Dead Poets Society is a film that tackles non-conformity in the face of tradition. The film is set in the 1950’s in a prestigious all-boys boarding school, Welton, that values tradition over anything. The film centers on a group of boys and their new Poetry teacher, Mr. Keating. Mr. Keating is an alumnus of Welton, but unlike the school, he values non-conformity and individualism. He teaches them life lessons while also helping them gain an appreciation for poetry. His students take the lessons to heart and proceed to follow their passions instead of blindly following tradition. However, the boys’ newfound passions lead to the tragic death of one of their friends. This leads us to the question of whether Mr. Keating’s influence was positive or negative. The writer of this literary essay is of the opinion that Mr. Keating’s influence about “carpe diem” and non-conformity exceeded the healthy amount for teenagers. Their courage went unregulated and so went out of control and became dangerous.
Before Mr. Keating’s class, the boys were all complacent and followed the traditions, rules, and expectations of their teachers and parents. They did not seem to have their own dreams and aspirations. However, it was also evident that the teenage boys were not exactly happy. Keating’s class opened the teenagers to a world of possibilities that they did not think existed before. They lived in a time when tradition was highly valued and it was reinforced by their school and parents. They were made to believe that their only way to success was by following tradition. Keating’s class contradicted all those. He taught them the value of non-conformity and individualism. He let them discover themselves and their aspirations and to be brave enough to pursue these. These are the influence Keating had on the boys in Dead Poets Society.
Even when Keating told the boys about the old organization, Dead Poets Society, which encouraged them to sneak out after curfew hours to read poetry, one cannot say that it was negative influence. The boys broke the rules of their boarding school, but it was not to do anything harmful. They only snuck out to read poetry among themselves. It was a harmless activity that made them happy. In fact, Keating’s encouragement led some of the boys to discover what they wanted to do in life. Unfortunately for some of them, in particular, Neil Perry, his aspirations went against what his parents wanted.
Neil Perry’s storyline is the most extreme out of all the boys in Dead Poets Society. While others, such as Todd Anderson became bolder and embrace his gift for writing poetry, Knox Overstreet who pursued courting his love interest despite threats from the girl’s boyfriend, and Charlie Dalton who publishes an essay about a controversial issue in the school paper, Neil wanted to become an actor. He lies to his father to joined a school play of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. When he met backlash from his father, he resorted to the most extreme action of taking his own life. From the beginning of the film, Neil is the most idealistic of the boys. He is the one who discovers that Keating was part of the Dead Poets Society and restarts the club. However, his courage does not show up when he had to confront his father about his desire to be part of the school play.
When Neil’s father demands that he withdraw from the play, Neil asks Keating for advice. Keating’s advice, true to this maxim of “carpe diem,” is for Neil to explain and stand his ground with his father. However, Neil does not do this, and instead lies about his father’s permission. His defiance leads to his father enrolling him to military school. For Neil, taking his own life was Neil’s act of defiance. However, it was too extreme, even for Keating himself.
Keating’s teaching style—his promotion of living fully and individuality—merely fanned the flames that already exists within each student. He did not tell them to defy all rules, instead he told them to follow their hearts. “Carpe diem” is a noble maxim to live by. However, when unchecked, it can indeed lead to recklessness. The evident immaturity of Neil Perry and his group exceeded the healthy amount of “carpe diem.” The boys, Neil, in particular, went from blindly following tradition to blindly following his passion.
While Keating is partly to blame for the excessive actions of the boys, the school and Mr. Perry also played a part. Keating’s lessons about “carpe diem” focus too much on living one’s full life. He did not talk about the need to be careful to a certain extent. Although he did not encourage them to go to extremes, he did not remind them of the dangers of doing so. Thus, due to his shortcoming, his supposed positive influence on the boys at Welton resulted in a tragedy. However, as mentioned, the school and Mr. Perry’s excessive control of the boys is also to blame for Neil’s and the other boys’ extreme behavior. The boys’ extreme attempts to gain freedom is the direct result of the schools’ and parents’ strictness.
The boys in Dead Poets Society are still young and therefore immature. They have a lot to learn about the world. Keating’s lessons about “carpe diem” and non-conformity and individualism are things they would learn, too. However, Keating’s shortcomings in teaching the boys about the importance of responsibility and reason even when living fully turned his positive influence into a negative one.
Dead Poets Society. Directed by Peter Weir, Touch Stone Pictures and Silver Screen Partners IV, 1989.