Please go through this excerpt from "The Story of My Life" by Helen Keller:

The hands of those I meet are dumbly eloquent to me. The touch of some hands is an impertinence. I have met people so empty of joy, that when I clasped their frosty fingertips, it seemed as if I were shaking hands with a north east storm.

I understand the literal meaning of dumbly eloquent here. The word eloquent means fluent or persuasive in speaking or writing. So dumbly eloquent means the speech or literature are so persuasive and fluent that addresses all your questions and make you speechless. Eloquent relates to speech and writing. However, Helen Keller was unable to see and hear, and could only perceive by her touch. How can someone who cannot see and listen feel the some attribute which can be perceived by seeing or hearing only? How does eloquent fit in this context? What is the exact meaning of the phrase dumbly eloquent in this context?

  • I think this is General Reference. Or maybe Too Localised - apart from OP, how many other people would suppose that dumbly in this context might mean speech so eloquent it leaves the audience dumbstruck? Dec 10, 2012 at 19:52
  • No, it means they achieve eloquence without speech.
    – Robusto
    Dec 10, 2012 at 20:12

2 Answers 2


In 'dumbly eloquent', Keller is layering a number of rhetorical effects.

She is presenting an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms because eloquence is usually associated with speaking well, and 'dumb' with the inability to speak at all, and so by stating it, requires us to resolve the contradiction.

Also, Keller is technically 'dumb', un able to speak (but of course the 'miracle' is that without sight or speech, she can communicate so well (eloquently in fact).

And there is further irony in that, for most speaking people, their fingers are not used to communicate anything (are metaphorically 'dumb') yet Keller is saying that these dumb fingers communicate so much to her.

  • 3
    In fact, Helen Keller wasn't technically dumb. Considering she never heard a sound her speech was pretty clear - see youtube.com/watch?v=8ch_H8pt9M8 for footage of her.
    – neil
    Dec 10, 2012 at 18:07
  • @neil: That's not strictly true. She could hear normally until she was about two, and as the voiceover says, for all her years of effort, Helen has never learned to speak clearly. Personally, I couldn't make out a single word she said in that clip until it was "translated" by the assistant, and Keller probably practised that particular "speech" more than anything else in her entire life. Dec 10, 2012 at 19:49

In normal context Dumbly eloquent is used when somebodys communication or speech is so fluent and pesuadive and makes you speechless, and that speech mesmerizes that you will become like idol, with making any sound.

Though the fact that Helen Keller here is dumb and deaf, she can communicate and responds to the communication from outside world well. Her mode of communication is touch. So she can communicate to outside world through her fingers. Touch is similar to speaking to her. So when some body is communicating with her with their fingers, she become speechless or become idol because of their speech as if some normal person becomes speechless when somebody is gifing them speech.

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