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The Story of My Life

by Helen Keller

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What is Martha Washington's character sketch in The Story of My Life?

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Martha Washington was one of Helen Keller's childhood friends. Martha had an affinity for mischief, and she was very curious, though she disliked conflict. Martha was treasured by Helen because before the arrival of Annie Sullivan, Martha was one of the few people who understood her forms of communication.

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Martha Washington was a child, a little older and taller than Helen, "ebony" of skin with black hair tamed by multiple braids. She was both compliant (or yielding) and mischievous, getting into trouble right along with Helen. She disliked conflict while liking play. Her mother was Helen's family's cook and gave them sweet treats, especially at Christmas.

The making ready for Christmas was always a delight to me. .... the pleasant odours that filled the house and the tidbits that were given to Martha Washington and me to keep us quiet. We were sadly in the way, but that did not interfere with our pleasure in the least.

Martha was valued by Helen particularly because Martha understood Helen's signs, so Helen was able to communicate. Martha Washington appears only briefly for a short time at the beginning of Helen's recollections.

In those days ... Martha Washington, the child of our cook, and Belle, an old setter and a great hunter in her day, were my constant companions. Martha Washington understood my signs, and I seldom had any difficulty in making her do just as I wished. It pleased me to domineer over her, and she generally submitted to my tyranny....

Martha Washington and an old and lazy setter named Belle were the two companions Helen had. Belle of course could not understand Helen's signs (not for want of trying to teach her). Martha of course could understand Helen's signs, such as when the hen laid her eggs out and about the grounds and Helen wanted to hunt them. Helen would make fists and put them on the grass. Martha immediately understood the fists meant "eggs" and the grass meant "let's hunt!"

Very different in appearance, Martha and Helen were much alike in interests. Both were curious and didn't mind crossing the line between curiousness and trouble, such as when they crossed from cutting paper dolls to cutting their shoelaces to cutting each other's hair. Helen cut Martha's black braids, then Martha cut Helen's golden curls (or at least one before Helen's mother stopped their play).

Martha loved the out-of-doors, as did Helen. Martha and she explored in the corn storage sheds, the horses stables and the cow yard. Together they pestered the milkman and the cows being milked. The cows defended themselves against the two small nature lovers when they "switched" their tails at the two curious girls.

The sheds where the corn was stored, the stable where the horses were kept, and the yard where the cows were milked morning and evening were unfailing sources of interest to Martha and me.

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Martha Washington was a young African American child who lived on the Keller homestead.  She was the daughter of the family cook.  Helen Keller described Martha Washington as being "black as ebony, with little bunches of fuzzy hair tied with shoestrings sticking out all over her head like corkscrews."  Helen would have known what her friend's hair was like by touching it.  Martha Washington was several years older than Helen.

Young Helen Keller was very bossy with Martha Washington.  The little girl "understood [Helen's] signs," which were a makeshift method of communication.  Helen often got her own way when she was with Martha Washington.  Helen's friend was much more timid than she was.  Despite this, they were good friends.  The two girls "spent a great deal of time in the kitchen, kneading dough balls, helping make ice-cream, grinding coffee, quarreling over the cake-bowl, and feeding the hens and turkeys that swarmed about the kitchen steps."  One day they snatched a freshly baked cake from the kitchen and consumed it all, which made them sick.

Like Helen, Martha Washington "had [a] great... love of mischief."  They often got into trouble.  They enjoyed cutting out paper dolls with scissors.  One day Helen decided to cut off some of Martha Washington's hair with the scissors.

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

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

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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From The Story of My Life, write a character sketch of Martha Washington in Helen's life. 

Martha Washington was the African-American daughter of Helen Keller's cook, and she was Helen Keller's best friend when Helen was little. Martha and Helen often played with Belle, Helen's dog, and Martha understood all of Helen's signs. Martha also gave into Helen's wishes, and the two girls played in the kitchen, kneading dough, making ice cream, and feeding the chickens and turkeys. 

Martha understood what Helen wanted to do, and, for example, she comprehended that Helen wanted to look for guinea-fowl eggs when Helen put her hands on the ground. Martha also experienced the wonders of Christmas with Helen, who did not yet understand the holiday. The two girls were allowed to grind spices and lick spoons as holiday treats were prepared. Martha was Helen's constant companion in mischief; for example, Helen once cut off Martha's hair, and Martha retaliated by cutting off Helen's hair. Martha was able to understand Helen as only another child could, and she offered companionship, fun, and understanding to Helen when Helen could not really communicate well with the adults in her life yet. 

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From The Story of My Life, write a character sketch of Martha Washington in Helen's life. 

In The Story of My Life by Helen Keller, Helen provides insight into her successes, the lessons learnt and also into her relationships while growing up as a blind and deaf girl. Helen struggles to communicate, and as she gets older her outbursts occur more and more frequently until "the most important day I remember in all my life" (chapter 4). Annie Sullivan's arrival marks the beginning of Helen's journey into language and communication.

However, before Annie arrives, Helen is friends with Martha, the cook's daughter and the two girls get up to mischief together which is probably one of the reasons why Helen relates so well to her and appreciates her capacity for having fun. Helen loves the fact that Martha is a mischief-maker, and despite their cultural differences (relevant to the time period), Martha understands Helen and needs little explanation of what Helen may want even recognizing when Helen wants to go "egg-hunting," for example. Martha plays with Helen, bakes with her in the kitchen, indulges her, understands her signs and allows her to dominate their games. This indicates that Martha is intuitive, even at such a young age, patient (still being friends with Helen despite her temper) and understanding. 

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