Stories formed the foundation of much of the young Helen Keller’s life. Children’s stories, classic plays, and the literature of Louisa May Alcott and Frances Hodgson Burnett greatly shaped Keller’s imagination and her grasp of language alike. The stories Anne Sullivan told Helen were most often rooted in nature and the world around her. By telling Helen stories about the world she lived in, Miss Sullivan accomplished a task which seemed nearly impossible: she communicated to an individual without the powers of sight or hearing the beauty, wonder, and terror of the world around her. As Keller tells the story of her life—communicating her story to readers just as the story of the world was communicated to her—she displays a remarkable command of language, an intense communion with the natural world despite her inability to see or hear it, and a burning desire to find new ways of communicating with the world. Through her memoir, she shows how the drive toward self-expression and communication is not only one of the strongest forces in her own life, but in the human spirit more generally. Keller argues that for all of humanity, stories are both the most profound and the most effective method of communication we have.
Many of the stories Keller shares are about the joys of communication itself, and the ways in which Keller learned how to express herself to the world around her. The story of Miss Sullivan spelling “water” into Helen’s hand while holding it beneath a water pump, which was made famous by William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker, is barely more than a blip in Helen’s narrative. She tells stories of exploring nature, her love of animals, and her frightful experience with thunderstorms and rip tides, using these tales to create metaphors for the insufficiencies, difficulties, and fears inherent in human communication and connection. The story of Helen’s young life is the story of her journey toward full and complete self-expression, and through the stories she shares throughout this memoir she establishes how important storytelling has been to her sense of being a complete person.
One of the many stories Keller shares is a story about a story. She reflects on a time when she composed a short story called “The Frost King” and sent it to Mr. Anagnos at the Perkins Institution for his birthday in order to show off her writing and communication skills, and to thank him for his part in helping them develop. The story was so good that Anne even asked Helen if she had read it in a book, but Helen insisted that the story was her own. Anagnos, impressed by the story, published it in one of the Perkins Institution newsletters, and this made Helen gleeful. However, Helen soon discovered that the story which she believed to be her own was an inadvertent plagiarism. When Helen came across a story called “The Frost Fairies” by another writer, she realized that the story had been told to her in childhood and she had internalized it very deeply. Helen was shattered by this discovery of her inadvertent theft and the resulting disciplinary measures the institution took against her, and for a long time thereafter questioned everything she wrote, wondering if she was accidentally stealing her words and sentences from someone else. This story, which is relayed at the midway point of the memoir, serves to both metaphorically and literally illustrate the risks of failure inherent in communication. It also demonstrates the seriousness with which Helen approached storytelling, and the reverence she had for other people’s stories most of all.
Keller highlights the fact that The Story of My Life is a memoir largely about the role storytelling has played in her life when, at the start of the book, she informs her readers that “in order not to be tedious,” she will present “in a series of sketches only the episodes that seem to me to be the most interesting and important.” Thus, each chapter can be read as a story meant to communicate an idea, a lesson, or a value. Just as Keller’s education was based largely in the use of stories to communicate lessons and ideals, she has constructed a narrative which is laid out in that same way, and which reinforces her argument that the drive to share stories is both a powerful instinct and a powerful social tool.
Keller’s argument that stories are the most vital and meaningful means of communication, and that the drive to share stories is a force often stronger than nature itself, is reflected in the thoughtful, open, joyful pages of The Story of My Life. Keller understands that the chance to share her story is a gift—she has longed all her life simply to be in communication with the world around her and to add her story to the innumerable collection of stories that make up the human experience. By setting her own story down and inviting readers to engage with it, she both accomplishes her own goal and urges others to pursue it.
Storytelling and Communication ThemeTracker
Storytelling and Communication Quotes in The Story of My Life
It is with a kind of fear that I begin to write the history of my life. I have, as it were, a superstitious hesitation in lifting the veil that clings about my childhood like a golden mist. The task of writing an autobiography is a difficult one. When I try to classify my earliest impressions, I find that fact and fancy look alike across the years that link the past with the present. The woman paints the child’s experiences in her own fantasy. A few impressions stand out vividly from the first years of my life; but “the shadows of the prison-house are on the rest.” Besides, many of the joys and sorrows of childhood have lost their poignancy; and many incidents of vital importance in my early education have been forgotten in the excitement of great discoveries. In order, therefore, not to be tedious I shall try to present in a series of sketches only the episodes that seem to me to be the most interesting and important.
One of my Swiss ancestors was the first teacher of the deaf in Zurich and wrote a book on the subject of their education—rather a singular coincidence; though it is true that there is no king who has not had a slave among his ancestors, and no slave who has not had a king among his.
I fancy I still have confused recollections of that illness. I especially remember the tenderness with which my mother tried to soothe me in my waking hours of fret and pain, and the agony and bewilderment with which I awoke after a tossing half sleep, and turned my eyes, so dry and hot, to the wall, away from the once-loved light, which came to me dim and yet more dim each day. But, except for these fleeting memories, if, indeed, they be memories, it all seems very unreal, like a nightmare. Gradually I got used to the silence and darkness that surrounded me and forgot that it had ever been different, until she came—my teacher—who was to set my spirit free. But during the first nineteen months of my life I had caught glimpses of broad, green fields, a luminous sky, trees and flowers which the darkness that followed could not wholly blot out. If we have once seen, “the day is ours, and what the day has shown.”
I had known for a long time that the people about me used a method of communication different from mine; and even before I knew that a deaf child could be taught to speak, I was conscious of dissatisfaction with the means of communication I already possessed. One who is entirely dependent upon the manual alphabet has always a sense of restraint, of narrowness. This feeling began to agitate me with a vexing, forward-reaching sense of a lack that should be filled.
I would not rest satisfied until my teacher took me, for advice and assistance, to Miss Sarah Fuller, principal of the Horace Mann School. This lovely, sweet-natured lady offered to teach me herself, and we began the twenty-sixth of March, 1890. Miss Fuller’s method was this: she passed my hand lightly over her face, and let me feel the position of her tongue and lips when she made a sound. I was eager to imitate every motion and in an hour had learned six elements of speech. Miss Fuller gave me eleven lessons in all. I shall never forget the surprise and delight I felt when I uttered my first connected sentence, “It is warm.” True, they were broken and stammering syllables, but they were human speech. My soul, conscious of new strength, came out of bondage, and was reaching through those broken symbols of speech to all knowledge and face. […] As I talked, happy thoughts fluttered up out of my words that might perhaps have struggled in vain to escape my fingers.
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.
The stories [from “Birdie and His Friends”] had little or no meaning for me then, but the mere spelling of the strange words was sufficient to amuse a little who could who could do almost nothing to amuse herself; and although I do not recall a single circumstance connected with the reading of the stories, yet I cannot help thinking that I made a great effort to remember the words.… One thing is certain, the language was ineffaceably stamped upon my brain, though for a long time no one knew it, least of all myself.
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 was learning, as all young and inexperienced persons learn, by assimilation and imitation, to put ideas into words. Everything I found in books that pleased me I retained in my memory, consciously or unconsciously, and adapted it. The young writer, as Stevenson has said, instinctively tries to copy whatever seems most admirable, and he shifts his admiration with astonishing versatility. It is only after years of this sort of practice that even great men have learned to marshal the legion of words which come thronging through every byway of the mind. I am afraid I have not yet completed this process. It is certain that I cannot always distinguish my own thoughts from those I read, because what I read becomes the very substance and texture of my mind. […] But we keep on trying because we know that others have succeeded, and we are not willing to acknowledge defeat.
It seems strange to many people that I should be impressed by the wonders and beauties of Niagara. They are always asking: what does this beauty or that music mean to you? You cannot see the waves rolling up the beach or hear their roar. What do they mean to you?” In the most evident sense they mean everything. I cannot fathom or define their meaning any more than I can fathom or define love or religion or goodness.
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.