Finding Meaning in the Struggle

February 21, 2012
For decades, the story of the legendary Helen Keller has been performed for and read by countless men, women, and children living in our modern age. Many have been touched by the heart-warming story of the blind, deaf, and mute little girl who overcame all obstacles and made a success of herself despite the doubt of others. Though "The Miracle Worker", by playwright William Gibson, is primarily about the struggles that Helen undergoes throughout her training and lessons, it is also based around Helen's hard-working teacher, the deaf Annie Sullivan. Though Helen undergoes many changes and builds her character throughout the story of her life, her tutor works just as hard, if not harder, to teach Helen to become all she can be. Because of Helen's struggle to achieve substance and understanding in her life, the ongoing struggles Ms. Sullivan faces in her attempts to teach Helen, and because of the family's attempted patience and heightened spirits throughout the ordeal, the Keller family is strengthened. Swami Sivonada once said that "life has meaning only in the struggle", meaning that struggles and hardships are necessary to determine who one is and to change oneself into what one desires to become. This was true of the Keller family and of the tutor that was unofficially adopted by them out of hope for Helen's healing. Helen's story revolves around the key theme of the lives of all people, which is change; change resulted in happiness, betterment, and societal influence for Helen and her family. Helen's struggle to be successful and to understand the ways of the world despite her handicaps inspired the entire family and allowed them to realize how they needed to change to be better people. Gibson relays how this bettering of the Kellers and of Ms. Sullivan resulted in happiness for the family and how all people should allow instances in their lives to change themselves for the better.

Throughout Helen's life, each person in her family is changed by her experiences. This change begins soon after her birth, when Helen falls ill. The entire family, especially her two parents, Kate and Captain Keller, are sorely impacted by her illness and frightened by the alarming irregularity of her symptoms. However, the doctor pronounces her well after a check up, and the family breathes easier for a while. But a day later, when Kate discovers the blindness and deafness of her daughter, the family begins to change their lives to fit Helen's needs. Years later, the Keller family is still neck-deep in confusion and their useless attempts to change Helen into what they believe she should be: a good, obedient child. This, Helen is not. From five years old and on, Helen fights her parents and family out of bitter hatred for her condition and for the limits it sets upon her. Only when Annie Sullivan comes to offer her assistance to Helen, do Helen's actions become more bareable for the family. As Helen begins to make progress, the family changes, moved by Helen's stubborn, passionate desire to improve and continue on in life.

Initially, Helen's brother James is the only member of her family who is not sympathetic to her condition. On the contrary, James is actually quite jealous of Helen, who is frequently doted upon by their mother and aunt. James hates his sister because of this and also because she is allowed to "get away" with whatever she wants. Helen is allowed to act barbarically, throwing food and attacking members of her family. James does not understand his family's obsession with Helen, and is angry at his stepmother and at his father for allowing Helen to act as she does. James hates Helen, and believes that his life would be better off without her in it. He approaches his father one day and says, "You really ought to put her away, Father...some assylum, it's the kindest thing" (Gibson 9). James is the only one out of everyone in his family who has given up on Helen. He wishes that his parents would lock her away and forget about her. His misunderstanding of the intentions of his father and stepmother are what lead to his anger towards and hatred of Helen. He believes that Kate does not love him, and that the Captain does not care for him, but he is wrong. Eventually, James realizes that he has been mistaken all this time, and lets his guard down hesitantly. His loving stepmother, Kate is finally allowed into his life, and support of his half sister finally finds a way into his heart.

Kate Keller, the mother of Helen Keller, changes several times throughout the story of their life together. Initially, Kate is sweet, loving, and silly. She is overjoyed with having a baby girl to look after and watches over her happily and infatuatedly. However, during the first five years after discovering Helen's blindness, Kate's happiness disappears. These past "Five years have done much to her, the girlish playfulness is gone, she is a woman settled in grief" (Gibson 6), and her love of life has fallen behind just as her daughter's sight and speech has. Despite her loss of zest, Kate has not lost her determination to make her daughter well again. Kate searches everywhere, vainly, for someone who just might be able to help her first child. Even after many rejections, Kate still urges her husband, the Captain, to write to the Perkins School for the Blind. Captain Keller hates that Kate destroys herself by constantly getting her hopes up and then watching the crash down around her. Hoping to change her mind, the Captain says to his wife, "Katie, how many times can you let them break your heart?" (Gibson 7), but Kate answers stubbornly, "Any number of times" (Gibson 7), because of her great love for her child. Kate begins to change when Ms. Sullivan enters their household. Annie teaches her to discipline her daughter without feeling useless and like a horrible mother. Kate's despair turns back to hope, and her heart and eyes are opened to the changes that are immenently forming the daughter that will one day impact the lives of countless others.

Along with Kate, her husband is also changed by Helen and her teacher. Before Helen and Captain Keller begin to change, the Captain is a distant, arrogant fellow with little hope in his heart. He does not attempt in any way to improve his daughter's condition or to discipline her. He puts up barriers between himself and his family. He feels useless before the coming of Annie Sullivan because he is clueless as what to do about Helen's blindness, deafness, and muteness. Even after Annie arrives, his arrogance stops him from learning from her and from taking her advice. However, as Annie continues to push, the Captain becomes more loving, humble, and accepting of all the things in his life, including Helen's condition and the needs she possesses. The Captain shows his newfound humility as he gives Annie her first payment, saying, "With many more to come, I trust. It doesn't pay our debt. For what you've done...[You've taught her] more than all of us could, in all the years we [tried]" (Gibson 103). Captain Keller finally learns what it means to be grateful to another person for the changes they have brought into his life.

Annie Sullivan changes the most out of all the characters involved in Helen Keller's story. Annie comes to the Keller home in hope of doing some good for a fellow handicap, but she is broken by the loss of her brother, Jimmy. She swears up and down that she will never love anyone again because of the pain love has wrought her throughout her life. Since the loss of Jimmy, Annie has been cursed with horrible nightmares full of sickening images that break her down even more. As she continues to live with the Kellers and help Hellen learn, however, the nightmares become less and less frequent. Struggling through the obstacles that Helen poses as well as those her family poses, Annie learns to leave her past behind her and to accept the future as a bright and beautiful thing. Despite her previous vow to never love again, she comes to appreciate the Kellers and even to love her pupil, Helen. Annie begins to notice that she is changing when "her eyes fill [with tears], it takes her by surprise, and she laughs through it" (Gibson 104). Finally, Annie pulls Helen into her lap, clutches her pupil to her, and says, "I love Helen" (Gibson 119).

Throughout this story of transformation, each character is changed in some way by the struggles that affect Helen and the rest of the family. Helen learns to become more civilized and to allow patience to come before anger and hostility. James learns to stand up for himself, but also to let others into his heart and to support his family. Kate learns to discipline Helen for her child's own good and to open her heart to hope and love. The Captain learns to be humble and to accept the help and advice of others, and Annie Sullivan learns to love those who matter to her, despite her previous misgivings. Throughout the fear, despair, hopelessness, and eventual change due to it all, the Kellers and Ms. Sullivan learn to find meaning in the struggle.

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