It is late evening, and Annie’s bedroom is the only room in the Keller house with the light on. Helen stands by Annie’s desk, playing with her doll. Annie is busy writing a letter, which she reads aloud. In the letter, she explains that nobody in the household has tried to control Helen: therefore, Annie will have to discipline Helen without “breaking her spirit.”
Act Two is all about the discipline that Annie tries to exercise over her young pupil. The challenge, as Annie makes plain here, will be to discipline Helen while still nurturing Helen’s potential for learning. In this way, Annie embodies a form of tough love that the Kellers—too willing to reward Helen even for bad behavior—simply don’t practice.
Helen knocks over Annie’s inkwell. Annie immediately takes the inkwell and saves her letter, mopping up the spillage. Then, she spells “i-n-k” on Helen’s hand. She finds a sewing card with a needle and thread and gives them to Helen. Helen takes the card and accidentally pokes her own finger. Next, Helen throws her doll to the ground, and Annie spells “bad girl” on Helen’s palm. Next, Annie makes Helen stroke the doll, and then spells, “good girl.”
Annie remains incredibly patient with Helen, even turning Helen’s misbehavior into “teachable moments.” At the most basic level, Annie is trying to teach Helen the words that represent certain concepts (such as “good” and “bad”) in the hopes that, later on, Helen will grasp the concept that things have names and will then be able to understand, in retrospect, what the words mean.
Kate passes by the doorway and sees what Annie is doing. Annie explains that she’s teaching Helen to spell—even though Helen doesn’t even know what a word is. Kate is skeptical that this will work, but Annie argues that it’s no different from the way Kate talks to Mildred, her baby: adults have to talk to children before children understand. Annie spells “cake” on Helen’s hand, and Helen spells it back to her. Kate asks Annie to teach her the alphabet, and Annie promises she will.
Annie doesn’t seem to have a great deal of technical expertise. Instead, what she has is determination and common sense. She recognizes that teaching Helen words she doesn’t understand may seem like a big waste of time, but she also knows that doing so is her best chance of educating Helen in the long run.
Just then, Annie reaches for the sewing card. Helen takes the needle and pokes Annie’s finger with it. Just then, Kate gives Helen some candy, which Helen accepts. Annie asks why Kate is rewarding Helen for hurting her, and Kate replies, “We catch our flies with honey, I’m afraid.” Kate leads Helen to bed. Alone in her room, Annie writes, “obedience is the gateway through which knowledge enters the mind of the child.”
As Annie spends more time around the Kellers, she begins to grasp why Helen doesn’t learn anything: Kate spoils her instead of using a reward system to train her to behave well. Annie’s point is that children have to learn how to obey their elders before they can learn anything else: therefore, no discipline equals no learning.
The lights dim and rise again, signaling that it’s morning. Viney comes outside to pump water. Inside, Helen is wandering around the table, Annie is studying Helen carefully, and Kate tries to eat her eggs while Helen pokes at the plate. Arthur and James argue about the Civil War, James taking the position that Grant was the superior general of the war. Helen tries to touch Annie’s food, and Annie keeps thrusting Helen’s hands away from her plate until Helen beings to “flail and make noises.”
Every morning, it would seem, the Kellers go about their business, all the while missing opportunities to teach Helen how to behave. It’s a clever detail that Arthur and James argue about the Civil War, with James siding with the Northern general, perhaps foreshadowing the way he’ll later side with Annie, the “Yankee” intruder—but perhaps also simply demonstrating that he has a more progressive streak than his father.
Arthur and Kate explain to Annie that Helen is “accustomed to helping herself from our plates.” Annie retorts, “but I’m not accustomed to it.” Arthur offers to get Annie a fresh plate, but Annie declines, saying that Helen is “spoiled.” Arthur protests that Annie should have pity, but Annie replies, “The sun won’t rise and set for her all her life.” Annie demands that Kate leave Helen alone with her immediately.
This is a crucial scene. Annie starts to take control, not just over Helen but over the entire Keller family. She also offers a concise version of her education methods: it’s irresponsible to spoil children, because sooner or later they’re going to have to learn how to take care of themselves, and the sooner the better.
Furiously, Arthur asks Kate to come outside and talk with him. James leaves also, leaving Annie and Helen alone. While Annie and Helen struggle, Arthur tells Kate that he’s on the verge of sending Annie back to Boston. James says that he agrees with Annie.
Naturally, Arthur doesn’t take kindly to Annie’s teaching methods: he’s too used to being the boss (and possibly too prejudiced against Yankees) to comply to easily with a woman from the north coming into his home and telling him how to raise his own daughter.
Meanwhile, Annie clears everyone’s plates off of the table except for Helen’s and her own. She guides Helen’s hands toward her plate. Helen grabs her plate and then sinks to the floor. Annie sits down and begins to eat her food. Helen pulls at Annie’s chair, trying to topple it. Then she pinches Annie’s thighs. She tries to hit Annie’s ear. At this point, Annie fights back, slapping Helen on the cheek. At first, Helen tries to fight back, but then she freezes and “thinks better of it.”
After just a couple minutes of fighting with Annie, Helen begins to understand the situation and shows some discipline. The reason for the shift, it seems, is that Annie’s isn’t afraid to fight back. In other words, a few moments of actual discipline probably teach Helen more about how to behave than years of being spoiled by her mother and father.
Helen wanders toward Kate’s chair, touching it with her hand. Annie goes over to Helen and tries to spell on Helen’s hand. But Helen pushes away from Annie toward the front door. Annie catches Helen and lifts her, kicking, back to her chair. The two continue to struggle, knocking over chairs.
Annie knows that she can’t back down when Helen becomes aggressive: if she does, then Helen will get the idea that she can do whatever she wants around Annie. Therefore, Annie continues to push, and their struggle continues.
Suddenly, Helen hesitates, then reaches her hands toward her own plate. She grabs food off her plate and eats it. When she’s eaten all her food, Helen holds out her plate for more. In response, Annie takes a spoon and tries to place it in Helen’s hand, even as Helen resists. Annie holds Helen’s plate out of reach and then offers her a spoon. Helen at first refuses to use the spoon, but accepts, at which point Annie finally gives her back her plate, signing “Good girl.” But just then, Helen pulls Annie’s hair and hits her.
Annie’s hard work seems to pay off: after just a couple minutes of fighting, Helen learns the lesson that she has to use a spoon and eat off of a plate. But as it turns out, old habits die hard, and Helen isn’t going to give up so easily. This pattern repeats throughout the play: just when Annie thinks she has broken through and accomplished something significant with Helen, Helen reveals that she’s just as unruly as she has always been.
The room goes dark. Meanwhile, Kate, Viney, Aunt Ev, Mildred, Percy, and Martha stand outside. Aunt Ev complains that she’s been waiting outside the house all afternoon, and adds that Helen “is a Keller,” meaning that she’s a cousin to General Robert E. Lee.
Ev emphasizes the Kellers’ status as an elite Southern family, related by blood to General Lee (the main general of the Confederacy during the Civil War). This emphasizes the point that the Kellers don’t like Annie in part because she’s a strong, confident Northerner.
Just then, Helen and Annie emerge from the house. They both look exhausted. Triumphantly, Annie announces that Helen ate from her own plate, used a spoon, and folded her napkin. Annie retires to her room. Kate repeats, “My Helen-folded her napkin.” She begins to weep, as if she’s finally losing “her protracted war with grief.”
After hours of work, Annie appears to have made some real progress. It’s surprising, though, that the stage directions characterize Kate’s reaction to this news as one of grief. Perhaps Kate realizes that, if it takes hours just to teach Helen something as simple as napkin-folding, it’ll take countless years to teach her to speak, showing that even this great victory is, ultimately, just a drop in the bucket. Or, perhaps feeling some small amount of relief and encouragement allows her to finally feel the grief she has repressed over her daughter’s difficult life.
Upstairs, Annie opens her suitcase and finds a battered copy of her “Perkins report.” A man’s voice can be heard describing a blind, deaf, mute woman as being “buried alive.” The man wonders, rhetorically, if there is anyone who will save her and “awaken her.”
The man speaking may be Dr. Howe, whose report Annie previously claimed to have studied closely. There is likely very limited scholarship at the time about the lives of deaf-blind people or how to treat them. Again, notice the rhetoric of imprisonment and awakening, suggesting that Annie’s role as teacher is to access the hidden reserves of intelligence and curiosity that are buried deep within Helen.
Suddenly, a boy’s voice asks, “Annie, what’s that noise?” Annie replies, that somebody is pushing a cot to “the deadhouse.” Jimmie asks, “Does it hurt, to be dead?” Next, Jimmie insists that Annie must stay around to take care of him, but Annie insists that she’s going to go to school one day. Then, we hear the same male voice we heard earlier: “Little girl, I must tell you. Your brother will be going on a journey, soon.” Jimmie’s voice cries, “Annie!”
Annie remembers her traumatic experiences in the almshouse, where she and Jimmie lived as children. The male voice seems to be explaining to Annie that Jimmie is dying. This, the audience can assume, is the horror that Annie is trying to move past: having lost a brother, and then blaming herself for the tragedy.
Annie gets to her feet and begins putting things in her suitcase. Meanwhile, in the garden house, Arthur and Kate argue about Annie, Arthur claiming that Annie can’t be much of a teacher if Helen runs away from her and fights with her. Quietly, Kate points out that even if Helen made a mess of the room, “she folded her napkin.”
Arthur continues to doubt Annie, but Kate has grown to trust her and seems to believe that she has the power to teach Helen something valuable. Notice that, the second time around, Kate treats the news of Helen folding her napkin optimistically: it may be a small victory in the grand scheme of things, but it’s still a victory, and bodes well for the future.
Annie, having packed her suitcase, walks down to the garden house. There, Arthur informs Annie that he has been dissatisfied with her. However, he has tried to make allowances for Annie, given that she’s not from the South. He claims he’ll only allow Annie to stay if she behaves politely. Annie replies that the situation is hopeless—she’ll never be able to teach Helen, so long as she’s allowed to run wild. This news startles Kate. Kate tells Annie that Helen has always been bright—she even began talking when she was only six months old—one of her first words was “water.”
Annie and Arthur come head to head: Arthur can’t tolerate Annie’s aggressiveness and general lack of “Southern manners,” and Annie can’t work with Arthur and Kate’s indulgent style of child rearing. Yet, here more than ever, it’s clear that Helen is capable of learning how to communicate—she’s obviously smart, as evidenced by the fact that she spoke so early in life. The mention of water here also foreshadows Helen’s “rebirth” in Act Three.
Annie tells the Kellers that Helen’s worst handicap isn’t deafness or blindness—it’s her own parents’ spoiling affection and pity. Annie will never be able to teach Helen, so long as Arthur and Kate spoil her. Annie is willing to stay on, but only if Arthur and Kate give her “complete charge” of Helen, “day and night.” Annie demands that she be allowed to live with Helen, alone. She explains, “I packed half my things already.”
Annie tells Kate and Arthur about her own childhood. She grew up in “the state almshouse,” along with her brother Jimmie. The place was full of old, blind women, and younger, diseased people. Annie and Jimmie used to play in a room called the deadhouse, where the dead bodies of almshouse residents were stored until they could be buried. The almshouse was miserable, but it made Annie strong. Kate makes a sympathetic noise, but Annie ignores it.
This is the most explicit explanation of Annie’s early life, clarifying what was only implied previously. Annie doesn’t believe that sympathy and pity have a place in a child’s development: rather, children need to learn how to be strong and capable. Annie is confident in her educational philosophy because she has actually lived it: she’s living proof that children are made stronger by not being coddled.
Annie suggests that she and Helen live in the garden house, with Percy to help them at times. Arthur irritably consents to all of this, giving Annie two weeks. He then marches out of the garden house.
The plot of the rest of the play is now set in motion: Annie has two weeks to teach Helen how to communicate. As before, Arthur’s behavior here is amusingly blustery—he’s gruff but in the end he usually backs down.
Alone in the garden house, Annie takes Kate’s hand and shows her the alphabet. The lights dim while, slowly, the characters move furniture from the house to the garden house. When the lights rise, James is in the garden house with Annie, carrying Annie’s suitcase. James points out that Annie doesn’t give up easily. Annie explains that she has one important “weapon” against Helen: Helen’s enormous curiosity. James suggests, “We all give up, don’t we?” Annie replies that giving up is “my idea of original sin.”
Notice that James’s respect for Annie and Helen is growing slowly but surely. Even though he continues to take a pessimistic view of things, he seems impressed, in spite of himself, with Annie’s resilience. Resilience, this passage confirms, is the core of Annie’s determined approach to teaching. Annie keeps on trying the same approach with Helen, showing her the signs for words over and over again, hoping that something will stick.
As James walks out, Kate and Arthur appear, leading Helen to the garden house. Kate explains that they’ve been driving through the country for two hours, meaning that, for all Helen knows, she’s far away from home. Kate begs Annie, “Please be good to her.” Annie promises she will.
As far as Helen is concerned, she’s far away from her parents and her home. In this way, she’s been tricked into thinking that she’s in Annie’s domain, and therefore obliged to do whatever Annie says.
The Kellers leave Annie and Helen alone, and Helen begins banging around the garden house. She finds her doll and is about to throw it when, suddenly, she begins to cry and sinks to the floor.
Perhaps her crying is a sign that Helen is beginning to surrender to Annie. She no longer seems to have as much energy to fight. Instead, she’s frustrated and maybe even willing to begin to cooperate with Annie. Her crying also suggests that she’s intelligent and aware enough to understand what goes on around her to some extent—for example, that she has been taken from her home and family.
Meanwhile, in the house, James Keller mockingly asks Kate, how Annie manages to get everything she wants out of Kate. Furious, Arthur twists James’s arm, demanding to know what James wants out of him. James cringes and then cries, “Everything you forgot, when you forgot my mother.” James runs offstage.
Alone, Kate tells Arthur she’s proud of him for letting Annie have control over Helen. Arthur wonders aloud why James, his own son, can’t stand him. Gently, Kate suggests that Arthur is too hard on James. The lights dim.
With Kate’s encouragement, Arthur is learning to “ease up”—first by letting Annie take control over Helen, and second, perhaps, by being less aggressive and domineering with his son.
Annie, now in bed in the garden house, is wide-awake. Voices fill the stage. The young boy whose voice the audience heard earlier calls out for Annie again. Suddenly, Annie cries, “No pity, I won’t have it. On either of us.” She turns to Helen, who is “prone on the floor,” and touches Helen’s hand. Helen immediately recoils and crawls under the bed. Frustrated, Annie calls out for Percy, who walks sleepily onto the stage.
As before, Annie is utterly opposed to the concept of pity. She thinks that she must be hard on Helen in order to coax her out of her reluctance to cooperate and learn. The danger of this style of teaching, as the passage makes clear, is that the pupil (Helen) dislikes and even fears her teacher (Annie). In reality, Annie is hard on Helen because she respects Helen and wants her to succeed.
Annie tells Percy to touch Helen’s hand. He does so, and Helen, delighted, emerges from under the bed. She embraces Percy and tries to stick her fingers in his mouth. Then, Helen spells “C-A-K-E” on Percy’s hand. Annie has an idea: she begins teaching Percy to spell: first, the word “milk.” Helen tries to get between Annie and Percy but Annie brushes her away. Just as Annie had planned, Helen becomes jealous. Annie gives Helen some milk, thanks Percy, and sends him back to bed. Helen crawls into bed, too.
As Annie spends more time with Helen, she has to develop new techniques to keep her pupil interested in learning. Here, she appeals to Helen’s natural sense of jealousy: in order to get Helen interested in something, she offers that thing to someone else, making Helen feel left out. The technique works beautifully, and will potentially be useful for making Helen interested in learning.
Alone, Annie sits in a rocking chair with Helen’s doll. Happy with herself, she begins singing a lullaby to the doll “in mock solicitude.” As she sings, James, asleep in the main house, turns as if he’d heard the song, followed by Arthur Keller and Kate Keller.
Annie’s lullaby is a little sad—one can imagine her singing to a doll as a child, because she had no other family. This might further suggest that Annie is interested in taking care of others because nobody ever took care of her. And yet the lullaby is also inspirational, as suggested by the Kellers’ behavior. Annie’s loving devotion to Helen inspires the other Kellers to be bolder and more honest, as Gibson will show in Act Three.