The Story of My Life

The Story of My Life Summary and Analysis of Part I: Chapters 13-17


The next stage of Helen's education is learning to speak. Previously, she had been fascinated by noise and speech, even though she couldn't hear it; she used to sit in her mother's lap and keep her hands on her face to feel the motions of her lips when she spoke. She also made her own sounds as a child, though they were not words. She laughed and cried normally, and made vocalizations not because she was trying to talk, but because it was part of exercising her vocal cords. Neither she nor her friends believed that speaking was even a feasible possibility for her.

This changed when a teacher named Mrs. Lamson came to see Helen and told her the story of Ragnhild Kaata, a deaf and blind girl in Norway who had been taught to speak. Helen immediately determined that she should learn, too, so Miss Sullivan took her to Miss Sarah Fuller at the Horace Mann School in the spring of 1890, where she began learning right away. Miss Fuller taught her by letting her feel the position of her own lips and tongue when she spoke, and Helen would try to imitate. The first connected sentence that Helen was able to speak was 'It is warm'. She says there is no deaf child who can forget the thrill and surprise of uttering their first word.

She had eleven lessons with Miss Fuller, but there was still a long way before she would be able to speak and be understood by anyone other than her teachers. Miss Sullivan took over, and devoted herself to patiently practicing and correcting every part of Helen's speech until she could be understood. It thrilled Helen to think that her little sister, Mildred, would be able to understand her now. When Helen returned home from the Horace Mann school, it was a joyful reunion, with her parents and Mildred stunned and thrilled by her newfound speech.

Chapter 9 tells the story of the winter of 1892, which was a troubling time for Helen. During an autumn at Fern Quarry she wrote a story called "The Frost King," seemingly inspired by the fall foliage around her, and sent it to Mr. Anagnos at the Perkins Institute as a gift. Mr. Anagnos loved it and was very impressed, so he published the story in one of the Institute's reports. Not long after, however, it was discovered that a very similar story called "The Frost Fairies" existed in a book that was published long before Helen wrote her story. Helen could not remember hearing such a story, but Mr. Anagnos came to think he had been deceived, and that Helen and Miss Sullivan had deliberately taken the words from "The Frost Fairies."

Helen was investigated by a court comprised of the teachers and officers of the Perkins Institute, and it took a toll on her morale, as she felt horribly that such a thing had happened. Miss Sullivan had never heard of "The Frost Fairies," either. Eventually, it comes out that Mrs. Sophia C. Hopkins had read books to Helen during the summer she spent at Brewster while Miss Sullivan was away on vacation, and "The Frost Fairies" must have been one of those. The strange words had remained in Helen's mind, though she did not realize it.

Helen was forgiven, but the experience left her afraid to write for a long while, terrified even when writing a letter that the words were not her own. Examining many of her early compositions, she found other instances of unwitting plagiarism, since as she was first learning to read and write she was enthralled by the language and ideas of books and these elements unknowingly found their way into her own work through imitation. The biggest consequence of this incident was the loss of Mr. Anagnos as a friend, since he never seemed to hold a favorable view of her again in the aftermath.

1893 was an eventful year for Helen. She visited Washington during the inauguration of President Cleveland, and also took a trip to Niagara Falls and to the World's Fair. Niagara Falls impressed her with its might, even though she could not see or hear it, and she loved feeling the air vibrate and the earth tremble with its power. She was similarly mesmerized by the World's Fair, which she visited with Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. Each day she made a trip around the world in her imagination, and she was able to encounter the places she read about in her books through the exhibitions at the fair. She learned so much during her three weeks at the fair, and her childhood interest in fairy tales and toys evolved into a more mature interest in the workings of the world.

That year, Helen began to formally study specific subjects like history, arithmetic, French, and Latin. Though she did not appreciate its nuances at first, she eventually took a great liking to Latin, fascinated by the beauty of the language. In fall 1894, she attended the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf in New York City, where she studied German for the first time with Miss Reamy, who could sign the manual alphabet in German to her. There she studied French as well, but this was much more difficult for Helen because she had to learn by reading her teacher's lips. Helen had a harder time fine-tuning her speaking than her teachers had anticipated, though she continuously persevered, determined to speak like other people.

While in New York, Helen threw herself into her other studies, particularly enjoying physical geography because of her fascination with nature. Central Park was her favorite place in New York City, and she never grew tired of visiting it. Her happy days in New York were darkened by the death of Mr. John P. Spaulding in February 1896, who was a dear friend of hers and Miss Sullivan's.


Helen's deep desire to learn how to speak shows she is determined not just to function, but also to raise herself to the standard of everyone around her. She seeks not only to be a successful deaf-blind person, but also to be a successful person in general; to do that, she must be able to communicate to the fullest extent. This perseverance is what makes Helen Keller's story so extraordinary: throughout her education, she would not settle, constantly striving to achieve what was seemingly impossible for someone with her handicaps.

The "Frost King" incident is one of the most important stories in this autobiography. First, Helen's decision to include it shows she is comfortable with making herself vulnerable. As she mentions numerous times, the experience humiliated her, so it is certainly a difficult thing to reflect on. Even more significantly, though, this incident is a moment of mature insight for Helen. She loses some of her childhood innocence and levity when she realizes her mind can betray her in this way, concocting words and stories that are not her own. These missteps are just as vital to Helen's coming-of-age as her successes, and Helen acknowledges that this experience has taught her to be more cautious in her words and her writing.

When she discusses her lessons in Latin, Helen remarks upon the beauty of learning language, saying "There is nothing more beautiful, I think, than the evanescent fleeting images and sentiments presented by a language one is just becoming familiar with—ideas that flit across the mental sky, shaped and tinted by capricious fancy" (pg. 32). She appreciates language so much because it was previously closed off to her, and can understand its complexities more thoroughly than a hearing and sighted person because she has had to work so hard to acquire it. Learning to communicate was such a rewarding and triumphant process for her that, once she mastered English, she sought to challenge herself by learning other languages as well, eager to further expand her world by acquiring an entirely new vocabulary to interpret it.

A recurring motif in this memoir is Helen's relationship with nature. She is happiest when interacting with the natural world, and in these chapters we see this when she moves among the fall foliage at Fern Quarry, when she visits Niagara Falls, and when she discusses her fascination with learning physical geography and visiting Central Park while living in New York. Nature is something that Helen has always been able to experience, even when many other things in her world were closed off to her. Her senses of touch and smell are enough to give her a full idea of the beauty and power of the outdoors, and being outside soothes her in a way that the stress of a manmade environment cannot.

Though Helen speaks about herself quite often, a huge portion of this memoir is devoted to discussing her friends and the way the shaped her life. There are, of course, her teachers, like Miss Sullivan and the instructors at Horace Mann and the Perkins Institute who have contributed directly to her education. But there are also those who, through support, love, and encouragement, have shaped her in other profound ways. Helen recognizes that her success is partly a product of the people who have nurtured her along the way, and this wise awareness is reflected in the devoted way in which she speaks about her dear friends.