Another important theme of The Miracle Worker is family. The play is set almost entirely within the Keller household, and closely studies the complexities of the relationships between the various family members: Arthur Keller, the family patriarch; Kate Keller, his second wife; James Keller, Arthur’s son from a previous marriage; and Helen Keller, Arthur and Kate’s child.
If the play’s view of family relationships had to be summed up in one sentence, it might be that there is no such thing as an automatically happy family—instead, it takes a surprising amount of work to produce a happy, fruitful family. This point is particularly clear in three different relationships within the family. First, Arthur’s relationship with James is initially shown to be strained. While Arthur is portrayed as an overbearing, tyrannical father, James is his sullen, spiteful son who struggles to voice the anger he feels toward his father. The tension between James and his father plays out over the course of the play. On the surface, Kate’s relationship with Helen is calmer and gentler than Arthur’s relationship with James. However, Gibson shows that there is little genuine love or respect between them. Kate spoils Helen, and in return, Helen learns to expect an endless supply of candies and treats from her mother, regardless of how poorly she behaves. Helen doesn’t seem to regard her mother with much affection—as far as she’s concerned, Kate is just the person who gives her candies. The final important familial relationship the play explores is the one between Annie Sullivan and her deceased brother, Jimmie. Although the two siblings were fiercely loyal as children, Annie feels that she has betrayed her brother: having promised she would always take care of him, she blames herself, irrationally, for his early death. In each of these three cases, the characters feel that they’re bound together by a kind of love, rooted in their family ties, and yet there’s something uncomfortable and stifling about their relationships. In all of these relationships, one family member takes on a more dominant, controlling role, causing the other family member to feel guilt, anger, or resentment.
On the one hand, Gibson may be suggesting that perhaps there’s something inherently inequitable—and uncomfortable—about family. But The Miracle Worker also shows how, with hard work, compassion, and patience, families can achieve some form of happiness or maturity that is rooted in mutual respect and understanding, instead of taking one another for granted. With Kate and Annie’s encouragement, James learns how to express his feelings to his father, and in return Arthur seems to develop a grudging respect for his young, headstrong son. The two family members learn how to communicate, and in the process they learn more about one another. Much the same is true about Kate and Helen’s relationship. Kate learns to respect her daughter instead of merely thinking of her as a helpless animal or a hungry mouth. At the climax of the play, Helen uses sign language to communicate with her mother for the first time—suggesting that she’s about to embark on a more nuanced, fulfilling relationship with her.
In The Miracle Worker, Gibson suggests that family can be a wonderful thing—but rarely is this the case if people are unwilling to work. Perhaps the most interesting example of this idea can be found in Annie’s relationship with Jimmie. Over the course of the play, Annie is haunted by flashbacks of her brother’s death. By the end of the play, however, she seems to have escaped these flashbacks by developing a new, loving relationship with her pupil, Helen. The implication is that by “saving” Helen, Annie has overcome her guilt and, furthermore, has found a new family to support (and in some ways to replace her old one). In this way, the play closes by making its final important point about family: real family ties have to be earned through hard work and emotional understanding, but this means that people can create their own families—even if there isn’t any biological connection between them. Gibson makes this point very clearly at the end of his play, when Annie embraces Helen like a daughter and spells, in sign language, “I love you forever and always.” She and Helen have developed a bond strong enough that it is unconditional—like the ideal bond between family members
Family Quotes in The Miracle Worker
KELLER: Katie. How many times can you let them break your heart?
KATE: Any number of times.
KATE: Miss Annie. You see, she's accustomed to helping herself from our plates to anything she—
ANNIE [Evenly]: Yes, but, I'm not accustomed to it.
KATE: My Helen—folded her napkin—
(And still erect, with only her head in surrender, KATE for the first time that we see loses her protracted war with grief; but she will not let a sound escape her, only the grimace of tears comes, and sobs that shake her in a grip of silence.)
ANNIE: Mrs. Keller, I don't think Helen's worst handicap is deafness or blindness. I think it's your love. And pity.
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.
JAMES: She's right, Kate's right, I'm right, and you're wrong. If you drive her away from here it will be over my dead-chair, has it never occurred to you that on one occasion you might be consummately wrong?
(KATE moves to HELEN, touches her hand questioningly, and HELEN spells a word to her. KATE comprehends it, their first act of verbal communication, and she can hardly utter the word aloud, in wonder, gratitude, and deprivation; it is a moment in which she simultaneously finds and loses a child.)
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:)