Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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 without any ability to speak, read, or write.

The breakthrough came when the Kellers visited noted inventor Alexander Graham Bell in Washington, D.C., who referred them to the Perkins Institution, a school for blind children in Boston. The school sent a woman named Anne Sullivan to teach young Helen to behave properly and, if possible, to teach her to be a “normal” child. Most of the book deals with Sullivan’s training of Keller, showing her how to behave decently, to use the manual alphabet to communicate her thoughts, and to read books in raised letters and later in braille. In the last chapters, there is much emphasis on Keller’s higher education.

According to her own recollections, young Helen Keller’s greatest love, apart from the natural world, was language. She learned to read not only English but also French, German, Latin, and Greek. She began writing in her early teens. There is also considerable discussion of her examinations and preparation for admission into Radcliffe College, the sister college to Harvard, and her eventual acceptance.

Keller writes about her attempts to use speech as a means of communication, but she largely considers these attempts to be failures: She never really learned to speak well. Keller demonstrates that the process of learning to speak is difficult for any person who is either blind or deaf and virtually impossible for someone who lacks both senses. Instead, Keller became a great lover of books, which became her only real way of relating to the world outside. The book ends on this note, with a list of favorite authors and a wish to be counted among them.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.

Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

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 and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Along the way, Keller also discusses her continued efforts to become educated. At the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, Keller studied Braille while Sarah Fuller, of the Horace Mann School for the Deaf, taught her how to speak. Keller later entered the Cambridge School for Young Ladies, full of hope and determination but occasionally hampered by the fact that she could communicate with her teachers only through Sullivan. Keller does not, however, only describe her successes. She discusses at length an incident in which she was accused of plagiarizing a story she had once read but no longer remembered. This event caused a rift between her and Mr. Anagnos, the head of the Perkins Institute.

Eventually, Keller enrolled in Radcliffe College, after struggling to pass the admissions test. At this point in the book, Keller digresses to discuss the importance of reading in her life and the books that have influenced her, including Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), the Bible, William Shakespeare’s plays, and works by a variety of French, English, and German writers. In the next-to-last chapter, she describes some of the many things that have given her pleasure, such as sailing, spending time in nature, and going to the theater. In her final chapter, she mentions some of the many friends she made as she began to gain celebrity, particularly the literary figures of her day. Keller’s autobiography concludes while she is still a sophomore at Radcliffe.

Historical Context

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Role of Women
When Keller wrote The Story of My Life she was not yet active in social reform. Still, her attendance at a...

(The entire section is 544 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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...

(The entire section is 132 words.)

Literary Style

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Formal Tone
Although Keller occasionally lapses into emotional passages, her writing style is generally formal. It is...

(The entire section is 668 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Because The Story of My Life is an autobiography, it tends to be episodic and anecdotal rather than tightly plotted; after all, an...

(The entire section is 187 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Because Keller focuses on her abilities rather than on her deprivations, The Story of My Life serves as a model for what the...

(The entire section is 120 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Early Twentieth Century: Educational opportunities for the blind and deaf are extremely limited. There are very few schools to teach...

(The entire section is 230 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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"...

(The entire section is 181 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Keller worked to make the world more accessible to physically disabled people. What programs does your community have that carry on her...

(The entire section is 156 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

If you had to choose between losing your sight or your hearing, which one would you choose? Take into account your present interests, future...

(The entire section is 398 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Although several biographies had been written about Keller since her emergence into the public eye, it was not until 1953 that anyone...

(The entire section is 371 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 167 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Brown, Ray B., ed., Contemporary Heroes and Heroines, Gale, 1990.

Dictionary of American...

(The entire section is 292 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations 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.: Doubleday, 1955. A biography of Helen Keller’s early teacher and longtime companion and helper. Explores Keller’s training from a later point of view, as well as providing insight into the life of Anne Sullivan and the long-standing relationship between the two women.

Lash, Joseph P. Helen and Teacher: The Story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan Macy. New York: Delacorte Press, 1980. The story of Keller’s training and the relationship between Keller and her teacher. Traces the development of both women from Sullivan’s childhood in the 1860’s through Keller’s death in 1968.

McInnes, J. M., and J. A. Treffry. Deaf-Blind Infants and Children: A Developmental Guide. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982. A modern guide to the teaching of children with Helen Keller’s problems. This book provides a discussion of modern methods used in treating such children, which have changed greatly since the days of Keller’s childhood.

What Do I Read Next?

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Dorothy Hermann’s acclaimed biography, Helen Keller: A Life (1998), complements The Story of My Life in its thorough and...

(The entire section is 178 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Braddy, Nella (Henney). Anne Sullivan Macy: The Story Behind Helen Keller. New York: Doubleday Doran, 1933. Braddy was a close friend...

(The entire section is 328 words.)