The Story of My Life was published in the year 1902 when Helen Keller (1880-1968) was still a college student. It is the autobiography of a young girl, almost a teenager, who made learning the be-all and end-all of her life. She wanted to acquire the light of knowledge spite the loss of her eyesight and her sense of hearing at the age of nineteen months following an acute illness. “Debarred from the great highways of knowledge”. as she says, she was “compelled to make the journey across country by unfrequented roads.” Ultimately, by a process of slow and painstaking effort, she succeeded in getting herself admitted into Radcliffe College, a pioneer in women’s education in America, in 1900, at the age of 20 and became, four years later, its first deaf and blind student to have passed the B.A. Examinations with Honours.
So the “story”, as Helen Keller narrates it, is not just an autobiography; it is the story of a struggle between the power of the human will and the limiting circumstances of life made doubly difficult by early deprivations. The struggle ends in the victory of the will power over the obstacles created by physical disabilities.
It was the passion for knowledge that dominated Helen’s mind since her childhood. It controlled all her activities. Every line of the book vibrates with the feelings and emotions of a mind eager to learn—to learn everything that could be learned under the sun. Nothing could deflect her from the course she had chosen. In this quest for knowledge, Helen was ably guided by her teacher Miss Anne Sullivan, a godsend for her.
Deprived of her vision and hearing, Helen learned to rely more and more on her other senses—the sense of smell and the sense of touch. She recognized the flowers of her garden and the trees in the countryside by her sense of smell. She “felt”, with her whole being, the whistle of the pines, the rocking, and sinking of the great billows, and the roar of Niagara rolling up the beach. Over the years, these two senses became more and more powerful, They seemed to more than compensate for the lack of vision and hearing—such was the keenness with which Helen sought to learn. One may even say that it was the loss of sight which enabled her to “see” into the life of things and the loss of hearing made her “hear” the “inner melodies of spirit”. She saw and heard things that we, with all our senses perfectly in order, fail to see and hear.
For example, she “saw” the sun. Can we see it? Of all the objects of Nature, it is the sun that she loved the most. As she says, “It seemed to me that there could be nothing more beautiful than the sun, whose warmth makes all things grow”. The first connected sentence that she uttered was: “It is warm.” Indeed, the word “the sun”, in all its grammatical forms, occurs frequently throughout the book. The sun symbolizes Helen’s quest for knowledge, her unflagging zeal for the light of knowledge. At another level, the sun underscores her essentially sunny temperament, her optimism. It is the sunshine of optimism that helped her overcome the difficulties put in her way by her physical impairments.
More than a hundred years have passed since the publication of The Story of My Life. But the book has not dated. Each of the utterances she makes in the autobiography on the various issues of life is still-relevant. Her thoughts on the processes of learning and education in general, the role that Nature should be allowed to play in our lives, the disparities between sections of the population, the higher aims of life — every observation she makes in the book on these vital issues of life seems to be more relevant in today’s world than they were ever before.
Another factor that accounts for the continuing appeal of the book for readers throughout the world is the highly artistic narrative technique that Helen has employed in the book. It is indeed a “story”—a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end. An end that is no end, really, because the story of Helen’s life can have no end. It is the story of human endeavour struggling against the odds of life for centuries. She “transformed the prison of eternal silence into a world of light and beauty”, which is the aim and objective of human civilization.
The Story of My Life is a book for all. But it has a special significance for students who, like Helen, are engaged in the serious task of learning.