Surprising Use of Sense and Imagery

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1528

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.

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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 for the holiday preparations and the wonderful smells in the house. She took pleasure in being treated to ‘‘tidbits’’ from the kitchen and in being allowed to participate in the festivities. In this example, she unites the memory of the smells and the tastes of Christmas with being a part of the family’s holiday cheer. Later, after having studied a variety of subjects with Sullivan, she recalls being invited by the town schoolchildren to their Christmas party. She describes the tree in chapter eight: ‘‘In the center of the schoolroom stood a beautiful tree ablaze and shimmering in the soft light, its branches loaded with strange, wonderful fruit. It was a moment of supreme happiness.’’ Again, her early memory centers on her limited sensory abilities, while the later memory is related as if her eyesight were returned. In both passages, however, her delight comes not from the smells, tastes, and sights themselves, but from the experience of being included in important events of the world with which she longed to connect. Her dazzling description of the Christmas tree in the second passage could be the result of her imagination, her understanding of what Christmas trees looked like, or of hearing others describe the tree. In any case, it was an intense experience that she felt could best be described by calling on visual imagery.

In certain cases, Keller’s descriptions seem to come from her imagining sights based on a variety of other sources of information. In chapter twelve, for example, she has her first experience with a true winter, complete with snow and icicles. She recalls,

The trees stood motionless and white like figures in a marble frieze. There was no odor of pine needles. The rays of the sun fell upon the trees, so that the twigs sparkled like diamonds and dropped showers when we touched them. So dazzling was the light, it penetrated even the darkness that veils my eyes.

In this passage, the reader can understand how Keller has comprehended such a breathtakingly visual scene. She would know that the trees were motionless because she would feel complete stillness in the air. She likens the trees to a marble frieze, which is a three-dimensional mural, a form of art accessible by touch. In fact, based on what she tells the reader about her education, there is a very good chance she would have felt a frieze before. Her use of the word ‘‘frieze’’ is fitting, as it is a homophone for the word ‘‘freeze.’’ Keller was an avid reader who was skilled at literature and composition, so there is good reason to believe she intentionally used this word.

Next, she mentions that there is no odor of pine needles, which would have given her the impression that she was not in lush surroundings. She would have felt the ‘‘rays of the sun’’ and she says she felt the melting snow falling from twigs when she touched them. By this time, Keller was far enough along in her education to understand the concept of melting ice, so she understood what was happening in the trees. In addition, she mentions ‘‘we,’’ meaning that someone else (probably Sullivan) was there, which could account for the beautiful imagery of the twigs sparkling like diamonds and the dazzlingly white light. In her book, Keller never mentions whether she had any visual ability at all. Some people who are legally blind are still able to see to a very limited degree. If Keller had any vision at all, she most certainly would have been able to detect the brightness of light reflecting off a snowy expanse. By evaluating this passage in depth, the reader understands how, in some cases, Keller was able to provide such beautiful visual descriptions of scenes she could not possibly have seen.

There are a number of ways to explain Keller’s ability to smoothly incorporate sight and sound imagery in her story. Perhaps her other senses are so honed that she is able to piece together the information she would normally receive from her eyes and ears. Perhaps the early examples are the product of her memory, which had only nineteen months to store visual information, so these memories did not fade. Perhaps, in retrospect, Keller superimposes descriptions she has learned from reading and interacting with people over the years. After all, Sullivan was her constant companion, spelling out everything into Keller’s curious hands. The answer probably lies somewhere at the crossroads of all of these factors.

Keller’s frequent sensory images bring her autobiography to life in such a way that many readers may not even notice that the blind-deaf author is using surprising descriptions. Because readers are so accustomed to this type of language, the book reads the same as any other life story. By reading the text with a heightened awareness of the author’s unique situation, however, the reader gains an even greater appreciation for her sophisticated communicative abilities.

Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on The Story of My Life, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Poetic Elements

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1861

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.

The passage evokes much more than a generic desire to know. It provides real insight into the personality of Keller. This metaphor of her climbing up the ‘‘Hill Difficulty’’ gives the reader a rich experience of Keller’s inner struggles and of her persistence in the face of adversity.

It is not surprising that Helen Keller developed a strong poetic style in her writing. She was imitating what she had been taught. Her teacher, Anne Sullivan believed in the power of words and emphasized them in every phase of Helen’s teaching. Sullivan realized that words could provide the keys that could open doors for Helen. In one of the letters printed in the supplementary material to The Story of My Life, Anne Sullivan relates how she came upon the realization of the importance of vocabulary to a child’s learning process. One day when she was in the garden observing Keller’s fifteen-monthold cousin, Sullivan experienced a revelation:

I asked myself, ‘How does a normal child learn language?’ The answer was simple, ‘By imitation.’ The child comes into the world with the ability to learn, and he learns of himself, provided he is supplied with sufficient outward stimulus. He sees people do things, and he tries to do them. He hears others speak, and he tried (sic) to speak. But long before he utters his first word he understands what is said to him. . . . These observations have given me a clue to the method to be followed in teaching Helen language. I shall talk into her hand as we talk into the baby’s ears. I shall assume that she has the normal child’s capacity of assimilation and imitation. I shall use complete sentences in talking to her, and fill out the meaning with gestures and her descriptive signs when necessity requires it; but I shall not try to keep her mind fixed on any one thing. I shall do all I can to interest and stimulate it, and wait for results.

From then on, Sullivan immersed Keller in a world of words. She would constantly spell into the young girl’s hand, and Keller’s vocabulary quickly grew. Keller had a keen memory and was able to retain many of the words Sullivan passed along. Sullivan also introduced Keller to the works of many of the great poets including Shakespeare, Homer and Wordsworth. She would not only use poetry as a subject to be studied in and of itself, but would use it to emphasize lessons in Keller’s other areas of study. As Keller notes, ‘‘Everything Miss Sullivan taught me she illustrated by a beautiful story or a poem.’’ With so much early exposure to poetry, it is not surprising that Keller developed a poetic style in her own writing. A child learns by imitation, and so, when Keller began to write, she imitated the beautiful language that had been used to teach her.

People frequently have wondered how Keller could have any notion of things that she could not see or hear. As Ralph Barton Perry explains in the introduction to The Story of My Life, there are many different ways to experience the world and the absence of one or two senses does not close off a person’s ability to know the things around them,

In practice we deal not with sensory signals themselves but with the things they signalize; and these can be the same whether signalized by visual and auditory data or, as with Miss Keller, by motor, tactile, vibratory, and olfactory data.

In other words, Helen Keller used the senses she did have to fill in the gaps for those she lacked. Keller even created color in her world by associating tactile sensations and the emotions each color might produce. In Midstream, My Later Life, her second autobiography, she describes this process:

I put more thought and feeling into my senses; I examined as I had not before my impressions arising from touch and smell, and was amazed at the ideas with which they supplied me, and the clues they gave me to the world of sight and hearing. For example, I observed the kinds and degrees of fragrance which gave me pleasure, and that enabled me to imagine how the seeing eye is charmed by different colours and their shades.

There have been numerous books written about what makes a written piece a poem. Often the form and structure are the main focus. However, in Fooling With Words poet Coleman Barks tells Bill Moyers that he believes writing does not have to conform to a particular structure in order to be considered a poem: ‘‘I don’t want to get too solemn about the terms form and poem. If [a piece] has soundwork going on and if it resonates in your body, I’d say it’s close to poetry.’’ Here Burke notes that what turns writing into poetry is the physical or emotional sensation it evokes. If one accepts Burke’s definition, then The Story of My Life can definitely be considered poetry because in it Keller evokes many sensations with her words. Even though the passages do not contain standard meter and the words do not rhyme, they are poetry just the same. Keller’s writing in The Story of My Life speaks to the senses, not to the intellect.

Reading The Story of My Life as poetry opens up a new understanding of Keller’s world and of the unlimited possibility of the mind. Although unable to hear or see, Keller, very giftedly, associated with life’s sights and sounds, as well as its textures, tastes, and smells. She was also very gifted in her ability to use language that allows readers to live in her world for a brief time and experience the wordimages that played across her mind. Readers are fortunate that she was able to share these gifts with the world. While the story of Keller’s early days would be worthwhile reading no matter what the writing style, Keller provides the reader an added pleasure. Keller is not only able to convey what happened to her as a child, but through her brilliant use of language she also gives the reader a sense of how it happened. The Story of My Life is a beautiful example of poetic writing that also happens to outline the life of a courageous and creative wordsmith.

Source: Beth Kattelman, Critical Essay on The Story of My Life, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

The Many Reasons For This Exemplary Work

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2334

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 acquire celebrity endorsements. However, most books that arouse passion do not reach readers as the result of advertising campaigns. Most of them come to the attention in one of two ways: an acquaintance suggests a book either directly or indirectly, or the book is assigned for an educational purpose. Upon reading, some of these books become favorites because of their story, their style, or their ability to stimulate the mind. The Story of My Life hits all three of these marks. It is fascinating in its subject, beautiful in its writing, and thought-provoking in its nature.

Helen Keller was a woman whom adjectives fail to describe. Extraordinary, remarkable, and even brilliant are inadequate. Was she extraordinary? Certainly. Without question she was the most educated deaf and blind woman of her time. Remarkable? Schools continue to offer Helen Keller’s life story to students through pages and plays, and television and movie producers continue to offer updated versions of her life. She counted among her intimate friends Alexander Graham Bell, Mark Twain, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Edward Everett Hale, several famous actors and actresses, and church notables. Most of them proclaimed themselves to be admirers of hers.

Was Helen Keller brilliant? A consideration of her accomplishments seems to prove so. Before the onset of her illness, she demonstrated signs of being exceptional. At six months she mimicked short, functional sentences such as ‘‘How d’ye?’’ She could speak several words, including ‘‘tea’’ and ‘‘water’’ quite plainly. After her illness, Keller could no longer see or hear. Many of the words she had previously spoken became lost or distorted through lack of hearing them. After five years of existing in a womblike world of silence and darkness, Keller was reintroduced to language thanks to her gifted teacher, Anne Sullivan. Concerning that moment of recognition when words were returned to her, Keller wrote, ‘‘I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten-a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.’’ From that moment on she demanded the word for every object in her world.

Keller soon began the complex task of learning the meanings of abstract words and idioms, learning to use words in sentences, and ultimately, learning to participate in conversation. These tasks present extreme difficulty for deaf children because, as Keller explains:

The deaf child does not learn in a month, or even in two or three years, the numberless idioms and expressions used in the simplest daily intercourse. The little hearing child learns these from constant repetition and imitation. The conversation he hears in his home stimulates his mind and suggests topics and calls forth the spontaneous expression of his own thoughts. This natural exchange of ideas is denied to the deaf child.

In spite of extreme difficulty, Keller mastered each of these tasks. Early in her education, Keller communicated exclusively through the manual alphabet, but she was not satisfied. She wanted to speak, and so she began the work of acquiring speech. Miss Sarah Fuller, Keller’s speech teacher, would pass her pupil’s fingers lightly over her own face so that Helen could feel the position of her tongue and lips as she made a sound. Additionally, Keller would feel a speaker’s throat for the particular vibration of a sound and discern the expression of the face through touch. Over the course of many years, she learned to speak well enough that those outside her immediate circle could understand her. She also learned correct pronunciations and how to phrase and inflect from reading aloud to Miss Sullivan. Eventually, she learned to speak not only English, but also French, Latin, and German.

One final example of Helen Keller’s rare intellect comes from her college-preparatory years. While preparing for Radcliffe, she studied English literature and composition, Greek and Roman history, German, Latin, and arithmetic. Often the texts Keller needed had not yet been embossed, so she had to ‘‘carry in her mind’’ the information that other students could see upon the chalkboard or on the pages. She crafted geometric designs in wire upon a cushion, and had to memorize the lettering of the figures and all other important information.

Her attainments through formal education alone do not cover the scope of Helen Keller’s brilliance. She enjoyed physically and mentally taxing activities such as riding her tandem bicycle, rowing either alone or accompanied, and playing chess and checkers. The only concessions made to her in games of chess and checkers were that game pieces were constructed so that she could differentiate between colors by feel. Somehow she managed to ‘‘see’’ the arrangement of the board by passing her hands lightly over the pieces.

Her awesome intelligence was complemented by her finely tuned sense of humor. She had the enviable gift of being able to laugh with others, even when she was the butt of the joke. She loved young children, who loved her in turn, and they often dissolved into giggles at her ‘‘blunders.’’ When Helen Keller was young she had a doll named Nancy that was made of towels. Keller wrote that Nancy was ‘‘covered with dirt—the remains of mud pies I had compelled her to eat, although she had never shown any special liking for them.’’ Keller’s account of the agony students go through when taking exams should be required reading for every student about to submit himself or herself to an academic test. Her description of test anxiety will induce laughter and reduce tension. Her proclamation that ‘‘the divine right of professors to ask questions without the consent of the questioned should be abolished’’ will inspire schemes designed to bring about just such an abolition.

Those unimpressed or uninspired by the accomplishments chronicled in this work can still find much to admire. The writing is flawlessly beautiful. To a large extent, the prose imitates great classical works. Rhythms, imagery, and allusions from the Bible flow throughout. During the first springtime that Keller spent with Miss Sullivan, she learned about the beauties of nature. She described the lesson this way: ‘‘I learned how the sun and the rain make to grow out of the ground every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, how birds build their nests and live and thrive from land to land, how the squirrel, the deer, the lion and every other creature finds food and shelter.’’ This passage sounds much like the creation story in Genesis. In other places, Keller used allusions to the Bible to bring alive her analogies. About the arrival of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, into her life, Helen Keller said, ‘‘Thus I came up out of Egypt and stood before Sinai, and a power divine touched my spirit and gave it sight, so that I beheld many wonders. And from the sacred mountain I heard a voice which said, ‘Knowledge is love and light and vision.’’’

It is not difficult to believe that Helen Keller wrote easily and beautifully in the style of the classics that she devoured as a child. It is, however, difficult to accept that her descriptions of the beauty around her were her own and not the borrowed imagery of poets or sighted friends. In her autobiography, she described a lily this way:

The slender, fingerlike leaves on the outside opened slowly, reluctant, I thought, to reveal the loveliness they hid; once having made a start, however, the opening process went on rapidly, but in order and systematically. There was always one bud larger and more beautiful than the rest, which pushed her outer covering back with more pomp, as if the beauty in soft, silky robes knew that she was the lily-queen by right divine, while her timid sisters doffed their green hoods shyly, until the whole plant was one nodding bough of loveliness and fragrance.

How could Helen Keller, blind from the age of one, have written so descriptively? If one can move beyond initial incredulity and consider the circumstances, one can understand how Keller’s powers of description developed so superbly. Sometimes sighted writers become lazy and employ trite or vague similes. The explanation for this is that writers often rely on their sighted readers to have prior knowledge of what is being described and to fill in the blanks. For example, a writer might describe a rotund, white-haired, bewhiskered man as looking like Santa Claus, or a calm lake as looking like polished glass. The writer expects the reader to know what Santa Clause and polished glass look like and apply that knowledge to the current circumstance. Understandably, Helen Keller never slipped into this trap of lazy writing. She received many of her descriptions from people who knew they were describing a scene to someone who had never viewed the scene or another like it, and they described the scene accordingly. Thus, when Helen Keller related scenes at a later time, she relayed full information, never taking for granted that her readers had seen the same sight for themselves. This explains the beauty of her description of the lily. Perhaps someone once described for Keller the sight of young maidens doffing their hoods shyly or regal young women of social standing parading proudly as with divine right, but it was Helen Keller that juxtaposed the descriptions onto the lily, and the result is an example of description from which poets could learn.

Adding to Keller’s amazing gift for description is that she often took in information through senses other than sight, the sense that so many sighted persons rely on almost exclusively in description. Keller’s descriptions are full of the feel, smell, and taste of things. In her description of the blooming lily, she talks of the ‘‘slender, fingerlike leaves.’’ This is not a brilliant description, but many writers would leave their description at this and congratulate themselves. Keller continues with bold action words, ‘‘pushed’’ and ‘‘doffed’’ and ‘‘nodding’’ and texture words like ‘‘soft’’ and ‘‘silky,’’ descriptions that she literally felt from the blooming plant. The lily is not just beautiful, but fragrant, a fact many writers might forget to mention though it is of chief importance in describing a flower.

This partial autobiography—it was written when Helen Keller was in her early twenties—not only fascinates and entertains, it also educates. It educates in the manner of Socrates by causing the reader to consider question upon question. Consider some of these: Helen Keller clearly possessed an innate genius, and despite her physical disabilities, her genius was allowed to grow because it was nurtured by great teachers and supported by financial and social privilege. How many people have lived and died in poverty and isolation whose genius might have cured diseases, ended hunger, or engineered world peace? Helen Keller did not begin any type of formal schooling until she was seven. She progressed at phenomenal speed, full of natural curiosity and a desire to learn. Is formal education pressed upon children too early in the United States? Helen Keller overcame the most serious disabilities a student can overcome. Her workload was grueling, her spirit inexhaustible. She regularly spent many times the hours on assignments that her classmates did. Does this suggest anything about the way special education programs modify expectations for students with disabilities? Clearly, Helen Keller’s greatest teacher was Anne Sullivan. Following behind Miss Sullivan in terms of effectiveness were the teachers who voluntarily provided Keller with extra, individual tutoring. This suggests something about current educational standards. Experts know that low student-to-teacher ratios work best; should communities continue to accept growing class sizes and fewer qualified teachers? And a final question, one that addresses the very core of education and knowledge acquisition: Is there thought without words? Helen Keller made the following remark about a sensation she felt when she had just begun to work with Anne Sullivan, before she had associated the manual alphabet with words or words with objects: ‘‘This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure.’’ Later, when she understood that words described the concrete and abstract world, she said, ‘‘Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought.’’ Consider this question in light of human tribes that have no word for ‘‘war.’’ Do they have no word for war because they have never fought one? Or have they never fought a war because the abstract thought has no word to call it into reality?

These questions will not go unanswered. Many different people will answer them many times in many different ways. That is unimportant. What is important is that the world is graced with people whose lives and words raise the important questions. Helen Keller was one such person. She taught those who treat themselves to this story how courage, desire, perseverance, and love know no boundaries. She did this by sharing not merely one of the elements that makes a great book, but three: She told a singularly inspiring and fascinating story, she wrote her story in beautiful prose, and she gave rise to a host of relevant thoughts and questions.

Source: Karen D. Thompson, Critical Essay on The Story of My Life, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

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Critical Overview