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Novel Summary

Chapter 1

Helen’s apprehension before writing her autobiography

Helen felt a kind of hesitation before she set on the task of penning down her autobiography and, thus, reveal the story of her life. In addition, the task itself was a difficult one for Helen: looking back, she could hardly distinguish between the facts and the fancies across the years. Furthermore, in the process of learning new things, she had forgotten many important incidents and experiences of her childhood.

Birth of Helen 

Helen Adams Keller was born on a plantation called Ivy Green in Tuscumbia, Alabama, on June 27, 1880. She was the eldest daughter of Captain Arthur H. Keller, a former officer of the Confederate Army, and Kate Adams. Helen was named after her grandmother, Helen Everett. Even as an infant, she showed signs of eagerness and independence. By the age of six months, Helen attracted everyone’s attention piping out words like “How d’ye” and “tea”.

Helen suffers an illness that leaves her deaf and blind

In February, 1882, at the age of nineteen months, Helen fell ill with “an acute congestion of the stomach and brain”, which could possibly have been scarlet fever or meningitis. This illness left her deaf and blind. Later on, her spirit was liberated from the “world of silence and darkness” by her teacher, Anne Sullivan.

Helen’s initial attempts to communicate

After her sickness, Helen started using “crude signs” to communicate with others. A shake of the head meant “No” and a nod “Yes”, a pull meant “Come” and a push, “Go”. If she wanted anything, she would imitate the relevant action. Her mother encouraged her by involving her in the household activities. This made Helen more observant of the actions performed by the people around her.

Observing herself as different from others

Helen started to observe that unlike her, other people did not use signs for communication but talked with their mouths. She realized that she was different from others. She attempted to copy them but in vain. At times, she released her frustration on her nurse, Elisa, by kicking and screaming at her until she felt exhausted. She regretted her misbehavior but did not try to change it.

Companionship with Martha Washington and Belle

Martha Washington was a little coloured girl who understood Helen’s signs. She was the cook’s daughter. Martha submissively obeyed Helen, who in turn enjoyed domineering over her. Both the girls spent a lot of time in the kitchen, kneading dough balls, grinding coffee, quarrelling over the cake bowl.

Helen enjoyed feeding the hens and turkeys, and feeling them as they ate from her hands. She also loved to hunt for guinea-fowl eggs in the long grass. Even though Helen could not understand Christmas per se, she enjoyed the preparations leading to that occasion.

One July afternoon, when Helen and Martha were bored of cutting paper dolls, they came up with the idea of cutting each other’s hair. Helen cut Martha’s hair and Martha cut off a curl of Helen’s. Martha would have cut them all if it weren’t for Helen’s mother’s timely intervention.

Belle was a lazy old dog and a companion of Helen. Despite of her attempts, it was inattentive to her signs and gestures. As a result, Helen would get frustrated and go looking for Martha.

Helen is saved by the nurse from getting burnt

Once, while drying her wet apron in front of the hearth, Helen ended up going too close to the fire. Her clothes caught fire. Fortunately, she was saved by the nurse, Viny, who threw a blanket around her to extinguish the fire. Except for her hands and hair, she was not badly burnt.

Discovering the use of a key: used as a tool for mischief

About that time, Helen found out the use of a key. The mischievous Helen played a prank on her mother by locking her in the pantry. After Miss Sullivan arrived to teach her, she played the same prank on her. Helen locked her teacher in her room and refused to reveal the hidden key. Eventually, her father had to intervene and take Miss Sullivan out of the room through the window.

When Helen was around five years old, the Keller family moved from the ‘little vine-covered house’ to a large new one.

The loving relationship between Helen and her father

Helen’s father was loving and indulgent. Helen was fond of the stories her father narrated to her by forming spellings on her hand. Her father in turn enjoyed Helen’s reiteration of these stories. Her father’s death in the summer of 1896 was Helen’s “first great sorrow-- [her] first personal experience with death.”

Helen’s relationship with her baby sister

Initially, Helen viewed her younger sister, Mildred, as an intruder. She felt that her sister got all the attention from her mother. Helen vented her frustration and showed her affection on her doll, Nancy. Once Helen overturned Nancy’s cradle in which her sister was sleeping. Fortunately, their mother’s timely arrival saved Mildred. Later, however, the love between the hearts of the two sisters prospered despite the fact that neither of them understood the language of the other.

The need for a better means of communication

Gradually, the few signs that were used by Helen to communicate became inadequate. Failure to get across her thoughts led to fits of anger and frustration in Helen. She felt miserable. As a result, it became imperative for her parents to find a teacher or a school for Helen so that she could learn a better means of communication.

Helen’s mother’s hope was aroused by an account she read in Dickens’s “American Notes” about the education of Laura Bridgeman, a deaf and blind student, by Dr. Howe. Unfortunately, his methods had possibly died with him. Besides, it would not be easy to find a teacher who would come to their distant town in Alabama to teach Helen.

The train journey to Baltimore 

Helen was six when her father decided to consult an oculist in Baltimore for the treatment of Helen’s sight. Helen enjoyed the new experiences during her trip. She was happy to receive a box of shells from a lady and a doll made out of towels from her aunt during the journey. She also played with the “punching machine” of the conductor. In fact, she did not experience any fits of temper during her journey as there were so many things to keep her mind and hands busy.

Exploring the possibilities of Helen’s education at Baltimore

At Baltimore, Dr. Chisholm said that there was nothing he could do about Helen’s sight. However, he advised Helen’s father to consult Dr. Alexander Graham Bell of Washington, who would be able to guide them in regards to the education of Helen.

Meeting Dr. Bell was a great experience for…

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