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 limited, but before and after, she seems to have functioned with all five senses intact.
The need to communicate with others was the driving force behind Keller’s determination to understand language. In an early memory, before she began studying with Sullivan, she recalls loving Christmas, not for the gifts, but...
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