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The Story of My Life

by Helen Keller

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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.

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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.

Human Kindness

It is a striking feature of the book that it contains no villains. Even during Keller’s darkest episode, when she is accused of plagiarizing “The Frost King,” she depicts her antagonists as decent, well-intentioned people, anxious to do the right thing. Her main concern is that she has disappointed them. Even the author of the story she unconsciously copied is kind and understanding.

Throughout the book, every character sketch that is more than a couple of lines in length contains warm praise of the person described, and the quality most often singled out for praise is that person’s kindness to the author. Keller expresses tremendous gratitude to all those who have helped her, ending the book on this note by thanking the many friends who “have turned my limitations into beautiful privileges, and enabled me to walk serene and happy in the shadow cast by my deprivation.”

Transcendent Experiences

Helen Keller clearly understands that most seeing and hearing people are so dependent on those two senses that they find it almost impossible to imagine her experience of life. For instance, when she expresses her joy at being in the countryside, they do not understand how the country is different from the city for one who cannot experience the sights and sounds of either. However, Keller describes several experiences in which she felt such joy that the lack of sight and sound no longer mattered. These peak experiences include climbing a tree and finally finding a perch high up in the branches where she would sit for hours, “feeling like a fairy on a rosy cloud.” She also describes a more dynamic version of this feeling when she talks about tobogganing:

What joy! What exhilarating madness! For one wild, glad moment we snapped the chain that binds us to earth, and joining hands with the winds we felt ourselves divine!

Apart from her love of the countryside, and activities such as tree-climbing, tobogganing, swimming, and boating, Keller describes deriving a similar transcendent happiness from her reading, saying that among her “book friends,” she entirely forgets her disabilities and is perfectly happy. The frequency and power of these experiences in Keller’s life have a profound effect in making her story a fundamentally uplifting one.

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