The Miracle Worker recounts Helen Keller’s discovery of language, through the teaching of Annie Sullivan, after losing her sight and hearing in early childhood. It was produced as a television play in 1957, was published in 1957, was produced as a stage play in 1960 and as a movie in 1962.
The story is set in the Keller family home in Tuscumbia, Alabama. In the opening scene, the family learns that baby Helen will survive a life-threatening fever. Her mother Kate, however, discovers the terrible price of Helen’s survival when she realizes that the baby cannot see or hear. When Helen is six, her father is inclined to institutionalize her, but Kate wishes to search for better medical care. Alexander Graham Bell considers Helen’s case but cannot help. Finally, the Kellers contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston; the director sends Annie to them.
When Annie first encounters Helen, the child has never been disciplined. Isolated in silence and darkness, Helen wanders the house and is prone to tantrums. Annie has herself been institutionalized, so she sympathizes with the urgency Kate feels about Helen. Annie is also blind, so she knows partly what Helen’s world is like. She knows that the key to Helen’s transformation is language. Annie succeeds in teaching Helen to finger-spell several words, realizing that her pupil understands this activity only as a memorization game—Helen does not understand that the sequences of letters have meaning. Meanwhile, Annie begins the task of teaching Helen manners. Lacking words, Helen expresses her emotions through actions, smashing objects when she is angry and striking people when frustrated. Annie responds with patience and determination.
The Keller family must also be taught to help Helen. Out of pity and guilt, they have allowed the child to rule the household, as Annie observes. To avoid enraged outbursts, family members indulge Helen’s misbehavior. With difficulty, Annie persuades the Kellers to give her two weeks of isolation with Helen in the garden house. During this time, she makes progress only to see it erode upon returning to the main house; family members are unwilling to enforce the new rules.
In a crucial encounter, Helen pours out a pitcher of water in rage; Annie takes her forcibly to the pump to refill it and out of habit finger-spells “water” as Helen feels liquid gush over her hand. Suddenly, Helen understands that things have names, and that she can learn them through this new game and communicate her inner world to others. In the closing scene, Kate, Helen, and Annie go to the Perkins Institute. Helen is no longer isolated.