Illustration of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan

The Miracle Worker

by William Gibson

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The relationship and conflict between James and Captain Keller in The Miracle Worker


The relationship between James and Captain Keller in The Miracle Worker is strained and conflict-ridden. James feels overshadowed and ignored by his authoritative father, Captain Keller, who dismisses James's opinions. This tension escalates as they disagree on how to handle Helen's education, with James eventually standing up to his father, seeking recognition and a voice in family matters.

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In The Miracle Worker, how is the conflict between James and Keller developed?

Even from the beginning of The Miracle Worker, it is evident that there is animosity between James and his father, Captain Keller. James tries to resist his father's authority but as he says himself, if his father makes any claim then "that makes it a fact."(Act I) Even when James agrees with his father, he is misunderstood. Kate is not James' mother and James feels somewhat excluded from the family unit. He does not appear to be able to do right for doing wrong and is often criticized by his father. Captain Keller recognizes that perhaps Mildred is overlooked when Helen gets all the attention but he appears to miss the point that James is also perhaps neglected by his father. 

Annie comes to appreciate James' very dry sense of humor but his father is often not amused by it and he even casts aspersions on James' ability to hold a conversation "If my son’s half merits that description."(Act II) After Annie persuades the Keller family to allow her to spend time alone with Helen, James, trying to reach his father, wonders what "enables her (Annie) to get anything she wants out of you? When I can’t"(Act II) but Captain Keller does not appreciate this and actually hurts James. He cannot see James' perspective even when James points out that he seems to have forgotten his own son "when you forgot my mother."(Act II). Kate does try to make her husband understand that perhaps he is too hard on his son but Keller believes that James needs "to learn some respect."(Act II) The fact that James does not share their need to have Helen back in the "noiseless" house is also not well received. Kate does try to show support for James, telling him to stand up for himself but James feels powerless in his father's presence as "the world is him."(Act III) 

James attempts to assert himself when he suggests that Helen is "testing" Annie just brings him more displeasure from his father "No one’s interested in hearing your opinion"(Act III) but Annie jumps to James' defence and agrees with his observation. When the dining room descends - yet again - into chaos, despite the family's assertions that they would help Annie in her efforts to discipline Helen, James intervenes and bravely speaks up to his father, wondering whether it has "occurred to you that on one occasion you might be consummately wrong."(Act III). For the first time, Keller seems to respect his son and after the "miracle" there appears to be a newfound understanding between father and son. 

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What is the relationship between James and Captain Keller in The Miracle Worker?

James Keller, a son of the family's patriarch from a previous marriage is a young man who clearly represents the younger generation that questions authority for authority's sake. He has a very strained relationship with his father, resenting his having separated from his mother as well as his authorative demeanor. In Act Two, James defiantly argues with his father about the winning of the Civil War battle at Vicksburg, seemingly defending the prowess of the North, much to the anger of the loyal son of the South, Keller. 

In his conversation with Annie after she has gotten Helen to eat with a spoon and use a napkin, James is cynical, telling her that Helen may not want to learn, afterall, and Annie should have pity on Helen. When Annie says that giving up is her idea of the orignal sin, James mockingly asks if she will teach him not to give up, indicating that he feels his efforts against his obstinate father are also futile.

Later in the act, James asks his father, "...what's her secret, sir?...That enables her to get anything she wants out of you?  When I can't."  Hearing this, Captain Keller grabs James's wrist, hurting him; then, he throws James away from him "in contempt."  Keller asks his wife, "What does he want out of me?" and James cries,

"My God, don't you know?

Everything you forgot, when you forgot my mother."

In the ensuing conversation with Kate Keller, who tells her husband she is proud of him, Captain Keller wonders aloud why his son is not,

"He can't bear me, you'd think I treat him as hard as this girl does Helen--"

"Perhaps you do." [Kate]

"But he has to learn some respect!"

"Do you like the child?" [Kate]

Clearly, there is misunderstanding between the father and son. In Act Three, for instance, Keller alludes to his wife, "...separation means. A mother loses a--protector."  James is baffled at this remark; he later asks Kate what his father wants from him.  She tells him to just "stand up to the world,...that comes first." 

Finally, when Jimmie defends Annie's methods of forcing Helen to refill the pitcher she has flung at Annie and, placing his chair in the path of Keller, orders his father to "let her go.  She's right," he asserts himself as Kate has advised.

"She's right, Kate's right, I'm right, and you're wrong.  If you drive her away from here it will be over my dead--chair, has it never occurred to you that on one occasion you might be consumately wrong?"

After James proves himself right and the miracle happens, the family sits together; Captain Keller's head is inclined toward that of James, his son, for whom he has acquired the respect that James so despertely has desired.  Truly, Anne Sullivan has entered the Keller home and changed the lives of all within it.

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What is the relationship between James and Captain Keller in The Miracle Worker?

James and Helen are half-siblings. Neither seems to view the other with much affection, particularly James, who is cynical about Helen's capabilities. Helen does not seem aware he is her brother, since she mostly attaches herself to her mother and not so much her other relatives.

James' opinion regarding Helen evolves over the course of the play. Initially, he views her as little more than an animal and someone to be pitied. He thinks Anne's attempts to reach Helen are futile, even overly harsh, and tells her as much. However, once Anne is able to communicate with Helen, James is impressed and starts to change his mind about Helen's capabilities. He even confronts his father about the matter, telling him he might be wrong about Anne's ability to bring Helen into the light.

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What is the relationship between James and Captain Keller in The Miracle Worker?

James and Helen Keller are half-siblings, James being the son of Captain Keller’s first wife, and Helen being the daughter of his second and much younger wife, Kate. In the beginning, James does not have a close emotional relationship with Helen, viewing her as an insentient creature, incapable of understanding or communicating beyond the most basic level. He does little to interact with her, yet he is impressed with how much Anne Sullivan is able to reach Helen. He uses Helen as a means to confront his father, believing that Captain Keller is arrogant in his relationships with his family. He points out to his father that, when it comes to Anne Sullivan’s relationship with Helen and her faith in the child, Captain Keller might actually be wrong in his estimation of her abilities. While James never seems to have a brotherly affection for Helen, he does believe that, with the advent of Anne Sullivan, Helen might actually progress.

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