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The Miracle Worker

The Miracle Worker Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on William Gibson's The Miracle Worker. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of William Gibson

William Gibson grew up in New York City and later attended City College of New York, where he was active in theater. In the 1940s, Gibson wrote a handful of novels, plays, and poetry collections, without much success. To support himself, he was forced to work in a psychiatric clinic, and his time at the clinic inspired his novel The Cobweb (1951). His big break came in 1958 when his play Two for the Seesaw was accepted for production on Broadway. The play was a huge success, starring the legendary actor Henry Fonda, as well as the soon-to-be famous Anne Bancroft. Gibson followed his Broadway debut with the even more successful The Miracle Worker (1959). Both plays were later adapted into successful films. Gibson never wrote another play that matched the success of his first two Broadway productions, but he remained a prolific writer until his death in 2008. He married Margaret Brenman-Gibson, a world-famous psychotherapist whose influence can be detected in Gibson’s plays, which often have overt psychological themes.
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Historical Context of The Miracle Worker

In the 1880s, when Gibson’s play is set, the United States was still reeling from the impact of the Civil War, during which the Northern states battled with the Southern, slaveholding states. Following the Civil War, blacks in the South had earned the right to vote and own property, but were still treated as second-class citizens in every way—a fact that is evident throughout the play (the Kellers are a wealthy, aristocratic family and have multiple black servants). The fact that Annie Sullivan hails from Boston is also very important, since it influences the Keller family’s perception of her as arrogant, “rough,” and disrespectful of their customs. It’s also worth noting that Helen Keller went on to become a notable supporter of the Socialist Party of America. She campaigned for union rights and women’s suffrage, and was widely criticized for doing so (including by some of the same people who lauded her as a hero in childhood). One editor even argued that Keller had been seduced by socialism because of “the manifest limitations of her development.” To this day, few realize how radical Helen Keller was as an adult—for most people, Keller’s historical importance ends the second she learns how to talk. For a good discussion of Keller’s life and why it is so often glossed over in history classes, check out the first chapter of James W. Loewen’s book Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995).

Other Books Related to The Miracle Worker

The Miracle Worker is one of many books and plays that deal with a young character coming to terms with a disability. Other (more recent) examples of this subgenre include Colin Fischer (2012) by Zach Stentz and Ashley Edward Miller,  Jerk, California (2008) by Jonathan Friesen, and Blind (2014) by Rachel DeWoskin. Gibson’s play is also a good example of a fictional work about the relationship between a student and an inspiring teacher, with other notable examples including Anne of Green Gables (1908) by Lucy Maud Montgomery, Awakenings (1973) by Oliver Sacks (in which Sacks, much like Annie Sullivan, learns valuable life lessons by working closely with patients with disabilities), and Wonder Boys (1995) by Michael Chabon. The Miracle Worker also had a huge influence on Hollywood, as “inspirational mentor” movies like Good Will Hunting, Dead Poets Society, and Finding Forrester owe a lot to a dramatic formula that Gibson arguably helped popularize.
Key Facts about The Miracle Worker
  • Full Title: The Miracle Worker
  • When Written: 1957-1959
  • Where Written: New York City and Topeka, Kansas
  • When Published:  Originally written in 1957 as a teleplay for Playhouse 90, later rewritten as a three-act Broadway play, premiered October 19, 1959
  • Literary Period: Modern theater
  • Genre: Historical drama
  • Setting: Tuscumbia, Alabama, 1880s
  • Climax: Annie teaches Helen how to communicate via sign language
  • Antagonist: Pity, prejudice, and pessimism could be considered the abstract antagonists of the play

Extra Credit for The Miracle Worker

Power couple. William Gibson’s wife, the psychotherapist Margaret Brenman-Gibson, was probably even more famous in her discipline than Gibson was in his. A pioneering Freudian psychoanalyst, she was one of the first women to be made a full professor at Harvard University. Until the late 1950s, she supported her husband with her income from teaching and practicing psychoanalysis.

Next stop, Hollywood. Gibson’s plays have been adapted into some acclaimed films. The Miracle Worker was made into a film in 1962, and it won two Oscars for its two female leads, Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. Bancroft went on to become one of Hollywood’s leading stars after this film (playing Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, for example). Arthur Penn, the film’s director, went on to direct the New Hollywood classic Bonnie and Clyde. Gibson’s first Broadway play, Two for the Seesaw, was also made into a successful film in 1962, starring Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine. The Miracle Worker has also been adapted for TV twice, most recently in 2000.