The Miracle Worker by William Gibson

The Miracle Worker book cover
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What happens in The Miracle Worker?

In The Miracle Worker, twenty-one-year-old Annie Sullivan teaches a young Helen Keller how to read. Helen was left deaf and blind by an early childhood illness. Sullivan teaches Helen to use American sign language and helps her understand the world around her.

  • In her early years, Helen Keller was isolated by her disabilities, unable to comprehend the world around her. She was prone to throwing tantrums and running into things and was at one point institutionalized.

  • Annie Sullivan, a young woman who has just completed her own education at the Perkins Institute for the Blind, is hired as a governess for Helen.

  • Through the use of sign language and stern teachings, Annie finally teaches Helen how to use language. At the end of the play, Helen herself goes to the Perkins Institute to begin her education.

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations 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 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.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 1,742 words.)