In the last lines of her autobiography, Helen Keller reflects on how her friends “have made the story of [her] life.” She knows that it is only through friendship and community that her achievements have been made possible, and she spends the last several pages of the text gratefully thanking her friends. Specifically, she is grateful to have been able to feel part of a community despite the often-isolating nature of her existence. In this way, Keller suggests that it is not one’s achievements, nor intelligence, nor wealth which make the “story” of a life worthwhile—it is the relationships one forges, the love one shares, and the goodwill one shows to others which make a life whole.
Helen’s first and best friend is her teacher, Anne Sullivan, who was sent to be her instructor and companion when she was just six years old. When speaking of Miss Sullivan, Helen writes: “My teacher is so near to me that I scarcely think of myself apart from her” and “there is not a talent, or an inspiration or a joy in me that has not awakened by her loving touch.” At the time of the memoir’s composition, Miss Sullivan was still Helen’s companion, and had travelled with her to Cambridge to help her pursue her studies at the Cambridge School for Girls and Radcliffe College. As Helen, composing her memoir, considered the most profound influences on her existence and the anecdotes which would make up the “story of her life,” it becomes clear that Anne Sullivan’s patience, love, and grace form the cornerstones of Helen’s achievements, and are the greatest source of inspiration and comfort to her throughout the years. Miss Sullivan is present on nearly every page of the book—she accompanies Helen everywhere, teaches her about nature, language, literature, feelings, communication, and companionship, and encourages her to persevere in the face of difficulty, doubt, and fear of failure. Miss Sullivan is the most important figure in Helen’s life, and throughout the memoir the love between Miss Sullivan and Helen is portrayed as mutual and deep.
As Helen’s story progresses, she finds herself in pursuit not just of knowledge or a means of self-expression but of community. This becomes available to her first at the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston and at the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf in New York City. Helen and her classmates at both schools take excursions to Plymouth Rock and cities along the Hudson River, respectively, and Helen experiences many “bright days” in the company of her new friends and teachers as they explore the world together.
One of Helen’s closest and most unlikely friends is the famous inventor, Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. It is through Bell that the Keller family was able to find Anne Sullivan and bring her to Alabama to instruct Helen. Helen describes Bell as a sensitive and magnanimous individual who delighted in the presence of children and who, throughout her life, supported and helped educate her, bringing her along to the World’s Fair in 1893 and introducing her to “objects of great interest.” Keller remarks on Bell’s charitable nature and passion for helping children living with disabilities, and it is perhaps “his labours on behalf of the deaf” and “what he has evoked from others” which inspired Helen’s early forays into charitable work.
Though Helen was still a young woman in college while writing The Story of My Life, she speaks of visiting with the poor and being “haunted” by the struggle of their existence. “Their life seems an immense disparity between effort and opportunity,” she writes. In reflecting on her interactions with the poor, Helen recognizes her own good fortune and implies that this is the reason for her connection to the downtrodden: Helen, born as she was to well-off parents, was able to receive treatment for her illness, special education in the wake of her affliction, and opportunities to travel, learn, and grow all across the country. Her charitable instincts and desire to perform acts of goodwill even at a young age perhaps stem from this recognition of her own relative good fortune in matters of wealth. She developed a strong desire to pass along to others the goodwill and kindnesses which found their way to her through the love and support of people like Anne Sullivan and Dr. Bell.
As Helen Keller pushed through obstacle after obstacle toward her goals of attending Harvard, speaking aloud, and writing a book, she recognized each and every step of the way that her goals were only made possible through the support of her friends and the strength of her community. This, in turn, developed in her an awareness of the importance of performing acts of goodwill toward the less fortunate. Keller describes herself as “indebted” to the influence and goodwill of her friends toward the end of her memoir, and acknowledges that the depths of her friendships are so great that there are things “too sacred to set forth in cold print.” Despite her considerable setbacks and disadvantages, there is so much she is grateful for. Above all, friendship is the thing that has made Helen’s life whole and “enable[d her] to walk serene and happy in the shadow cast by [her] deprivation.”
Friendship, Community, and Goodwill ThemeTracker
Friendship, Community, and Goodwill Quotes in The Story of My Life
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? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding-line, and had no way of knowing how near the harbor was. “Light! Give me light!” was the wordless cry of my soul, and the light of love shone on me in that very hour.
My teacher is so near to me that I scarcely think of myself apart from her. How much of my delight in all beautiful things is innate, and how much is due to her influence, I can never tell. I feel that her being is inseparable from my own, and that the footsteps of my life are in hers. All the best of me belongs to her—there is not a talent, or an inspiration or a joy in me that has not awakened by her loving touch.
My work was practice, practice, practice. Discouragement and weariness cast me down frequently; but the next moment the thought that I should soon be at home and show my loved ones what I had accomplished spurred me on, and I eagerly looked forward to their pleasure in my achievement.
“My little sister will understand me now,” was a thought stronger than all obstacles. I used to repeat ecstatically, “I am not dumb now.” I could not be despondent while I anticipated the delight of talking to my mother and reading her responses from her lips.
Miss Canby [the author of “The Frost Fairies”] herself wrote kindly, “Some day you will write a great story out of your own head, that will be a comfort and help to many.” But this kind prophecy has never been fulfilled. I have never played with words again for the mere pleasure of the game. Indeed, I have ever since been tortured by the fear that what I write is not my own. For a long time, when I wrote a letter, even to my mother, I was seized with a sudden feeling of terror, and I would spell the sentences over and over, to make sure that I had not read them in a book. Had it not been for the persistent encouragement of Miss Sullivan, I think I should have given up trying to write altogether.
I remember my first day at Radcliffe. It was a day full of interest for me. I had looked forward to it for years. A potent force within me, stronger than the persuasion of my friends, stronger even than the pleadings of my heart, had impelled me to try my strength by the standards of those who see and hear. I knew that there were many obstacles in the way; but I was eager to overcome them. I had taken to heart the words of the wise Roman who said, “To be banished from Rome is but to live outside of Rome.” Debarred from the great highways of knowledge, I was compelled to make the journey across by unfrequented roads—that was all; and I knew that in college there were many bypaths where I could touch hands with girls who were thinking, loving and struggling like me.
While my days at Radcliffe were still in the future, they were encircled with a halo of romance, which they have lost; but in the transition from romantic to actual I have learned many things I should never have known had I not tried the experiment. One of them is the precious science of patience, which teaches us that we should take our education as we would take a walk in the country, leisurely, our minds hospitably open to impressions of every sort. Such knowledge floods the soul unseen with a soundless tidal wave of deepening thought. “Knowledge is power.” Rather, knowledge is happiness, because to have knowledge—broad, deep knowledge—is to know true ends from false, and lofty things from low. To know the thoughts and deeds that have marked man’s progress is to feel the great heart-throbs of humanity through the centuries; and if one does not feel in these pulsations a heavenward striving, one must indeed be deaf to the harmonies of life.
I read [books] in the intervals between study and play with an ever-deepening sense of pleasure. I did not study nor analyze them—I did not know whether they were well written or not; I never thought about style or authorship. They laid their treasures at my feet, and I accepted them as we accept the sunshine and the love of our friends. I loved Little Women because it gave me a sense of kinship with girls and boys who could see and hear. Circumscribed as my life was in so many ways, I had to look between the covers of books for news of the world that lay outside my own.
In a word, literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourse of my book-friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. The things I have learned and the things I have been taught seem of ridiculously little importance compared with their “large loves and heavenly charities.”
Is it no true, then, that my life with all its limitations touches at many points the life of the World Beautiful? Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content. Sometimes, it is true, a sense of isolation enfolds me like a cold mist as I sit alone and wait at life’s shut gate. Beyond there is light, and music, and sweet companionship; but I may not enter. Fate, silent, pitiless, bars the way. Fain would I question his imperious decree; for my heart is still undisciplined and passionate; but my tongue will not utter the bitter, futile words that rise to my lips, and they fall back into my heart like unshed tears. Silence sits immense upon my soul. Then comes hope with a smile and whispers, “There is joy in self-forgetfulness.” So I try to make the light in others’ eyes my sun, the music in others’ ears my symphony, the smile on others’ lips my happiness.
Thus it is that my friends have made the story of my life. In a thousand ways they have turned my limitations into beautiful privileges, and enabled me to walk serene and happy in the shadow cast by my deprivation.