Human beings tend to view
impossible occurrences as miracles, and in their haste to put labels on
such deeds that usually demand diligence and perseverance from the individuals
who are responsible for bringing about this extraordinary phenomenon, almost
always overlook those individuals’ hard work and devotion. William
Gibson attempts to address this issue in his play, The Miracle Worker,
in which the playwright shows his readers/audience that many miraculous
events require the efforts of certain individuals to occur; these events
are miraculous not in and of themselves, but because of the individuals’
input and sacrifices. In The Miracle Worker, he depicts the
amount of hard work, as well as patience, that Annie Sullivan has to exercise
before her pupil, the renowned Helen Keller, is able to free herself from
her isolated world of silence and darkness and find a way to communicate
with the outside world. Unlike her pupil’s parents and relatives,
who wait for some event to pop up to end Helen’s tyrannical outbursts,
Annie Sullivan actively searches for methods to get across to Helen despite
the barrier that is created by the latter’s handicaps. However, most
people tend to focus on the miracle instead of the miracle worker.
Miracles never happen to
the people who passively wait for them instead of actively searching for
them. This is illustrated in the case of Helen’s family, who has
basically given up on Helen being able to ever live a normal life.
Those who try to find help outside of the family circle are classified
as the more caring and sensitive ones, for there are actually close family
members, who can be heartless enough to wish to forget about the afflicted
individual’s existence, as exemplified by Helen’s brother, James, in this
play. Helen is groping through the objects on her father’s desk,
trying to determine what these unknown items are, and brushes everything
onto the floor by mistake since she cannot see. James suggests after
this accidental incident that his father “really ought to put her away…[in]
some asylum. It’s the kindest thing” (Gibson 10). He further
demonstrates his audacity and callousness when their aunt remonstrates
him for his cold attitude towards his own sister by replying: “Half
sister, and half-mentally defective, she can’t even keep herself clean.
It’s not pleasant to see her about all the time” (Gibson 10).
This attitude pretty much portrays how some pitiless people feel towards the less fortunate; without being grateful for what they take for granted, these people poke fun at other unfortunate individuals who cannot enjoy what they can. His insensitivity is pointed out by Helen’s mother, who rebukes him: “Do you dare? Complain of what you can see?” (Gibson 10). The dreadfulness of James’ declaration is further magnified since he is the afflicted individual’s family member, one who is supposed to offer support and protection, not ridicule.
Although Helen’s other family members are not as heartless as James, they do not provide the support that Helen needs or put in the effort to help her. They just merely sit back and wait for the answers to their problems to come and knock on their doors, as in the case of Captain Keller, Helen’s father: “I’ve stopped believing in wonders…I’ve done as much as I can bear, I can’t give my whole life to it! The house is at sixes and sevens from morning till night over the child” (Gibson 8,10). They want wonders, but they do not want to work for it. The only way that the Kellers are helping Helen is “by rushing up and down the country every time someone hears of a new quack” (Gibson 11); they prefer to search futilely for instant cures instead of looking for practical methods that would make life easier for Helen.
The only thing that forces the Kellers to give up looking for miraculous cures is Helen’s uncontrollable temper: “Every day she slips further away. And I don’t know how to call her back” (Gibson 13). Their feelings of helplessness force them to hire a governess, Annie Sullivan, to attempt to teach Helen. However, the new governess arrives to find not a willing pupil, but a spoiled child who will put up a fight to resist all the attempts of Annie Sullivan to teach her anything.
Annie’s troubles do not stop with Helen’s refusal to learn, which is only the first of the obstacles that the former has to surmount in order to accomplish her goal of teaching Helen the meaning of words, which Annie believes is the first step in helping her pupil establish some sort of communication with the outside world. She also has constant disputes with Captain Keller concerning the best way to instruct Helen, for Captain Keller finds Annie’s refusal to let her pupil have her own way too harsh for his “afflicted” child. This attitude prompts Annie to declare that “Helen’s worst handicap is [not] deafness or blindness [but their]…pity…All of [them]…are so sorry for her [they’ve] kept her—like a pet” (Gibson 70). Annie’s declaration once again reveals the Kellers’ pursuit of futile means to help, or rather, appease Helen instead of really finding practical means to enable their child to live a normal life.
Annie, on the other hand,
is very different from Helen’s parents. She does not think that her
pupil is an eyesore, nor does she pet her and give in to Helen’s every
demand. The governess proposes to the Kellers to allow her to live
alone in the garden house with Helen, thereby forcing the child to depend
on only Annie as the authority figure. This will prevent Helen from
running off to her parents for assistance whenever Annie insists that Helen
has to learn to spell her words. Annie adopts an attitude that “all’s
fair in love and war” (Gibson 73), and treats her residence with Helen
in the garden house for two weeks as “a siege” (Gibson 73). Despite
Helen’s tantrums and persistence, Annie vows to never give in to the child’s
demands or give up on Helen like her parents did, for she sees the blind
acceptance of life’s woes as a kind of “original sin” (Gibson 76).
The Kellers’ inability to actively pursue courses that are beneficial to their daughter is further illustrated after the two weeks of war between Annie and Helen are over. Mrs. Keller believes that Helen’s ability to learn to use a spoon to eat, comb her hair in the morning, and remain neat is already a great accomplishment: “We are more than satisfied, you’ve done more than we ever thought possible, taught her constructive…things to do, to behave like—even look like—a human child, so manageable, contented, cleaner…cleanliness is next to godliness” (Gibson 95). Mrs. Keller believes that it is all right for Helen to stop learning at this point; it is more than enough for her that her daughter can now be nice to look upon. Her concern over superficial appearances renders her unable to actually see what Helen really needs, namely, the capability to communicate with and comprehend a world that Helen is a part of, yet can never fit in due to her handicaps.
Unlike Mrs. Keller, Annie Sullivan understands Helen’s need to not only be an ornament that is nice to look upon; in order to be truly “human,” Helen needs to interact with her world. This interaction will be possible only if she can communicate with others through learning language, as advocated by Annie: “Cleanliness is next to nothing, she has to learn that everything has its name! That words can be her eyes, to everything in the world outside her, and inside too, what is she without words? With them she can think, have ideas, be reached, there’s not a thought or fact in the world that can’t be hers” (Gibson 95). And it is this unwavering belief and this persistence that brings about the miracle—Helen’s ability to not only learn to read and write, but to go to college and excel in her studies.
Gibson’s The Miracle Worker demonstrates human beings’ tendency to accept things as they are and attribute them to fate. They refuse to believe otherwise, for this blind acceptance is the easiest way out. This play makes its reader/audience realize that miracles are not so extraordinary in themselves; the individuals who actively work to create the miracles are the truly remarkable beings, as in the case of Annie Sullivan, who not only has to face her temperamental pupil, but also the parents—her employers.
Gibson, William. The Miracle Worker. New York:
Nelson Doubleday, Inc., 1957.