Illustration of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan

The Miracle Worker

by William Gibson

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In The Miracle Worker, what does Annie's quote "words, why, you can see five thousand years back in a light of words" mean?

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I can see your conundrum if you take these words out of context.  It's best to look at the context if you would like to find out the full meaning.  First, this is spoken by Annie at the moment when she expects the Kellers to return to retrieve Helen from the little cottage where Annie has been able to teach Helen alone for a couple of weeks.  Annie is upset that they are demanding Helen's return before Annie has succeeded in imparting the precious gift of words and language.  In her frustration Annie exclaims:

I wanted to teach you--oh, everything the earth is full of, Helen, everything on it that's ours for a wink and it's gone, and what we are on it, the--light we bring to it and leave behind in--words, why, you can see five thousand years back in a light of words, everything we feel, think, know--and share, in words, so not a soul is in darkness, or done with, even in the grave.  And I know, I know, one word and I can--put the world in your hand--and whatever it is to me, I won't take less!

In full from this paragraph, it becomes clear that Annie wants to open up the world for Helen, ... not just the gift of language but fleeting moments in time and nature, history, feelings, ... in order to lift the darkness in Helen's life.

More specifically, in regards to the partial sentence you mention, Annie is speaking about history.  How (oh how!) would Helen EVER know anything about history without understanding words?  And yet the use of language would allow her to "see five thousand years back" by the simple use of words!  And oh how the stubbornness of Annie is evident as she wants it to be Annie and Annie alone to teach it to Helen!  Such frustration is evident here!

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In The Miracle Worker: What did Annie mean by "-words, why, you can see five thousand years back in a light of words..."

Annie is referring to the worlds that can be opened to us through books and reading. She is a lover of books and learning and this statement reveals that love. With books and writing, we can read as far back into history as the first time a person took an instrument and attempted to record his thoughts - maybe on a cave. She uses a metaphor, "the light of words." This means that words shed light on history. Also, when we are reading words, we ourselves become "enlightened" by what we are reading. The written word allows us to learn about what has come before us - even as far back as five thousand years.

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