The Miracle Worker Questions and Answers
by William Gibson

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What simile does Captain Keller use to describe Annie teaching spelling to Helen?

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Jen Freymond eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In act 3, the final act of The Miracle Worker by William Gibson, Annie and Helen sit in the garden house bed and Annie is teaching Helen to spell with her fingers. Annie has only two hours left of the two weeks for which she was hired when Captain Keller enters the garden house with a dog, which he presents as a "playmate" for Helen. When Annie protests that she still has two more hours to work with Helen, Captain Keller tells her a couple more hours will make no difference and says that teaching Helen to communicate is like teaching a dog to spell.

Captain Keller's use of this simile to compare Helen's ability to communicate with a dog's ability to spell shows how hopeless Helen's father thinks it is to teach Helen anything but manners and cleanliness. He does thank Annie for teaching Helen these things, and for turning her from a "wild thing" into a child, but he does not believe his daughter possesses the capacity to learn to communicate. Annie tells Captain Keller that she wants to teach Helen not only to behave but to think, but the captain remains skeptical.

Later in act 3, when Helen misbehaves at the dinner table, throwing her fork and napkin to the floor and splashing water from a pitcher all over Annie's dress, Annie picks her up and carries her out of the room, demanding that Helen's parents remain seated and stop spoiling her. Annie takes Helen outside to the water spout, the pitcher still in her hand. She guides Helen's hand to the pump and has her pump until water comes out. Annie then spells the word water with Helen's finger. It is then that the "miracle" occurs. Helen says "wah wah." Upon learning this, the viewpoint of Captain Keller shifts, and he finally recognizes that his daughter has the capacity to learn to communicate and that she is nothing like a dog learning to spell after all.

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Christine MacEachern eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In Act 3 of The Miracle Worker, Annie has been teaching Helen in a place apart from the family. When the Captain and Mrs. Keller arrive early to pick Helen up, Captain Keller sees Annie finger spelling with Helen.

When Helen realizes her dog is in the room, she tries to teach the dog to finger spell. Captain Keller notes, "Teaching a dog to spell. The dog doesn’t know what she means, any more than she knows what you mean, Miss Sullivan. I think you ask too much, of her and yourself."

Helen's parents don't believe she can have any real understanding of language any more than the dog can. Her overall behavior has improved: when she was with Annie, she stopped the tantrums, ate without throwing food, and bathed herself.

But at this point in the play, Captain Keller has a point. Helen hasn't had the breakthrough yet to really understand what the movement with her fingers means. That comes later.

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