The Story of My Life Themes
The main themes in The Story of My Life are education in special circumstances, perseverance against the odds, and human kindness.
- Education in special circumstances: Keller believes in the primary importance of education, whatever one’s limitations.
- Perseverance against the odds: Despite her difficulties, Keller describes her experiences in overcoming hardship with a positive tone.
- Human kindness: Keller’s sketches of other people are characterized by warmth and good nature, and she believes that others’ kindness has made her life beautiful and worthy.
Education in Special Circumstances
When Keller’s parents take her to see the oculist Dr. Chisholm, he tells them that he is unable to restore Keller’s sight but points out that this does not prevent her from being educated. From this moment onward, education is the principal subject of the book. Keller describes in detail how she learned to read and then devotes a great deal of space to what she read and the effects this reading had on her. In literature alone, she becomes familiar with the Bible, Homer, Virgil, and a host of French, German, British, and American writers. Keller also read a great deal of history and even studied subjects she does not particularly like, such as mathematics. Though her family lives in Alabama, she spent a significant portion of her life away at school in Boston and New York.
This emphasis on education is only to be expected in the autobiography of a writer, but Keller clearly faced exceptional challenges in her education. Aside from Keller herself, the most significant and memorable figure in the book is her first teacher, Miss Sullivan, and Keller describes the day Sullivan arrived in Tuscumbia to teach her as the most important day of her life. The major breakthroughs in Keller’s education are some of the highlights of the book, by the end of which she is studying with seeing and hearing students at one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the country. It is also striking that, while she mentions having friends of her own age, Keller devotes far more space and attention to those adults who took her education in hand: not only Sullivan but also Alexander Graham Bell, Sarah Fuller, Merton S. Keith, and her lecturers at Radcliffe.
Perseverance Against the Odds
At every stage of Helen Keller’s educational progress, she was beset by difficulties that would have caused many people to give up. She describes how difficult it was for her to learn to speak by feeling the position of her teacher’s lips and tongue and says that even after a great deal of work, her speech was still incomprehensible to anyone except her teachers. The lack of books in raised lettering or braille meant that Keller often had to have large amounts of text laboriously spelled out into her hand. A characteristic instance of the type of difficulty she had to face occurred when she discovered that the algebra paper for the Radcliffe entrance examination was written in an unfamiliar form of braille. She then had to learn this notation the night before the exam.
Against all these difficulties, Keller persevered to gain an education that would be regarded as excellent by any standards. Although she attended special schools for the blind and the deaf, she was particularly excited to go to schools (and eventually college) with other girls who could see and hear, where she was able to measure her achievements against theirs.
Although the difficulties she describes lie chiefly in the area of education, Keller also refers to many other activities, such as climbing trees and swimming in the ocean, which were initially frightening but came to be sources of joy after she persevered. The tone of the book, therefore, is overwhelmingly positive and free from self-pity. Keller describes a great many difficulties, but never one that she cannot surmount.
It is a striking feature of the book that it contains no villains. Even during Keller’s...
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