“…there is no king who has not had a slave among his ancestors, and no slave who has not had a king among his.”
Less than a page into the book, Helen Keller offers this brilliant metaphor that boils down the essential quality of being human and puts a sharp sword into every single argument supporting purity of blood. Keller is suggesting in her usual poetic way one of the essential truths of being: we are all connected. Potential is in no way afforded or limited by the circumstances of one’s birth because, in one way or another, we are all connected to both kings and slaves. This truth is important to Helen's own story, because she does not allow herself to be set back by the condition that befalls her.
“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 harbour was.”
In this quote, Helen masterfully employs metaphor to explain what the world was like for her before she began her education. Without the ability to communicate with and understand those around her, she was entirely in the dark, similar to being on a ship shrouded in fog without any sense of direction. Miss Sullivan's arrival gave Helen the ability to navigate in spite of this darkness, empowering her to set her sights on lofty goals that she would one day be able to reach.
“Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.”
This quote encompasses the moment when Helen finally realizes what she is learning. Before this point, she had imitated Miss Sullivan spelling words into her hand without understanding how they were connected to the objects she gave her. She at last makes the connection when Miss Sullivan places one of her hands under a water spout, and spells w-a-t-e-r into the other. This moment of understanding stands out in Helen's memory as one of the highest points in her education.
“Suddenly a change passed over the tree. All the sun's warmth left the air. I knew the sky was black, because all the heat, which meant light to me, had died out of the atmosphere. A strange odour came up from the earth. I knew it, it was the odour that always precedes a thunderstorm, and a nameless fear clutched at my heart.”
Fear clutches at Helen’s heart because she is alone and she senses a thunderstorm is about to place her in danger. This passage is wonderfully expressive and provides a tactile example of the oft-repeated assertion that when you lose one of your senses, you are forced to become more attuned to your remaining senses. With this experience, she learns that, while nature is beautiful, it is also powerful—and it will not always be on her side.
“I read`King Lear’ soon after`Macbeth,’ and I shall never forget the feeling of horror when I came to the scene in which Gloucester's eyes are put out. Anger seized me, my fingers refused to move, I sat rigid for one long moment, the blood throbbing in my temples, and all the hatred that a child can feel concentrated in my heart.”
Helen has a visceral reaction to reading this graphic Shakespeare scene, and this experience illustrates how profound an impact the books she reads have on her. After she learns to read, Helen can experience books the way any other person can. When she immerses herself in a book, she is not handicapped in any way, able to live vicariously through the characters, feeling their pain and triumph.
"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."
Helen finishes her personal memoir with this quote, one that acknowledges not her own abilities and achievements, but rather the friends who helped her to get to this place. Helen speaks extremely highly of her friends throughout her autobiography, making it clear that she understands that her success is in part because of their dedication to her. The story of her life is actually the story of many lives that came together to push her towards her goals.
"It is warm."
This is Helen's first spoken sentence, uttered in 1890 when she was learning to speak with the help of Miss Fuller at the Horace Mann School. Though it is a simple sentence, this moment has remained ingrained in Helen's mind throughout her life, because, as she points out, a deaf child never forgets the first words she speaks. Despite her determination, no one really expected Helen to be able to learn to speak clearly—these words were the first step on her journey to proving them wrong.
"I think if this sorrow had come to me when I was older, it would have broken my spirit beyond repairing. But the angel of forgetfulness has gathered up and carried away much of the misery and all the bitterness of those days."
The incident with Helen's "The Frost King" plagiarism significantly scarred her spirit, leaving her with a deep distrust of her own mind and its ability to create original words. In this quote, though, she acknowledges how time has allowed her to recover from such a disheartening experience because she was young at the time it happened. This is another example of the way children are able to adapt and recover quickly, constantly looking forward, whereas adults often get hung up on events of the past.
"When the train at last pulled into the station at Boston it was as if a beautiful fairy tale had come true. The "once upon a time" was now; the "far-away country" was here."
Here, Helen beautifully describes her feelings of awe and excitement as she arrived in Boston for the first time. This was her first trip outside of Alabama, something that may have once seemed impossible for a child who could neither see nor hear. Her choice to compare her arrival to a fairy tale from a story book is also significant, since it emphasizes how books, for her, were a gold standard, a vessel through which she could understand and interpret the world.
"I never taught language for the purpose of teaching it; but invariably used language as a medium for the communication of thought; thus the learning of language was coincident with the acquisition of knowledge."
This quote is one of Miss Sullivan's teaching adages from her reports on the early days of Helen's learning. She reveals that she was so successful in teaching language to Helen because she taught language as a tool with which to acquire more knowledge, rather than as a stand-alone lesson in itself. By enabling Helen to use language to discover more things about her world, she was able to guide the young girl to a level of language acquisition that had never been expected of her.
The Story of My Life Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Story of My Life is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
In a previous letter I think I wrote you that "mug" and "milk" had given Helen more trouble than all the rest. She confused the nouns with the verb "drink." She didn't know the word for "drink," but went through the pantomime of...