How does one write a character sketch of Martha Washington from Helen Keller's The Story of My Life?

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tamarakh's profile pic

Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The purpose of a character sketch is to introduce the reader of your sketch to a person. Writing character sketches based on literature we are analyzing gives us a chance to look more deeply into the author's characterization. According to Northern Illinois University, a character sketch gives the reader of your sketch a "strong mental image" of what the character is like as a person ("How to Write a Character Sketch"). To write a character sketch based on a character in a literary work, we do a close reading of the text to identify the character's name, age, thoughts, feelings, attitudes, behaviors, and personality traits. To examine personality traits, we look at the character's strengths and weaknesses.

Martha Washington was Helen Keller's only childhood friend before she began learning from Anne Sullivan, and Helen briefly describes Martha in Chapter 2 of her autobiography The Story of My Life. To write a character sketch on Martha Washington, we might begin with a sentence like the following:

  • Martha Washington was Helen Keller's childhood playmate and about "two or three years older" than Helen.

We would then proceed from there to continue summarizing the details we know about Martha. For example, Helen gives us a physical description of Martha. We know she was "black as ebony" and had her hair tied up in fuzzy bunches all over her head that looked like "corkscrews."

As for Martha's personality, Helen describes her as being as equally mischievous as herself, but what she liked best about Martha was her submissiveness. Helen describes Martha as being very willing to let Helen have her own way; she would rather yield to Helen than have a "hand-to-hand encounter." Martha's submissiveness probably had a great deal to do with the social-class system of the South, not long after the Civil War. Martha was the daughter of the Kellers' African American cook, and even in the years soon after the Civil War, African Americans were forced to submit to white Americans. Despite her submissiveness, we know that Martha was a very intelligent and empathetic girl. Her intelligence and empathy are seen in the fact that Martha was one of the only few people who could understand Helen's makeshift signs, another reason why Helen kept Martha as a "constant companion."

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durbanville's profile pic

durbanville | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Helen Keller's autobiography, The Story of My Life, reveals many of the influences and people with whom Helen came into contact during her childhood. Despite Helen having been left deaf and blind after an illness as a baby, she remains an independent child, not easy to control and with a stubborn streak that ensures  she often gets her own way. There is nothing that stops her "from repeating the naughtiness when I failed to get what I wanted." (ch 2)

Martha Washington is Helen's constant companion as a young child, about two or three years older and, between them they do many familiar things because "Martha always understood." She is content to let Helen have her way "generally submitting(ed) to my tyranny" rather than cause an argument, revealing her kind and easy going nature, with a mischievous streak. This suits Helen perfectly and they are the best of friends. Helen also seeks out Martha when Belle, the family pet, tires of Helen, as Martha will always play.

On one occasion, Helen cuts the ribbons which were actually shoe strings - "corkscrews"  - out of Martha's hair so similarly, Martha cuts one of Helen's curls but is prevented from completing her task by Helen's mother's "timely interference." Martha allows Helen to be herself and is instrumental in Helen's overall character development, unwittingly  but crucially aiding Helen's acceptance into the seeing and hearing world.  

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