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"Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it's time to pause and reflect." - Mark
In an exclusive prep school in the 1950's, the focus is on grades and learning as sons follow their
fathers' footsteps into the family profession. The prestigious Welton Academy ("Tradition,
Honor, Discipline and Excellence"), as their four-pillar motto suggests, has a long-standing
history of success, brilliance and reputation. The young male students of the institution are
expected, at all times, to respect rules and authority, to conduct themselves in a dignified
manner, and to continually strive for greater and greater academic achievements. Into the school
comes former student, John Keating, now the new English teacher, taking a slight detour from
the established curriculum with his unorthodox methods of teaching and passion towards
literature and poetry, inspires many of his impressionable young students while severely
disrupting the Academy's administration. As Mr. Keating teaches them to express themselves
and go against the status quo, a group of friends form a club for the reading and discovery of
poetry. However against an uptight background, tensions are formed and the boys learn more
than they had expected.
The setting took place in Welton Academy, a dull and hollow school where tradition and
reputation was placed before creativity and education. With its authoritarian and self-interested
staff, it can be observed that the institution practices existentialism, a philosophical discipline
hugely centered on tradition. At Welton, both teachers and students are taught to conform in
order for their school system to work. Students were not only asked excel in academics but were
also forced to wear the same clothes and speak in an educated manner. In addition to the all-male
student body, teachers are also ordered to follow the same default teaching pattern practiced at
the Academy (as observe in the early parts of the film).This also became evident in the opening
scene of the movie, where all the pupils of Welton are gathered together. In this scene, all the
boys are wearing their school uniform hence producing the idea that they are all the same and are
treated as such when they are in school. However the movie also demonstrates
transcendentalism, another philosophical discipline focused on individualism, self-reliance and
the paradigm shift towards a non-conformist understanding. When Neil portrays the role of Puck
in the play A Midsummer Nights Dream, he is seen wearing the costume of his character. As
horrid and ridiculous the attire may seem, it demonstrated Neil as a free man released from the
tensions and demands of school and his family. It also exhibited Neil as a happy being doing
what he loves and not what others want him to love (In this case, going to Harvard to fulfil the
wishes of his father).
The major theme of the story is revolves around the phrase, Carpe Diem (Seize the day), the
key principle of Mr. Keatings teaching philosophy. Carpe Diem defines the importance of self-
esteem with further emphasis on the value of moments through appreciation and opportunities.
This can be observed during one of boys class with Mr. Keating, where they were told to learn
to think for themselves. After all, the happiness of life depends on the quality of ones thoughts
and not of others. Walt Whitman once versed, O me, o life! Of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, Of cities filled with the foolish. What good amid these, o
me, o life? The answer: That you are here. That life exists, and identity. That the powerful play
goes on, and you may contribute a verse. Certainly one of the most powerful statements ever
uttered, but in its simplicity, it forces an individual to reconsider ones role in the grand scheme
of things. Conformity also became one of the centers of the movie. The institution enforced strict
values to uphold their norms which later caused a group of students to rebel against ancient
traditions. Although conformity at Welton was at the administrations best interest, their firm
rules that supported conformity later lead to conflicts that result in the loss of life and reputation
to mention, the expulsion of Charlie Dalton, the death of Neil Perry and the firing of Mr.
The film introduces us to a group of boys in their teenage years, namely Neil Perry and Todd
Anderson, along with their friends Knox Overstreet, Charlie Dalton, Richard Cameron, Steven
Meeks, and Gerard Pitts. It also presents us the Headmaster of Welton Academy Gale Nolan,
Neils father (mentioned as Mr. Perry), and English teacher John Keating. The boys are a definite
example of transcendentalism, breaking free from the roots of tradition in the midst of finding
their identity.
Neil Perry (played by Robert Leonard) plays the groups leader and most prominent member. He
believed in the importance of freedom, organizing the groups daily meeting at the cave and
auditioning for the role of Puck for the school play. During his conversation with Mr. Keating,
Neil even said Think about it, most people, if theyre lucky, get to lead half an exciting life,
right? If I get the parts I could live dozens of great lives. This shows that Neil wanted to be
someone else a person who could express his passions at the right time. Mr. Perry (played by
Kurtwood Smith) shares no certain feature with his son. A hard-core conformist and
authoritarian, Mr. Perry lacks the initiative to see the world through his sons eyes. His priority is
his own will and should be strictly followed by any means necessary. After a heated argument
with his father, Neil felt that his only option in order to gain some control of his life was to take
his own life. He committed suicide thereafter. Neil and his fathers relationship was a product of
misunderstanding and lack of communication. Even at one point in the movie, Neils desperation
and agony was observed as he kneels down to his father, begging him to support his role as the
editor of the school paper. Neil, having a thirst of discovering his capabilities and identity, was
unable to discuss his opinions and options to his father. Unwilling to accept his sons outlook in
life, Mr. Perry forces Neil to quit acting and practice medicine instead. Hopeless and desperate
for freedom, Neil saw death as an opportunity to stand up and send a message to his close-
minded father.
Todd Anderson (played by Ethan Hawke) portrays the new kid at Welton overshadowed by his
older brothers reputation, fame and accomplishments making him the introvert, timid and self-
doubting type of person that he is. Todd becomes part of the pact through Neil and becomes
expose to the gangs non-conformist mentality. This, along with the lectures of Mr. Keating
allowed Todd to discover his creativity and poetic capacity but became hindered by his fears that
prevented him from sharing his talents to the world. The death of Neil became his eye opener
transforming Todd into a leader and an achiever he truly is. This is made visible in the latter part
of the movie, wherein despite the headmasters threat of expulsion, Todd remained standing on
his desk yelling, Oh captain, my captain! as a sign of salutation to their former mentor.
John Keating (played by Robin Williams) is the new English teacher at the Academy. He sees
himself as the captain as mentioned in Walt Witmans poem Oh captain, my captain. Let us
bear in mind that the captain Witman referred to was Abraham Lincoln, one of historys
significant leaders. Since legends like Able produce astonishing change towards the lives of
many, Keating sees this phrase as a way to venture the exact same possibility. He addressed his
students to call him the captain in the hopes of bringing the same change to their lives as poetry
did to his. However this mentality is what also brought him to his downfall. In his attempt to aid
his students to reality, he unintendedly led Charlie and Neil to their disappointing fates.
Nevertheless, his relationship with his students serve as the highlight of the movie. In fact, just
like a father would do anything for his sons, Keating sacrificed his reputation for the good of his
students. Before he got blamed for Neils death, Keating was unlike any other teachers at the
Academy. His unusual teaching method placed him on the headmasters radar, but it also made
him the most favoured teacher at the school allowing students to enjoy life through poetry and
literature. He wanted the boys to express themselves and seize each day at any means necessary -
even it involved his image as a teacher. Note that Keating was a former student at Weltan
Academy, meaning he was molded by the conformist methods implemented by the school and its
learning system. With this is mind, we can say that Keatings sacrifice is not as light as it seems.
"Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary." "You must strive to find your
own voice because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are going to find it at all." "I
stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way."
Sucking the marrow out of life doesn't mean choking on the bone. These are just some of the
lines from the film I consider timeless and insightful. All of these send us the exact messages:
One, be your own person. Yes, no man is an island; however, being your own person is okay.
In other words, individualism is necessary for ones mental growth and being yourself executes
freedom from the opinions of others. Two, challenge the status quo. Just because one
phenomenon is hugely accepted by the society doesnt make it correct at all times. Lastly,
structure is not always good. As what Mr. Keating demonstrated in his classes, learning poetry
from a book isn't always the best way of understanding it. In other words, sometimes it's okay to
rip out a book's machinelike methodology. However, use a ruler so that the pages rip out neatly.
So far I have mentioned the different complexities of the film. In lieu of the characters
mentioned earlier in the paper, I can honestly say that I can consider myself as Todd Anderson
self wise. Todd is very quiet with not much to say. He has many expectations laid upon him due
to the success of his brother. I myself am also pressured with the accomplishments of my family.
Coming from a family of lawyers and politicians, my introvert attitude constantly drags me down
in achieving what appears to be my only option to my future. Todd was also very shy. He
couldnt speak to anyone of authority including answering questions in class without sounding
insecure. Even in the Dead Poets Society, Todd like me was an observer, not a participant. He
was afraid to read out loud and afraid to participate. However, Todd has found his voice by
proving he could stand up and express himself when it really mattered. In the end part of the
film, Todd is the first to stand on the desk in respect for Mr. Keating.