Throughout the play, Gibson contrasts the methods Annie Sullivan uses to teach Helen Keller with the methods that Helen’s own parents use. Helen’s parents’ approach can be summed up in one word: pity. Where Annie is rigorous in her efforts to educate Helen, Helen’s parents, Arthur Keller and Kate Keller, choose to baby her, giving her candy to pacify her and refusing to punish her when she misbehaves. While Arthur and Kate’s methods might seem kind, the play shows how their pity for Helen is counterproductive, and winds up standing in the way of her learning how to communicate.
The fundamental problem with pitying people, the play suggests, is that it deprives people of dignity or respect and assumes that they can’t learn or change—which in turn becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. When Annie arrives at the Kellers’ house she immediately grasps why nobody else has managed to teach Helen anything: Arthur and Kate feel helpless to change Helen, so they let her do whatever she wants. Because Helen’s parents spoil her terribly, Helen believes it’s okay for her to be wild, rude, and destructive. There are never any consequences for her actions, and therefore she never has any incentive to change her behavior. Indeed, Arthur and Kate spoil Helen because they’re afraid Helen will never change. Even though they keep hiring teachers for Helen, they’re afraid that none of these teachers will ever succeed. And so they conclude that they might as well keep feeding their child candy. As Helen sees it, Arthur and Kate have allowed pity to overwhelm their duties as parents. Because they feel so badly for their child, they don’t have the heart to punish her. In this way, the Kellers’ pity is one of the main things preventing Helen from making any progress: they pity Helen because they’re afraid she’ll never get any better, and as a result she never does.
The destructive power of pity becomes clearer in the play’s third act, when Annie takes Helen to stay with her in the garden house outside the Keller’s home. Alone with Helen, Annie is able to exercise stricter controls over her pupil. She doesn’t give Helen rewards unless she has earned them, and when Helen misbehaves, she takes away Helen’s food until Helen changes her ways. Soon enough, Helen has learned how to eat with a fork and a napkin. In two weeks, Annie accomplishes more for Helen than Helen’s parents have in years, and the reason for this is clear: Helen’s parents pity Helen and assume she will never learn, while Annie respects Helen and has faith that she can learn.
Annie’s intense, often severe style of teaching Helen—which might be classified simply as tough love—is the exact opposite of Arthur and Kate’s approach. Superficially, Annie’s approach is aggressive and even cruel, since it involves punishing Helen for actions she doesn’t even know are wrong, sometimes by depriving Helen of her dinner. But beneath the surface, Annie’s toughness is rooted in genuine respect for Helen—tough love, after all, is still love. Annie knows Helen is capable of living a happy, independent life, and she concludes that the only way to help Helen achieve that goal over the years to come is to be stern with her now. The Kellers’ pity for Helen is understandable because it is rooted in love for their child, but Gibson suggests that it is also rooted in a pessimism about Helen’s prospects and abilities. Because Annie believes in Helen’s capacity to learn and improve, she exercises stricter controls and gets impressive results.
Pity vs. Tough Love ThemeTracker
Pity vs. Tough Love Quotes in The Miracle Worker
KELLER: Katie. How many times can you let them break your heart?
KATE: Any number of times.
KELLER: Here’s a houseful of grownups can't cope with the child, how can an inexperienced half-blind Yankee schoolgirl manage her?
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.)
BOY’S VOICE: You ain't goin' to school, are you, Annie?
ANNIE [whispering]: When I grow up.
BOY’S VOICE: You ain't either, Annie. You're goin' to stay here take care of me.
ANNIE: I'm goin' to school when I grow up.
BOY’S VOICE: You said we'll be together, forever and ever and ever–
ANNIE [fierce]; I'm goin' to school when I grow up!
ANNIE: Mrs. Keller, I don't think Helen's worst handicap is deafness or blindness. I think it's your love. And pity.
ANNIE: The first year we had eighty, seventy died. The room Jimmie and I played in was the deadhouse, where they kept the bodies till they could dig—
KATE [closes her eyes]: Oh, my dear—
ANNIE: —the graves.
(She is immune to KATE's compassion.)
No, it made me strong. But I don't think you need send Helen there. She's strong enough.
JAMES: That she isn't. That there's such a thing as-dullness of heart. Acceptance. And letting go. Sooner or later we all give up, don't we?
ANNIE: Maybe you all do. It’s my idea of the original sin.
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:)