The story of Keller's early life takes place during the late 1800s, a time when people's understanding of the physically disabled was much more limited than it is today. Physically disabled people were routinely institutionalized and often assumed to be mentally disabled as well. Efforts to teach them to overcome their disabilities and lead normal lives were extremely limited. But Keller was fortunate enough to have parents who refused to institutionalize her, an extraordinary teacher, and a burning desire to learn. Her accomplishments led to a greater public understanding of the handicapped. Her autobiography traces her progress over the first two decades of her life, following her from her parents' home in Tuscumbia, Alabama, through a succession of schools for the handicapped, and concluding when she is a student at Radcliffe College.
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Although Keller occasionally lapses into emotional passages, her writing style is generally formal. It is reminiscent of the lofty language of Greek writers and also of the similes and tones of biblical text. Toward the end of chapter two, for example, she writes, ‘‘Thus it is when we walk in the valley of twofold solitude we know little of the tender affections that grow out of endearing words and actions and companionship.’’ At times, she makes direct allusions to biblical stories, as in chapter three: ‘‘Thus I came out of Egypt and stood before Sinai, and a power divine touched my spirit and gave it sight, so that I beheld many wonders.’’ Recalling what it was like when she first learned to speak, Keller comments, ‘‘My soul, conscious of new strength, came out of bondage, and was reaching through those broken symbols of speech to all knowledge and all faith.’’ Keller also uses allegorical images to convey her feelings, as when she refers to the ‘‘cup of bitterness’’ and the ‘‘angel of forgetfulness’’ in chapter thirteen. All of these examples demonstrate Keller’s love of figurative language and controlled tone.
Given that Keller was an enthusiastic reader, her writing style may not be so surprising. While most people derive their sense of diction and syntax from interacting with the people around them, Keller was influenced by the writers whose books she read with such vigor. She read...
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Because The Story of My Life is an autobiography, it tends to be episodic and anecdotal rather than tightly plotted; after all, an individual's life seldom takes the form of a well-plotted novel. This structure also partly results from the circumstances of its composition. Keller wrote many of the chapters as themes for the English composition course she took while attending Radcliffe. Consequently, there is little connection between chapters, although Keller's progress towards leading a normal life provides a thematic framework for her story.
Modern readers may find Keller's style old-fashioned, for she describes her experiences and feelings with sentimental Victorian language. Her writing is full of literary allusions, especially biblical references. Her imagery is so vivid and extraordinarily visual that many of her contemporary readers refused to believe that she had written the book. They failed to understand that language is inherently visual and that Keller's style was formed by reading the works of seeing authors. Furthermore, by using tactile analogies, such as heat, she could grasp visual concepts such as color and even intensities in color, so these elements in her writing are not unnatural.
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Because Keller focuses on her abilities rather than on her deprivations, The Story of My Life serves as a model for what the physically disabled can accomplish. She stresses her normalcy—she enjoys the same activities that seeing and hearing people do. Her story shows readers that the physically handicapped are not "different," a message that was particularly relevant in her era, when people often assumed that the physically disabled were also mentally disabled. In part because of Keller's remarkable career, that attitude has decreased considerably, and modern society is more accepting of both physically and mentally disabled people. Young adults are often curious about the lives of the disabled, and The Story of My Life provides a firsthand account.
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Compare and Contrast
Early Twentieth Century: Educational opportunities for the blind and deaf are extremely limited. There are very few schools to teach children with these needs, and in many cases the blind and deaf are sent to mental asylums. Public sentiment toward the blind and deaf is negative and uneducated.
Today: There are numerous schools across the country specializing in instructing students with these needs, and many children who are blind or deaf learn to function in public schools. Laws require that the handicapped be accommodated and that employers offer equal opportunities to prospective employees, regardless of physical challenges.
Early Twentieth Century: In 1900, Keller begins her college studies at Radcliffe. Her firstyear courses are French, German History, English composition, and English literature.
Today: While freshman courses vary from college to college, most students take four or five courses per semester. These courses often include American or world history, English literature, a math course, a science course, and a foreign language. In some universities, first-year students study economics, philosophy, psychology, or theology.
Early Twentieth Century: Women are not encouraged to pursue education because college degrees have little relevance to women’s roles as wives and mothers. Generally, when women do pursue higher education, they do so at schools for women.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Why is Helen so frustrated by her desire to communicate before Anne Sullivan arrives?
2. Helen learns that the word "w-a-t-e-r" means what comes out of the pump in the well-house. Why is this such a significant discovery?
3. Why is learning to speak with her mouth important to Helen? Why does her joy in speaking make her family respond to her accomplishment in silence?
4. In her descriptions of what she has "seen," Helen often uses words that suggest visual images she is incapable of actually seeing, or sounds she cannot hear. Find some instances of this and explain how, as a blind or deaf person, she could use these words to describe her experience.
5. When Helen writes "The Frost King" she genuinely believes she is making up her own story. Explain why it is not actually her story and how she plagiarizes it. What do you think about how the adults react?
6. What difficulties does Helen encounter when she goes to schools for seeing and hearing students?
7. Does the number of activities in which Helen participates surprise you? Why or why not?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Keller worked to make the world more accessible to physically disabled people. What programs does your community have that carry on her work? What are their purposes and accomplishments?
2. Sullivan was as remarkable a woman as her student Helen. Read a biography about her and discuss how her background affected her work with Helen.
3. Learn the manual alphabet. Compare it with American sign language. What are their similarities and differences? What advantages and disadvantages does each one have?
4. Many editions of The Story of My Life include the letters Sullivan wrote to people at Perkins Institution for the Blind during the first years she worked with Keller. After reading these, explain her philosophy of education. What were her methods? Why were they successful?
5. Watch the film The Miracle Worker. How does it portray Helen Keller? Anne Sullivan? What are some differences between the movie account and the account Keller gives in The Story of My Life?
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Topics for Further Study
If you had to choose between losing your sight or your hearing, which one would you choose? Take into account your present interests, future interests, ability to communicate, and society’s perceptions of people with these challenges. Compose an essay in which you explain your decision. Add a paragraph explaining what, if any, effect this exercise has on you.
Find a partner and learn the first five letters of the manual alphabet. Then put on a blindfold and earplugs of some kind and have your partner take you to a room that is unfamiliar to you. How do you feel in this strange environment without the benefit of seeing or hearing? Once you have explored the room a little, sit down with your partner and have him or her spell words in your hand using the letters you have learned (bed, bad, cab, bead, ace, deed, etc.). How many words were you able to understand? After you have done all this, trade roles so that your partner wears the blindfold and earplugs.
Research Louis Braille to find out why he created his unique system that allows the blind to read. What five adjectives would you use to describe him?
In The Story of My Life Keller writes, ‘‘It was the Iliad that made Greece my paradise,’’ and later, ‘‘A medallion of Homer hangs on the wall of my study.’’ Read the first chapter of the Iliad. Bear in mind that Homer was blind as you read the passages. Prepare a brief lesson explaining why you think...
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Although several biographies had been written about Keller since her emergence into the public eye, it was not until 1953 that anyone attempted serious adaptations to other media. After reading The Story of My Life, William Gibson wrote a ballet with vocal accompaniment based on the book. Although the ballet was never produced, director Arthur Penn commissioned Gibson to use the subject matter for a television production for the drama series "Playhouse 90." Starring in the television production were Teresa Wright as Anne Sullivan and Patty McCormack as Helen. With public interest aroused through this production, Gibson revised the film into a Broadway drama, which opened in October 1959 as The Miracle Worker. Anne Bancroft played Anne; Patty Duke played Helen. For Duke, this was her first major appearance as an actress; for Bancroft, it was the first important role she had been given in a decade. When the play was adapted back to film in 1962, Bancroft and Duke again played the leads, winning enormous critical acclaim, as well as Oscars for their emotionally charged portrayals of teacher and student.
While the book traces Keller's life through her college years, The Miracle Worker focuses only on the first month of her life after Sullivan becomes her teacher. Keller is portrayed as a spoiled terror who dominates her weak father and indulgent mother. Uncontrollable because no one knows how to communicate with her, she throws tantrums,...
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Keller’s life is the basis of William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker, which includes many of the events of Keller’s life as portrayed in The Story of My Life. The play was successful on the stage and was adapted to film in 1962, produced by Playfilm Productions and starring Anne Bancroft as Sullivan and Patty Duke as Keller. For their performances in the 1962 film version, Bancroft and Duke won Academy Awards for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively. In 1970, a film called Helen Keller and Her Teacher was produced by Jerome Kurtz and Jesse Sandler.
The Miracle Worker
has also been filmed for television. In 1979, the film was made starring Patty Duke as Sullivan and Melissa Gilbert as Keller. A newer version was broadcast in 2001, starring Hallie Kate Eisenberg as Keller and Alison Elliott as Sullivan.
A documentary featuring Keller herself was produced by Nancy Hamilton Presentation in 1956, titled Helen Keller in Her Story. The film won the Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary.
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What Do I Read Next?
Dorothy Hermann’s acclaimed biography, Helen Keller: A Life (1998), complements The Story of My Life in its thorough and objective portrayals of Keller and Sullivan. Hermann depicts Helen as she was in private as well as in public, and she explores the complicated relationship between the student and her teacher.
Keller’s autobiographical follow-up to The Story of My Life is Midstream, My Later Life (1929, 1968). Here, Keller tells about the twenty-five years after she graduated from Radcliffe College, including the people she met and her extensive work for social reform.
In Helen and Teacher: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy (1997), Joseph P. Lash reviews the events of Anne Sullivan’s life prior to and after meeting Helen Keller, along with the background of Keller herself. He shows how these two extraordinary lives joined to make great things happen.
Margaret Marshall Saunders was a contemporary of Keller who wrote on behalf of child and animal welfare. Her best-known book, Beautiful Joe: The Autobiography of a Dog (1893), is about a mistreated dog that finds a loving home.
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For Further Reference
Braddy, Nella (Henney). Anne Sullivan Macy: The Story Behind Helen Keller. New York: Doubleday Doran, 1933. Braddy was a close friend of both Keller and Sullivan and wrote her book based on her conversations with Sullivan. Braddy was the first person to deal with Sullivan's accomplishments, rather than just Keller's.
Brooks, Van Wyck. Helen Keller: Sketch for a Portrait. New York: Dutton, 1956. Brooks was a well-known historian as well as Keller's good friend. He brings discipline and style to a subject he knows well, and produces a fine biography of Keller up to the point of middle age.
Davidson, Margaret. Helen Keller. New York: Scholastic Book Services, 1969. A biography for children ages five to eight.
Gibson, William. The Miracle Worker: A Play for Television. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957. This is a famous and moving dramatization of Sullivan's first month with Keller, climaxing with Helen's discovery that everything has a name.
Hickok, Lorena A. The Story of Helen Keller. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1958. An engaging biography for young children.
The Touch of Magic: The Story of Helen Keller's Great Teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1961. A good biography for young adults.
Lash, Joseph P. Helen and Teacher: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy. New York: Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 1980. This is the...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Brown, Ray B., ed., Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, Gale, 1990.
Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 8: 1966–1970, American Council of Learned Societies, 1988.
Kendrick, Walter, ‘‘Her Hands Were a Bridge to the World,’’ in New York Times Book Review, August 30, 1998.
McCray, Nancy, Review in Booklist, Vol. 90, No. 18, May 15, 1994, p. 1702.
Moyers, Bill, Fooling With Words, HarperPerrenial, 2000. ‘‘Nonethnic Rights,’’ in Civil Rights in America: 1500 to the Present, The Gale Group, 1998.
Schuur, Diane, ‘‘The Miracle: Helen Keller,’’ in Time, Vol. 153, No. 23, p. 163.
Wolfe, Kathi, ‘‘Ordinary People: Why the Disabled Aren’t So Different,’’ in Humanist, Vol. 56, No. 6, November– December 1996, pp. 31–35.
Einhorn, Lois J., Helen Keller, Public Speaker: Sightless but Seen, Deaf but Heard, Greenwood Press, 1998. Einhorn provides an in-depth study of Keller’s career as a lecturer and public speaker. The author examines Keller’s ability to communicate, while offering analysis and texts of Keller’s wide-ranging speeches.
Gitter, Elisabeth, The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, the Original Deaf-Blind Girl, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2001. Gitter’s book tells the compelling story of Dr....
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Bibliography (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Boylan, Esther, ed. Women and Disability. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Zed Books, 1991. A series of articles on the situation of disabled women in the world. This book places emphasis on the concept that women have a “double handicap” by being female as well as disabled.
Brooks, Van Wyck. Helen Keller: Sketch for a Portrait. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1956. A biography of Keller covering her early years, her later development as an adult author and activist, and her continuing relationship with Anne Sullivan Macy, her teacher from early childhood.
Hillyer, Barbara. Feminism and Disability. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. The story of a woman bringing up a disabled little girl. The stress in this book is on the feminist movement and the movement for the rights of disabled people of both sexes, and on how the two issues may come into conflict.
Keller, Helen. Midstream: My Later Life. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1968. A reprint of an autobiography of Keller originally published in 1929. This book continues where The Story of My Life left off. It offers insights into the author’s later development, after she was graduated from college and entered the mainstream of American society.
Keller, Helen. Teacher: Anne Sullivan Macy. Garden City, N.Y.:...
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