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.
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 teach Helen language, Kate laments that they were not even able to teach her to sit still. From the moment of her arrival, Annie begins to fingerspell into Helen’s hands. The first attempt to impose some structure onto Helen erupts the moment the child does not get her own way. Helen hits Annie in the face with a doll, knocking out a tooth. Helen then locks Annie in Helen’s room and gropes her way out to the pump in the yard. When James smugly informs the Captain of Annie’s plight, the Captain angrily has a ladder fetched and carries the humiliated Annie to the ground. Annie watches the family go in to eat dinner and turns to Helen, who, believing she is alone, gleefully drops Annie’s room key down the well.
The next morning James and the Captain are arguing again, resulting in James comparing Annie to General Grant at the Battle of Vicksburg. At breakfast, when Helen gropes her way around the table, Annie refuses to allow Helen to eat off her plate. A battle of wills follows, with Annie expelling the family from the dining room and physically forcing Helen to sit down and eat properly. The siege lasts all morning, leaving the room a disaster, but Helen eats breakfast with her own spoon and folds her napkin. Exhausted and discouraged, Annie goes upstairs to pack. In the meantime, the Captain informs Kate that the insolent teacher must be fired. Instead of giving up, Annie develops a plan. She convinces the Kellers that in order to succeed, she must have control of every aspect of Helen’s life. The Kellers reluctantly agree to set Annie up in their garden house and leave her in complete charge of Helen for two weeks. After disorienting Helen by driving her around in a wagon, she is delivered into Annie’s care. At first Helen refuses to have anything to do with the unyielding teacher who demands personal discipline. Annie finally gets Helen to cooperate by fingerspelling into the hand of another child. Helen’s jealousy overcomes her and she forces herself onto the teacher.
At the end of the two weeks, the wild beast that was Helen seems to be tamed. Annie spells thousands of words into her hands. Helen learns eighteen nouns and three verbs. It is all just a finger game, however; Helen does not connect the fingerspelling to the concept of language. Annie begs for more time but is denied, even though the Kellers are overwhelmed with what she accomplished. The Captain agrees, at the very least, to maintain the self-control that was instilled in Helen. The family sits down to eat a celebratory meal, but back in her old environment, Helen immediately tries to revert to her undisciplined ways. When Annie does not tolerate it, Helen throws a tantrum and dumps the water pitcher onto Annie. Ignoring the protests of the Captain, Annie pulls Helen into the yard and forces her to refill the pitcher at the pump. Then the miracle happens. As Annie spells W-A-T-E-R into her hand, Helen makes the connection that the finger game spells a word that means the thing. Helen rushes around grasping everything in reach while Annie spells its name into her hand. She finds and hugs her mother, and then turns to find her teacher, whom she embraces and pulls into the house to join the Kellers at the table.
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 palm, even though Helen does not understand that the words correspond to things in the world outside her. The family is satisfied with the progress, but Annie insists that Helen is capable of more, that she cannot be fully human until she understands the connection between words and things and begins using language. In an emotional last scene, Helen regresses at the dinner table and empties a pitcher of water on her teacher. When Annie forces Helen to fill the pitcher from a pump in the back yard, the miracle occurs: Helen feels the water cascading over her hand, feels Annie spelling the word into her palm, and says, “Wah. Wah.” Within minutes, Helen is clambering around the backyard, demanding to know the names of things. Finally, she spells “teacher” and identifies the word with Annie. As the play ends, Annie embraces Helen and whispers a sentence that she will eventually be able to spell into Helen’s palm, “I, love, Helen. Forever, and—ever.”
A play of power and eloquence, The Miracle Worker is still often revived by regional and amateur theater groups. In the story of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, Gibson creates an image of the indomitable human spirit and the power of language while suggesting that love includes discipline and is based more on respect for a person’s potential than on indulgence of a person’s weakness or handicaps.