The central theme of The Miracle Worker is communication. William Gibson’s play is based on the true story of Annie Sullivan, a young woman from Massachusetts who in the 1880s succeeded in teaching Helen Keller, a young deaf-blind girl from Alabama, how to communicate through sign language. Thanks to Sullivan, Keller went on to become the first deaf-blind person to earn a B.A. degree, and later became a prominent author and political activist. By dramatizing the relationship between the young Helen and Annie—and between Annie and the other members of the Keller family—Gibson explores the ways in which people communicate (and fail to communicate), and shows how people can experience a sudden, almost miraculous emotional connection through the “magic” of communication.
The Miracle Worker shows that the ability to communicate with others is foundational to nearly every aspect of a person’s life. Annie teaches Helen how to use sign language to express her feelings, ask questions, learn about the external world, and do all the things that most people take for granted. Until Helen learns to use the tools of communication that Annie is teaching her, she lives in near complete isolation due to her inability to see or hear. Annie, who was herself blind for much of her life but can now see, teaches Helen using the techniques she learned as a student at the Perkins Institute for the Blind. She spends hours showing Helen how to make letters with her fingers. Each finger-combination represents a different letter, and in this way Helen can combine different letters to make full words. However, Helen doesn’t know what a word is, so she doesn’t understand that things have names. She understands that the external world exists because she can feel, taste, and smell it, and she has no problem learning the different finger-combinations Annie shows her, but she doesn’t understand the connection between a word in sign language and the object it is mean to represent in the external world. She doesn’t understand that the finger-combinations for “D-O-G” are meant to correspond to an actual, living animal, much less an entire category of animals. For Helen, then, there is a “gap” between sign language and the external world—between “D-O-G” and a real, live dog. Because of this gap, Helen lacks the ability to communicate until the very end of the play.
Throughout the play, Gibson parallels Annie’s struggle to teach Helen how to communicate with another kind of “gap”: the emotional gap between Arthur Keller, the gruff patriarch of the Keller family, and James Keller, his adult son. Arthur and James have no trouble reading, writing, or speaking, and yet in many ways they’re as powerless to communicate with each other as Helen and Annie. James resents his father for remarrying a younger woman, Kate Keller, so soon after his mother’s death. As a result, James finds it hard to “be his own man” in the presence of his intimidating father, but he struggles to communicate this to his father directly. Even when James and Arthur do talk to each other, it’s as if they’re not really communicating at all. James uses language as a shield, hiding behind jokes and snide remarks, and Arthur remains oblivious to his son’s intense feelings of resentment. James remains unable to express his feelings to Arthur until the very end of the play.
The play offers two variations on the theme of communication. It deals with Helen’s struggle to learn to use language to name things in the external world, but it also explores the characters’ struggles to give expression to their inner worlds and experiences. In the play’s climactic scene, the two main narrative strands (Helen’s relationship with Annie and James’s relationship with Arthur) come together to make the same strong point about the power of communication. James summons the courage to stand up to his father by telling him to allow Annie to use unconventional teaching methods with Helen. In the process of expressing his own thoughts and opinions, James shows that he won’t allow himself to be bossed around any longer. Furthermore, James’s actions allow Annie to achieve a breakthrough with Helen, after which Helen finally grasps the connection between words and their meanings. In this way, “finding the right words” is shown to be as challenging a task for a deaf-blind child as it is for a grown man. And yet, with enough courage and determination, people can use words to bridge seemingly unbridgeable distances and connect with other people. In this way, communication is shown not just to be a practical means through which Helen learns how to function in the world—it is also shown to be the root of love and self-respect.
Communication Quotes in The Miracle Worker
ANAGNOS: Deaf blind, mute—who knows? She is like a little safe, locked, that no one can open. Perhaps there is a treasure inside.
ANNIE: I have three big advantages over Dr. Howe that money couldn't buy for you. One is his work behind me, I've read every word he wrote about it and he wasn't exactly what you'd call a man of few words. Another is to be young, why, I've got energy to do anything. The third is, I've been blind.
ANNIE: All right, Miss O'Sullivan. Let's begin with doll.
ANNIE: Any baby. Gibberish, grown-up gibberish, baby-talk gibberish, do they understand one word of it to start? Somehow they begin to. If they hear it, I'm letting Helen hear it.
JAMES [in pain] Don't—
KELLER: He's afraid.
(He throws JAMES away from him, with contempt.)
What does he want out of me?
JAMES [AN OUTCRY]: My God, don't you know?
(He gazes from KELLER to KATE.)
Everything you forgot, when you forgot my mother.
JAMES: What does he want from me?
KATE: That's not the question. Stand up to the world, Jimmie, that comes first.
JAMES [A PAUSE, WRYLY]: But the world is him.
KATE: Yes. And no one can do it for you.
(His voice is humble.)
At least we—Could you—be my friend?
KATE: I am.
ANNIE: Yes, what's it to me? They're satisfied. Give them back their child and dog, both housebroken, everyone's satisfied. But me, and you.
JAMES [LIGHTLY]: And Jacob was left alone, and wrestled with an angel until the breaking of the day and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him; and the angel said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And Jacob said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. Amen.
HELEN: Wah. Wah.
ANNIE: I, love, Helen.
(She clutches the child to her, tight this time, not spelling, whispering into her hair.)
(She stops. The lights over the pump are taking on the color of the past, and it brings ANNIE’s head up, her eyes opening in fear; and as slowly as though drawn she rises, to listen, with her hand on HELEN’s shoulders. She waits, waits, listening with ears and eyes both, slowly here, slowly there: and hears only silence. There are no voices. The color passes on, and when her eyes come back to HELEN she can breathe the end of her phrase without fear:)