The Miracle Worker Key Ideas and Commentary
by William Gibson

The Miracle Worker book cover
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The Play

(Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

The Miracle Worker begins as a doctor reassures the parents of the infant Helen Keller that their daughter’s fever has passed; she will survive her severe illness. After the doctor leaves, the mother notices that the baby responds neither to hand movements in front of her eyes nor to any sounds. The anguished parents futilely call her name as the stage lights quickly dim.

When the lights rise, six-and-a-half-year-old Helen is playing with children who have cut out paper dolls. Attractive but unkempt and “noticeably blind,” with gestures that are “abrupt, insistent, [and] lacking in human restraint,” she is clearly undisciplined and often temperamental. She disrupts the group’s play, unknowingly using the scissors to menace her playmates’ eyes. Despite the family’s apparent strain, her mother remains patiently protective, and her father refuses to have Helen institutionalized, though she is thought to be mentally defective. Groping around the room, Helen knocks over furniture and cries until comforted by her mother. Trying to communicate, she makes only “an inarticulate weird noise in her throat such as an animal in a trap might make.” Nevertheless, there are some signs of intelligence: Realizing that her cloth doll lacks eyes, for example, she cleverly snatches buttons from her aunt’s dress to provide some. Although other doctors have failed, Keller agrees to write to a specialist in Boston.

In the next scene, the head of the Perkins Institute for the Blind prepares twenty-year-old Annie Sullivan for her new job as Helen Keller’s governess; herself partially sighted because of trachoma, Annie has been educated there. The younger schoolgirls present her with a doll for Helen and smoked eyeglasses for herself.

Arriving by train in Alabama, Annie is met by Mrs. Keller, who is astonished at the teacher’s youth. First, Annie says, she intends to teach Helen language— although, as she admits to her new pupil’s mother, no deaf-blind child has yet been taught even one-tenth of what an ordinary child learns.

At the homestead, Annie meets Helen and allows her to feel her hand, dress, and face. Together, they take her suitcase inside, where Annie allows her to open it with the key. Soon, she finds the elegant doll. Using the alphabet for the deaf, Annie signs the letters d-o-l-l into Helen’s palm, and her pupil imitates the gestures. When she takes the doll away, Helen becomes enraged, but Annie restrains her despite numerous slaps and kicks. Next, she teaches Helen the word c-a-k-e, but when Helen regains the doll she hits Annie’s face with it, drawing blood; she then rushes out of the room and locks Annie inside. That evening, Captain Keller rescues the teacher from the room, carrying her through a window and down a ladder into the yard, where Helen plays innocently beside the water pump while hiding the key inside her mouth. Later, Annie sees her drop the key down the well.

The second act opens with Annie reading aloud a letter she has written to the Perkins Institute; Helen must, she insists, first learn reasonable obedience. The next morning, Helen roams around the breakfast table, putting her hands into the food on others’ plates, as she is accustomed to do, but Annie refuses to allow her food to be groped. A violent tantrum ensues, but Annie will neither yield nor pity her as the Kellers have always done. Eventually, she asks them to leave and locks herself in the dining room alone with Helen, insisting that she sit at the table and eat her own food. A prolonged, wordless, extremely physical confrontation then occurs, during which Helen strikes Annie several times with her fists and is twice slapped in return.

When the day ends, Annie reports to the Kellers that their daughter has learned to sit at the table, eat with a spoon, and fold her napkin; Helen flees, however, whenever Annie comes near. That night, knowing that Captain Keller is outraged, Annie...

(The entire section is 1,001 words.)