41 pages 1 hour read

William Gibson

The Miracle Worker

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1959

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Summary and Study Guide


William Gibson’s drama The Miracle Worker chronicles the relationship between the real-life Helen Keller, a young girl from Alabama who was blind and deaf, and her teacher, the Irish, headstrong Annie Sullivan from Boston. The play follows a three-act structure and was adapted from Gibson’s 1957 Playhouse 90 teleplay. The staged production premiered in New York City at the Playhouse Theatre in 1959. The show received five Tony Award nominations in 1960 and won four, including Best Play. Gibson credits inspiration for the title to a quote by Mark Twain: “Helen is a miracle, and Miss Sullivan is the miracle-worker.” Since its debut, the play has been widely performed at regional and professional theaters alike. Most notable is the annual summer production performed at Helen Keller’s birthplace, and where she met Annie Sullivan: Ivy Green in Tuscumbia, Alabama. The play is significant in its centering of a real-life heroine with a disability. Helen, underestimated at every turn, learns to unlock the world before her through the power of language, and of love. The edition referenced in this guide is the Samuel French Acting Edition.

Plot Summary

The Miracle Worker dramatizes the true story of Helen Keller, a girl from Alabama who was blind and deaf, and Anne Sullivan, the woman who taught her language. It is a love letter to the teachers who never give up, even when their students seem beyond reach. Language, whether it is spoken, written, or signed, is depicted as the key to unlocking a world of possibilities for anyone, regardless of whether they have a disability. Though the Keller family and Annie Sullivan are in constant conflict at the beginning of the play, they learn a great deal from each other by the end. The Kellers learn that Helen is capable of more than they ever dared to imagine. And Anne Sullivan, or Annie, in the midst of fighting for Helen to have a better life, learns to love again.

The play opens in 1882 at the home of Captain and Kate Keller in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Their 19-month-old child, Helen, has just survived a serious case of scarlet fever. The doctor says that Helen will fully recover, and “by morning she’ll be knocking down Captain Keller’s fences again” (5). The doctor and the Captain exit, leaving Kate alone with Helen. As Kate talks to her daughter, she is gripped with the realization that Helen isn’t responding to her voice, or to the hand she waves above the baby’s face. Kate screams for the Captain to come back into the room. When he gets there, Kate says, “[Helen] can’t see […] Or hear. When I screamed she didn’t blink. Not an eyelash” (7). The Captain, not wanting to believe this is true, continues to shout at Helen, to no avail. Scarlet fever has left Helen both deaf and blind.

The play then jumps ahead five years, to 1887. Helen, now nearly seven years old, has grown to be a spoiled, wild child. Helen is used to getting her way and is prone to physical violence when her demands aren’t met. Her actions often endanger others in the household, including Martha and Percy (the children of the Kellers’ servant, Viney), and the Kellers’ baby girl, Mildred. Helen’s family, unsure of how to “discipline an afflicted child” (13), resort to pitying the girl. This limits Helen’s true capacity for learning. Each of Helen’s family members agree that something must change, and soon. Captain Keller says: “I might as well try to work in a henyard as in this house” (11) and expresses his wish for peace. Captain Keller’s son by his first marriage, James, suggests that they send Helen to a hospital for people with disabilities. However, Kate and Aunt Ev, the Captain’s sister, insist that Captain Keller should keep writing to more doctors until they find someone who can help Helen. Captain Keller is torn but eventually agrees. They owe it to Helen to keep looking for someone who can give her a better life.

The family sends for a teacher. The wire is directed to a school in Boston, Massachusetts. There, 20-year-old Annie Sullivan has aged out of the Perkins School for the Blind. Dr. Anagnos, her teacher and mentor at the school, just received the wire about Helen and decides to send Annie to fill the position. Annie was blind herself before she had multiple operations on her eyes, and this unique perspective connects her with Helen before they even meet.

Upon her arrival, Captain Keller and Annie are immediately at odds with one another. There is a cultural difference between the two: Captain Keller is not used to the “peculiar kind of young woman [from] the north” (28), nor is Annie accustomed to Keller’s deeply rooted Southern values and traditions. James finds Annie’s stubborn ways more amusing than anything, often taunting that she will never be able to reach Helen. Kate, however, is hopeful for the first time in a long time that her daughter might, in some way, come back to her.

Annie begins her lessons by trying to teach Helen sign language, but Helen’s spoiled nature thwarts her efforts. The Keller’s tendency to pity Helen largely undoes what little progress Annie makes. At their first dinner together, Helen wanders to each plate on the table and sticks her hands in the food. Annie catches Helen’s hands when they plunge for her own plate, but she is alone in her willingness to teach Helen table manners. Eventually, Annie throws the family out of the dining room; the rest of the scene focuses on Annie teaching Helen to properly eat with a fork and fold her napkin. After a long, physical struggle, Annie emerges from the dining room. She tells Kate, “The room’s a wreck, but her napkin is folded” (54). The Kellers are amazed, but Annie’s efforts are soon undone by Helen’s family.

Annie realizes that if she is to ever reach Helen, the two of them must live somewhere separated from Helen’s family. Annie demands to have complete control over Helen for an extended amount of time, but Helen’s parents are wary. After some debate, they reach a compromise: Annie and Helen will live alone in the garden house on the Keller’s property for two weeks. Percy, Viney’s son, is to live with them as well to help take care of things in the garden house. Once the two weeks are up, Helen must return to the main house. Annie reluctantly agrees on the conditions, and promptly moves into the garden house with Helen and Percy.

Despite the challenges of teaching Helen, Annie grows fonder of her as they spend more time together. Annie resists the burgeoning love she has for her student, primarily due to the overbearing loss she faced as a child when her brother, Jimmie, died. Throughout the play, Annie is haunted by her past at the state almshouse in Tewksbury, a place for disabled children that she and Jimmie were sent to when they were young. Annie saw an education as her way out of the brutal system, but she regrets that her efforts were not enough to get her brother out, too. Through Helen, Annie has been given a second chance to help someone.

All too soon, the time comes for Helen to return to her parents. The difference in her manner is unmistakable. Helen is a proper young lady now, who can sew, eat dinner politely, and refrains from hitting others. Still, language is beyond reach. Throughout the play, Annie constantly tries to make the words she signs into Helen’s hands make sense, to make the words mean something. Annie insists that “words can be [Helen’s] eyes, to everything in the world outside her, and inside too” (79). Without them, she is merely “housebroken” (81), reduced to a life of “obedience without understanding is—a blindness, too” (84). Annie pleads with the Kellers to make them understand what is at stake for their daughter, but they refuse to let Annie have more time. She must let Helen go back to the care of her parents, staying on as her teacher, but not her provider.

The next scene takes place at the Keller dining table, where Helen is clearly relieved to be home at last. Despite beginning the meal by demonstrating her newly acquired manners, Helen soon resorts to old habits. She is testing her parents to see what she can get away with now that she’s back at home. The scene turns into a battle over whether to discipline Helen, and in a struggle between Helen and Annie, Helen spills a pitcher of water. Annie wrestles Helen out of the dining room, bidding the other Kellers not to follow. As she exits, she tells the family, “I treat her like a seeing child because I ask her to see! I expect her to see! Don’t undo what I do!” (90). Annie drags Helen to the water pump and forces her to refill the pitcher.

At the pump, the miracle happens. As the water spills into her hands, Annie spells the letters of the word into Helen’s hand. Helen drops the pitcher as something clicks for her. She draws on a long-forgotten memory of the first word she understood before her illness and speaks: “Wah. Wah” (92). She spells the word back into Annie’s hand. In that moment, language is unlocked for Helen, and so is Annie’s capacity to love.