The Miracle Worker Themes
The main themes in The Miracle Worker are perception and prejudice, the importance of communication, perseverance and patience, and love and letting go.
- Perception and prejudice: Annie is able to see Helen as an equal, while the Kellers learn to see beyond their initial judgments about Annie.
- The importance of communication: Helen and her family's struggle to communicate is the main conflict of the play.
- Perseverance and patience: Annie persists in her lessons with Helen against the odds and refuses to allow the Kellers to give up.
- Love and letting go: In order to forge authentic, loving relationships, Annie and the Kellers must let go of the past.
Perception and Prejudice
Throughout the play, Annie is the only person who sees Helen as an equal. While Helen’s parents love her, they feel she is “impaired,” lacking the ability to reason and learn. Because they see her blindness and deafness as deficits, they don’t treat Helen like a person. They give in to her tantrums and provide Helen with a life that allows her to survive instead of thrive. Although Helen’s family loves her, their negative perceptions of her physical impairments cause them to treat her as “less than.”
Annie is able to see beyond Helen’s disabilities to the person inside who is waiting to interact with the world. She never judges Helen, teaching her as she would any student by using tools that fit Helen’s needs. She refuses to “pity” Helen as Arthur suggests she should, but Helen isn’t the only person who is judged.
The Kellers, being a traditional family from the South, immediately judge Annie based on her appearance and background. Arthur is unable to look past Annie’s age and the fact that she is an Irish woman from the North. He places no hope in her and fights against her wishes for the majority of the play.
Annie refuses to let Arthur’s criticism stop her from continuing her lessons. Within two weeks, Annie is able to teach Helen manners through discipline and language. Arthur is shocked at what Annie is able to accomplish. He realizes she is more than the sum of her age and class and begins to support her as a teacher.
Annie teaches the Kellers, and the audience, that judgment based on preconceived notions can hinder personal growth and the growth of others. She proves that people—especially those with perceived disabilities—are capable of more than meets the eye. If Annie had been sent home based on prejudice as Arthur had originally planned, and if Annie hadn’t seen Helen as an equal, the “miracle” that changed Helen’s life would not have been possible.
The Importance of Communication
The main conflict of Gibson’s play centers on the Keller’s family struggle to communicate with their daughter, which causes pain and suffering for all involved. However, the communication issues in the Keller household extend far beyond Helen’s disabilities. The family is unable to communicate with Helen, but they’re also blind to the fact that they struggle to communicate with each other. It’s not until the family encounters Annie’s direct manner and use of tough love that they begin to realize they, too, need to learn a new language.
Before Annie arrives at the Keller home, Arthur runs the household, acting as the gatekeeper for change. Everyone fears Arthur’s outbursts and tiptoes around direct conversation. While Kate is able to get her way at times, it’s not without Arthur’s anger, which is the only form of communication James receives from his father. In turn, Kate is hesitant to have her points heard, and James makes rude comments in hopes of catching his father’s attention.
The shift occurs when Annie arrives and states her direct needs to the entire family. The Kellers are floored by her communication style, as they perceive her direct and honest words as callous and lacking empathy, but Annie’s confidence and clarity help the family see the error of their ways. By the end of the play, everyone has found their voice, including Helen.
The Keller family learns that communication is the heart of any relationship. Being direct, being honest, and learning to speak each other’s language is the key to connection, understanding, and peace.
Perseverance and Patience
Annie arrives at the Keller home...
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to find a child who has never been disciplined. While her ultimate goal is to teach Helen to communicate, she quickly realizes she has far more work to do before she can begin to teach Helen the intricacies of language. She must first teach Helen the word “no.”
Helen kicks, stabs, pinches, and slaps Annie numerous times, but Annie never gives up. She continues to reinforce each rule or lesson, never letting Helen act inappropriately without consequence. Annie believes that with enough practice, Helen will be able to figure out that their “hand game” is much more than a game. She offers Helen space and time to learn.
Annie’s tenacity and patience produce powerful results, but Helen isn’t the only person who’s in need of a lesson. Consistency and grace are qualities the Kellers lack, as they give in to every want Helen expresses. When Annie arrives and begins teaching Helen, the Kellers give up every time Helen has an outburst. They become angry when Annie is locked in her room, they threaten to send her home after their first meal, and even after Annie makes tremendous progress in the garden house, the Kellers are ready to return to the way they’ve always done things during their homecoming meal with Helen.
Annie knows time and consistency are key to the learning process, and she refuses to give up, no matter the odds stacked against her. She doesn’t know if or when Helen will realize signing is communicating, but she perseveres nonetheless. By sticking to her principles, Annie not only helps Helen succeed, but she teaches the family a lesson in consistency. Annie reveals that with patience and perseverance, anything is possible.
Love and Letting Go
Throughout Gibson’s play, the audience witnesses different types of relationship conflict, each dynamic wrought with past scars and present difficulties. Through Kate and Arthur, Arthur and James, the Kellers and Helen, and Helen and Annie, the audience bears witness to a group of people in need of love. However, the characters’ expectations and past hurts make it impossible for these relationships to grow in positive directions.
Each relationship is struggling because the characters aren't able to let go of the past to forge new connections. Kate desperately wants to find someone to “cure” Helen, but Arthur’s stubborn ways and fear of failure keep him from adopting Kate’s optimism. His anger also carries over into his relationship with James, as he refuses to acknowledge his previous relationship with James’s mother. He seems to resent James as a reminder of past pain and, in both cases, refuses to try new ways of communicating or thinking in order to ease current tensions.
The audience also sees this behavior in Annie. Unable to let go of the death of her brother, Jimmie, Annie is haunted by the love she feels for him. This pain is transferred to Annie’s relationship with Helen, as Annie initially refuses to open her heart and see Helen as more than a student.
These relationship dynamics illustrate the idea that love means different things to different people, and without communication and a common understanding, confusion and tension will reign. The Kellers feel love is giving into Helen’s wants and desires, while Annie feels love means giving Helen the best life possible through discipline and education. James believes love is open communication with his father about their past, but Arthur is too headstrong to forgo his anger, believing obedience and respect are the only forms of love he needs.
The irony is that each character is fighting for the same things—love and peace—but their expectations, coupled with the inability to release the past, drive the emotional wedge between them deeper. It’s not until each character acknowledges the past and communicates their needs that loving bonds begin to form. Loving fully means removing expectations and making an authentic connection. By letting go of past hurts, room is made for new experiences and new emotional connections.