Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1313
In Bangkok, Siam (which would later come to be known as Thailand), in 1862 a strong-willed, widowed schoolteacher, Anna Leonowens, arrives at the request of the King of Siam to tutor his many children. Anna's young son, Louis, fears the severe countenance of the King's "Prime Minister" the Kralahome, but Anna refuses to be intimidated. She teaches her son to "Whistle a Happy Tune" whenever he is afraid. The Kralahome escorts them to the palace; he rides on a carried chair, while Anna and her son follow on foot behind him. Anna is bristling to confront the King about his broken promise regarding a house for Louis and herself outside of the palace walls. As they await an audience, the King receives a gift from the king of Burma, a lovely girl named Tuptim. The King sends her off to his harem of wives, dismissing the young man who delivered the gift, Lun Tha, who has fallen deeply in love with Tuptim. The King turns to go, so Anna marches up to him, demanding to be heard. She is taken aback by the King's dominance, as he claps his hands and orders her to "stand here" to meet the royal children. Anna plans to depart on the waiting ship if she does not get what has been promised to her, but she is so taken with the children that she decides she will stay. She announces that she will pursue the topic of the house later.
For the next several weeks, Anna proceeds to teach the children songs, proverbs, and poems all having to do with longing for a home. The King recognizes her subterfuge and refuses to supply the house. The handful of wives who also have been allowed to partake of Anna's teaching continually refer to Anna as "Sir." When she asks them why, Lady Thiang, the King's number one wife, explains "because you scientific, not lowly like woman." Tuptim reveals her secret love for Lun Tha to Anna, and Anna sings "Hello, Young Lovers," in sympathy for the star-crossed couple.
The King is quite pleased with Anna's teaching. His eldest son Prince Chulalongkorn has some concerns, however. The young prince asks his father when he will know he knows everything and thus be ready to rule. This prompts the King to sing "A Puzzlement," in which he expresses his own doubts about how best to bring justice and knowledge to his people. In the meantime, Anna confirms that she loves the children, singing to them "Getting to Know You," a song about the joys of new friendship. Then she launches into a new lesson— geography—having just received a more accurate map from England. The new map shows Siam in its proper size in relation to other countries. She has to end her lesson prematurely, though, when Prince Chulalongkorn refuses to believe that Siam is so small and that there is such a substance as snow. His father rescues Anna by ordering the children to believe her.
The Kralahome demands that Anna cease encouraging the King to modernize; he foresees danger ahead because he thinks that the King will not be able to lead effectively if he loses his authoritarian style. When Anna disregards this warning, the Kralahome retorts by predicting she'll become the King's slave. As if to confirm this, the King sends for Anna in the middle of the night and demands that she take a letter. During this menial task, to which Anna submits because she is charmed by the King's desire to write to Abraham Lincoln the King extracts from Anna the promise that she will conform to the tradition of never letting her head be higher than the King's. In spite of her scientific and liberal beliefs, Anna promises to comply.
During another confrontation between Anna and the King, he finally articulates the phrase that Anna least wants to hear, "You are my servant!" Now Anna can no longer pretend to herself that she has not submitted to the King's will, and she threatens to leave, saying "I cannot stay in a country where a promise has no meaning." Anna is awaiting the next available ship when Lady Thiang comes to seek Anna's help in advising the King on a new matter of great urgency. She sings "Something Wonderful," expressing her way of loving a man who is both brutal and unexpectedly generous. Anna recognizes the wisdom and grace of Lady Thiang's kind of love.
Anna agrees to go to the King and to protect his male ego by acting as though she is not there to help him. The problem is that rumors have reached Queen Victoria that the King of Siam is a barbarian. If that is the case, or even if the perception is generally accepted, then the Queen will have little trouble making a protectorate of Siam. The King cleverly demands that Anna "guess" what he should do, thus opening the door for her to give him some much-needed advice. She guesses that he will entertain the British Ambassador and the prominent British citizens of Bangkok, to demonstrate his civility. The King is elated and he rushes all of his women, Anna included, off to the Buddhist in order to pray for success. Amid his wishes and demands that Anna supervise sewing European dresses for each of his many wives, he at last promises to give Anna her house.
The European style dinner and entertainment have the desired effect. Tuptim has written a play for the entertainment of the notables, an Asian-style version of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. The guests find the King witty, love Tuptim's play, and toast the continued sovereignty of Siam. The King has won. However, he is disturbed by the note of rebellion he and Anna each have detected in Tuptim's play. The cruel Simon Legree, whom Tuptim has transformed into a King rather than the plantation owner he was in Stowe's novel, drowns in the pursuit of the escaped slave Eliza.
The King knows that Tuptim is unhappy in his court and resents her expressing rebellion in this way. He initiates a search of the palace so that he may reprimand her, but she has fled with Lun Tha. As the guards continue their search, the King and Anna celebrate their victory by dancing a polka together. They are abruptly interrupted by the guards carrying a screaming Tuptim. The King furiously prepares to beat her himself, but Anna appeals to him to contain his anger and refuses to leave the room. The King cannot bring himself to whip the girl in front of Anna and runs offstage. The Kralahome snarls at Anna that she has destroyed the King. At this painful moment more bad news arrives—the guards have found Lun Tha's drowned body in the river.
Once again Anna is awaiting the arrival of a ship to take her home to England. Lady Thiang once again arrives to plead with Anna to overcome her pride and visit the King. This time the situation is more grave; he is dying, having refused nourishment for many weeks. Lady Thiang hands Anna a letter that the King has managed to write her. In it he declares his admiration for Anna, who has been "much trouble" but who has affected him greatly. She runs to his side.
The children are brought in to their father. One child recites a letter to Anna begging her not to leave. Anna decides to send Louis to the ship to retrieve their luggage—she will stay after all.
Young Prince Chulalongkorn fears being made King before he is ready. The dying King asks him what he would do first as a ruler. As the prince explains his proclamation abolishing the traditional groveling bow, an idea clearly influenced by Anna, the King dies. Anna reverently kisses the hand of the dead king.