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The Story of My Life

by Helen Keller

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Chapters 13–17 Summary

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In the spring of 1890, Keller began to learn to speak. She had wanted for a long time to make audible sounds and had been aware that the people around her used a method of communication different from hers, but friends had always tried to discourage her from thinking about this subject, fearing she would be disappointed. Then, in 1890, a teacher called Mrs. Lamson told her about Ragnhild Kaata, a deaf and blind girl in Norway who had learned to speak. Shortly afterwards, Keller started speech lessons with Miss Sarah Fuller, principal of the Horace Mann School in New York.

Miss Fuller’s method was to let Keller feel the position of her own tongue and lips when she made a sound, after which Keller would imitate the motion. She learned quickly and recalls the surprise and delight she felt at forming her first sentence: “It is warm.” After this, she talked constantly, to her toys, “to stones, trees, birds and dumb animals.”

However, although Keller had learned the elements of speech, she had not yet learned to talk intelligibly. While her teachers could understand her, “most people would not have understood one word in a hundred.” Despite these difficulties, Keller persevered, motivated principally by the thought that her family would be able to understand her if she mastered speech. She returned to Tuscumbia and found that, despite frequent mistakes, her mother, father, and sister were able to follow what she said:

It was as if Isaiah’s prophecy had been fulfilled in me, “The mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands!”

The autumn after she learned to speak, Keller wrote a story called “The Frost King,” which she later sent to the director of the Perkins Institution. He was delighted with the story and arranged for it to be published in one of the Institution reports. However, it quickly became clear that the story was very similar to one called “The Frost Fairies” by a writer called Margaret T. Canby, who had published it before Keller was born. This story had evidently been read to Keller, who had remembered and unintentionally reproduced it. However, neither she nor Sullivan had any recollection of Canby’s story. Keller was mortified by the discovery and felt that she had disgraced herself. There was an inquiry into the incident, during which the director of the Institution, who had previously supported Keller, reluctantly came to believe that she was guilty of deliberate plagiarism, perhaps with the help of Sullivan.

However, when Sullivan investigated the matter, even enlisting the help of Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, it emerged that Mrs. Hopkins had read Canby’s story to Keller when she had stayed with her on Cape Cod in 1888. Sullivan had been away on vacation at the time; hence, she had no memory of the event. Keller even received a kindly letter from Margaret T. Canby, the author, saying that she believed Keller would one day write a great story of her own. However, Keller says, this has never yet happened, and she has always been concerned that what she writes may not, in fact, be her own. She also reports borrowing phrases and ideas from writers of ancient history when she wrote essays about the glories of Greek and Roman cities.

Keller hid these concerns about her lack of originality from everyone except her teacher. Sometimes, when she had an idea in the course of conversations, she would spell out surreptitiously to Sullivan the words “I am not sure it is mine.” Sullivan attempted to restore Keller’s confidence in her own abilities by persuading her to write a brief autobiographical account for the Youth’s Companion. Keller struggled hard to write this but persevered, and she thinks that she must have had “a prophetic vision of the good that would come of the undertaking.”

In 1893, Keller and Sullivan visited the World’s Fair with Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. The exhibitions from all the different countries, from India to Egypt to Italy, thrilled Keller. She went on board a model Viking ship and examined a model of the Santa Maria, one of Columbus’s ships. The president of the World’s Fair had given her special permission to touch all the exhibits: thus, she was able to appreciate them as fully as possible. In the three weeks she spent there, Keller believes that she “took a long leap” from a child’s love of toys and fairy tales to an adult appreciation of the world.

After her experience at the World’s Fair, Keller became more earnest and organized in her studies, taking “lessons in special subjects at fixed hours.” She began a serious study of Latin grammar, the rigorously analytical nature of which had previously seemed pointless to her. In October 1894, she began to attend the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf in New York, where she studied arithmetic, geography, French, and German. She enjoyed these studies but was still disappointed by the slow progress she made in speaking and lip-reading, since it was her ambition to speak like other people. Although she enjoyed her time at the school, particularly appreciating the dedication of the teachers and enjoying her walks in Central Park, the end of her time there was darkened by an event she describes as the greatest sorrow she has ever borne, except the death of her father. In February 1896, Mr. John P. Spaulding of Boston, who had shown great kindness to both Keller and Sullivan, died. Keller writes, “His going away left a vacancy in our lives that has never been filled.”

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