The stage is dark as Annie and Helen sit in bed in the garden house. Annie teaches Helen how to spell “water” and “egg.” She mutters to herself that she needs to find a way to teach Helen what a name is, adding, “it’s so simple, simple as birth, to explain.”
Act Three begins with two classic symbols of birth—water and eggs—foreshadowing the miraculous “rebirth” Helen will undergo at the end of the play. Annie’s goal here is to teach Helen the concept of meaning—a concept that, like birth, may seem simple, but is in fact so integral to the human condition that it’s almost impossible to explain simply.
Meanwhile, in the house, Arthur is telling Kate that she needs to eat something. Kate complains that she’s restless and nervous, but James says that the house has been blissfully silent—a statement that infuriates Arthur. Annie continues to sit with Helen, spelling the word “water.” Arthur tells James that if he becomes a parent, he’ll know what “separation” means—and one of the most painful kinds of separation is “disappointment in a child.” Arthur leaves the room and James, suddenly weary, apologizes to Kate for his words. He asks Kate, “what does he want from me?” Kate tells James that James needs to “stand up to the world” before he worries about his father. James admits he doesn’t know how to do this, but he asks Kate to be his friend and help him. Kate agrees.
James and Arthur continue to argue, and yet neither one of them seems to have the courage to tell the other one what they’re thinking. Arthur clearly feels remorseful for not having a better relationship with his child. Even though James seems to want to have a better relationship with Arthur, he doesn’t give his father any indication of how they might become closer—as he doesn’t seem to have a clear idea himself. As before, it is Kate who serves as the intermediary between father and son, translating Arthur and James’s feelings. With Kate’s support, James seems to find the strength to be honest and stand up to his father.
Meanwhile, in the garden house, Annie, not wearing her smoked glasses, writes that she feels deeply “undisciplined” as she teaches Helen. She looks the word up in the dictionary and realizes she was spelling it incorrectly.
Annie continues to struggle to think of ways to teach Helen how to communicate. The absence of her smoked glasses (which she ordinarily wears to shield her eyes from painful light) suggests the pain and irritation she’s willing to endure for Helen’s education.
Just then, Kate enters the garden house and inquires what Annie is doing. Annie quickly puts her glasses on again and explains, “Whatever I spell to Helen I’d better spell right.” Annie shows Kate that Helen has learned to eat with a spoon. She also explains that she’s taught Helen many words. But of course, Helen doesn’t know what words are. When Helen is sleeping, Annie explains, her hands make “letters when she doesn’t know.” It’s as if there’s a part in Helen’s mind that “aches to speak out.” Annie wants to awaken this part of Helen’s mind.
This is one of the clearest evocations of the way Annie—and Gibson—sees the human mind. Annie believes that there’s a part of Helen’s mind that yearns to communicate with the external world. It’s worth noting that Gibson’s wife, Margaret Brenman, was a famous psychologist and Freudian psychoanalyst, so the allusions to the unconscious in this section are likely informed by Gibson’s exposure to his wife’s studies and practice.
Just then, Arthur Keller enters the garden house. He explains that he’s brought Helen a “playmate,” a dog named Belle. Annie reminds him that her two weeks with Helen aren’t yet complete—she has until 6pm. Arthur points out that a couple more hours won’t make any difference, though he praises Annie for teaching Helen cleanliness and good manners. Teaching Helen to communicate, Arthur continues, is like teaching a dog to spell. But he agrees not to bring Helen back to the house until six. He and Kate exit the garden house, leaving the dog behind.
Gibson builds up the suspense by giving Annie just a few more hours before her two weeks expire. Arthur seems to want his daughter (and Annie, for that matter) to be respectful and polite, but nothing more. He values order and cooperation, rather than enlightenment and true independence (the things Annie hopes to offer Helen). Arthur’s The comparison Arthur makes between Helen and the dog is inappropriate and crude, especially in light of the fact that Helen will later go on to earn a college degree,
Alone with Helen, Annie spells out “D-O-G” and then touches Helens hand to Belle. Then, she gets a tumbler of water and thrusts Helen’s hand into it. Helen removes her hand and wipes it on the dog. Frustrated, Annie exclaims, “give them back their child and dog, both housebroken, everyone’s satisfied.” Annie wants to teach Helen “everything the earth is full of.” She wonders aloud how she can teach Helen what meaning is—that “N-A-P-K-I-N” means napkin, for example.
Annie refuses to give up, even when the outlook is poor, because she desperately wants to teach Helen about the world she has been so cut-off from until now. It is not enough to show Helen how to be neat and orderly; Annie wants to show Helen how to think and write, in a sense “freeing” Helen from her own ignorance about the world.
Meanwhile, figures gather outside the garden house. As the bell tolls six, James, Viney, Percy, and Martha enter the garden house and remove Annie and Helen’s things, bringing them back to the house. James takes Annie’s suitcase, and studies Annie “without mockery.”
Over the course of the last two acts, James has developed a grudging respect for Annie. In contrast to his own cynicism and laziness, Annie refuses to give up, and in this way she serves as an inspiration for James, who struggles himself to find the courage to stand up to the world.
Kate comes to the garden house. Annie, seeing Kate, touches Helen’s hand to Kate’s cheek and spells, “mother.” Kate, impatient, cries out, “let her come!” Repeating Helen’s name, Kate kisses her daughter and carries her like a baby back to the house.
Kate wants to educate her daughter, but she seems more concerned with loving her daughter and expressing this love than she is with showing her the kind of discipline that might actually help her learn. As the passage establishes, Kate’s love for Helen can be smothering—it precludes Helen from learning and becoming a thinking, autonomous person.
Now alone in the garden house, Annie hears a boy’s voice saying, “You said we’d be together, forever and ever.” These words repeat, louder and louder, until Annie covers her ears to drown them out.
Annie is afraid that she has “failed” with Helen. This failure is devastating for her, since it reminds her of Jimmie, whose death she seems to blame herself for.
Just then, Arthur Keller enters the garden house and gives Annie her first months’ salary. He thanks Annie for changing Helen from a “wild thing” into a child. But Annie protests that she wants to teach Helen how to think, not merely behave. She begs Arthur not to spoil Helen, noting, “The world isn’t an easy place for anyone.”
Annie reiterates two important points about education. First, language is the “light” of the mind—without it, it’s impossible to think precisely. Second, it’s best to exercise little to no pity while raising a child, since, sooner or later, the child is going to have to learn to survive without the pity of others.
Back in the house, Helen feels the front door and removes the key from the lock. She runs to Kate, who takes the keys back from her. James walks into the house while, outside, Viney pumps water from the water pump. At supper, James says grace, quoting from the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel.
It’s no coincidence that James mentions the story of Jacob. In this story, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious stranger who turns out to be an angel, and is later blessed with the name “Israel.” The story is often interpreted as a symbol of the struggle to follow God, and of the blessings that sometimes emerge from the struggle. In this way, the story parallels the relationship between Annie and Helen: out of their struggle, a miracle will emerge.
At the supper table, Helen throws her napkin to the floor. Annie puts the napkin back on Helen’s lap, and when Helen throws it away again, Annie takes away Helen’s food. Aunt Ev objects that Helen is only a child, but Annie shoots back that Helen is testing her family to see what she can get away with. Arthur tells Annie that she’s causing a nuisance by being so hard on Helen, and orders Annie to bring Helen her plate. Annie does so, fuming.
Here, the weakness of the Kellers’ attitude toward Helen is painfully clear. Aunt Ev is superficially kind to Helen, but her kindness prevents Helen from learning or growing: Ev is willing to overlook everything Helen does, and this means Helen never has any incentive to improve her behavior. The Kellers shower Helen in kindness, but in the long run this could, paradoxically, be considered cruel. Conversely, Annie is tough on Helen, but in the long run her actions are kind.
Helen gleefully throws her fork to the floor. Wearily, James says, “I think we’ve started all over.” Helen finds a pitcher of water and swings it in Annie’s direction, getting water all over Annie’s dress. Annie stands up and carries Helen out of the room, ordering Arthur, who has stood up angrily, to remain seated. Aunt Ev is astounded that Arthur would let Annie speak to him this way. But James agrees with Annie, telling Arthur, “has it never occurred to you that on one occasion you might be consummately wrong?” There’s a long silence, and Arthur, staring directly at James, sits down.
James finally stands up to his father—and, per Kate’s advice, the world. Instead of hiding behind sarcasm and cheap jokes, he tells his father exactly what’s on his mind: he doesn’t agree with Arthur’s opinion about Annie. The experience of being directly defied is, apparently, so unfamiliar to Arthur that he’s momentarily stunned. But perhaps the fact that he complies with James suggests that, in the future, he’ll do a better job of remaining humble and listening to other people’s opinions, especially his son’s.
Outside, Annie leads Helen to the water pump, still holding the pitcher. She touches Helen’s hand to the handle of the pump. Helen pumps until water comes out, filling the pitcher. Annie holds Helen’s hand under the water. Then, she spells “water” for Helen. And at this point, “a miracle happens.” Helen says, “wah wah.”
This is the titular miracle of the play: Helen finally draws a connection between actual water and symbol for water. She intuits what meaning means. This is nothing short of a second birth for Helen—as evidenced by the fact that she repeats the word she uttered when she was six months old. Thanks to Annie’s teaching, she’s been baptized and born again (which also explains all the water symbolism).
Helen seems suddenly excited. She touches the earth and then holds out her hand expectantly—Annie spells “ground.” She does the same with the pump, the steps of the porch, and the trellis. Annie calls for the Kellers to run outside. When Kate and Arthur rush outside, Annie guides Helen toward each one of her parents and then makes the signs for “mother” and “papa.” Annie cries, “She knows!”
Helen clearly understands the concept of meaning. Language, she now realizes, is a way of understanding the world around her—everything has its own special sign, and to learn the signs is to learn about the world itself.
Helen turns to Annie and grasps Annie’s thigh. Annie makes the sign for “teacher” and Helen repeats it back to her. Helen then turns back to her mother. She taps Kate’s pocket until Kate retrieves the keys and gives them to Helen. It is their first act of communication, and in this moment, Kate both gains and loses her daughter. Then, Helen spells the word “teacher” on Kate’s hand. Kate embraces Helen for a moment, but then “relinquishes her.” Helen feels her way back into the yard, where she finds Annie. Helen presents Annie with the keys. Annie holds Helen in her arms, and Helen kisses her cheek. Kate watches, torn, and then turns back toward the dinner table.
In this poignant moment, Helen communicates with her mother for the first time. And yet, the content of this communication (“teacher,” rather than “mother”) seems to suggest that Helen has come to think of Annie as even more of a maternal figure than Kate. And this is what Gibson means when he says that Kate gains and loses her daughter. Kate is overjoyed with Helen’s progress, but she senses that Helen will always think of Annie, not Kate, as the person who “birthed” her. Before Helen could communicate, Helen was Kate’s child, and hers alone. Now that Helen can “speak,” Kate has lost her grip over her child, and this is at once happy and sad.
Annie takes Helen’s hand and spells out, “I love Helen … forever and ever.” The lights dim, “taking on the color of the past.” But this time, there are no echoing voices. Very slowly, Kate sits down to the table, joining James and Arthur. Aunt Ev gets up to open the door, and Annie, holding Helen in her arms, walks up the porch steps and through the door to the Kellers’ house.
The nostalgic lighting signifies that, by teaching Helen, Annie has finally overcome her personal demons. Jimmie no longer haunts Annie. She has redeemed herself by “saving” another young child—Helen. In the act of teaching Helen, Annie has come to love Helen, and the reverse is also true—they’re as close as a mother and daughter, and in some ways closer. Annie has freed Helen from her own ignorance. And, in a way, she has freed Helen from total dependence on her family. Helen is free to explore the world and have her own independent life—and indeed, Helen will go on to become a great political activist and one of the most famous figures in American history.