Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
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...
(The entire section is 437 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
One-and-a-half-year-old Helen Keller is sick with acute congestion and a high fever. She makes it through the ordeal, but after the doctor leaves, her parents, Captain Arthur and Kate Keller, are horrified to discover that the illness left Helen deaf and blind. Five years pass and the Keller family is unable to find any doctor, teacher, or quack who can do anything to help Helen. The undisciplined, groping, curious girl is left to her own devices, grabbing toys from other children, knocking papers off desks, and eating off other people’s plates. When she overturns the cradle, tumbling the baby, Mildred, onto the floor, the Captain agrees to write to yet another rumored specialist in the hope that someone might be able to train Helen.
The Captain’s letter eventually finds its way to Boston and the Perkins Institute for the Blind, where a governess is found for Helen. Twenty-year-old Annie Sullivan just completed her own education at Perkins. She was an abandoned child, left to care for her sickly brother, Jimmie, who died in the state almshouse. Now, after nine eye operations and a turbulent education, Annie is being sent to try to teach Helen. Her teacher, Mr. Anagnos, warns her not to expect miracles.
The Keller family is shocked by Annie’s youth and inexperience. It is especially difficult for the Captain’s indolent son, James, to see a woman no older than himself given this responsibility. When Annie announces that she intends to...
(The entire section is 820 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In The Miracle Worker, Gibson dramatizes the first month of Helen Keller’s life with Annie Sullivan. By the age of six, the blind, deaf, and silent Helen is a savage child, gobbling food with her hands off any plate that she wants to invade around the family dinner table, even wrestling a young playmate to the ground and attacking her with scissors. Helen’s family, the Kellers of Tuscumbia, Alabama, indulge nearly all of Helen’s demands until they hire Annie Sullivan from the Perkins Institute for the Blind to be Helen’s teacher and companion.
Herself only twenty years old and formerly blind, Annie insists upon civilizing Helen’s behavior, much to the consternation of the family, who see Annie’s treatment of Helen as brutally strict. Annie insists that the family’s tenderness is misguided pity rather than love, that a superior love for Helen will respect her potential and demand that she live up to it. After a protracted struggle over Helen’s table manners, for example, Annie is able to teach Helen to fold her napkin and use a spoon rather than her hands to eat from her own plate; however, the willful Helen returns to her more savage ways whenever she senses the family’s indulgence, so Annie insists that she be permitted to teach Helen in isolation for two weeks.
In a garden house behind the family dwelling, Annie succeeds in calming Helen somewhat and teaches her a “finger-game,” spelling words into Helen’s...
(The entire section is 485 words.)
Act One Summary
The Miracle Worker is set in the 1880s and begins at the Keller home in Tuscumbia, Alabama. It is night, and three adults stand around the lamplit crib of the infant Helen Keller: her parents, Kate and Captain Arthur Keller, and a doctor. They are discussing a serious ailment which Helen has just barely survived. While the Captain sees the doctor out, Kate makes the horrifying discovery that because of the illness, the child can no longer see nor hear. The next scene introduces Helen's Aunt Ev and unsympathetic half-brother James, and reveals that in the five-and-a-half years since the first scene Helen has become a willful, feral child, indulged in everything because denial brings tantrums and no one knows how to teach her decent behavior. The Captain and Kate argue about Helen, he saying that after so many doctors have failed it is a waste of money to hire more, while she is unwilling to give up. The Captain relents, and a desperate inquiry leads eventually to "a suitable governess" from Boston, a young woman named Annie Sullivan
The next scene shows Annie in Boston, preparing to leave the Perkins Institute for the Blind, where as a patient she moved from blindness to partial vision. She is 20, stubborn, humorous, and haunted by the loss of her younger brother, Jimmie, who died after they were separated at an orphanage. Arriving in Alabama, Annie is met at the station by Kate and the sarcastic James. Kate is apprehensive because of Annie's youth,...
(The entire section is 447 words.)
Act Two Summary
As Act Two begins, Helen is spilling and breaking things in Annie's room. Annie, using sign language, stubbornly spells the name of each broken item into Helen's hand. Entering, Kate asks Annie if this has any meaning for Helen. Annie says it will have none until Helen understands what a word—a name—is. Asked why she then persists in the silent struggle, Annie shows her resilience and humor by replying, "I like to hear myself talk!" Alone that night. Annie experiences one of her frequent memory-trips back to the orphanage, the crones who made life there hateful, and her forced and final parting with her brother.
At breakfast, Helen's improper behavior (she runs about the table, placing her hands on the others' food) sparks a confrontation between the Captain—whose practice is to ignore Helen so that the family (mainly him) can converse—and Annie, who insists that all such indulgence of Helen must stop. Annie asks to be left alone with Helen. There follows the longest and most famous onstage fight in American theatre, unresolved even after several scripted pages of battle because the lights change from the dining-room to the yard, where the family awaits the outcome. Eventually, Helen staggers from the house, bumps into her mother's knees, and clutches them. Then comes Annie, battered but smiling, to report her victory. Helen has eaten from her own plate. With a spoon. And folded her napkin.
The Captain, angry at Annie and her treatment...
(The entire section is 424 words.)
Act Three Summary
Act Three begins as the deadline for the end of the ''Garden House'' experiment approaches. Helen is clean and disciplined and has learned to hand-spell many words to get treats, but Annie frustratedly feels that she has accomplished little more than "fingergames—no meaning." Helen has gestures and concepts—she touches her cheek to signify her mother—but has yet to connect these with the movements of Annie's fingers in her palm. Annie begs for another week, but the Kellers, seeing the improvements but not the gap left to close, refuse. Annie insists on keeping Helen until six, the official deadline, but as the time dwindles we see the harrowing effect of the ordeal on Annie. Helen will not give or receive affection and shows no signs, even as Annie desperately spells more words into her hands, of moving past fingergames to the universe of language and communication. At the stroke of six, the Garden House disappears before our eyes, Kate claims Helen and carries her out of sight, and Annie, alone at the end of her struggle, remembers again the loss of Jimmie and repeats a line often heard in that connection, "God owes me a resurrection."
Returned to her family, Helen acts up at dinner, and the family indulges her despite their assurances to Annie that they would not. Helen throws a pitcher of water on Annie, and Annie grabs up Helen and the pitcher and stalks out, vowing to make Helen refill the pitcher. The Captain angrily rises to go out and fire...
(The entire section is 486 words.)