Reflections on "Dead Poets Society"

Directed by Peter Weir

Written by Tom Schulman

Starring Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke,

Josh Charles and Gale Hansen


A video presentation of this material is available here.


The script and direction, by Tom Schulman and Peter Weir respectively, offer characters that are remarkably well drawn and themes that arise naturally from the relationships and conflicts between the characters, imparted with exceptional clarity.

Although the charismatic John Keating may be regarded as the principal character, in fact he is more of a catalyst who motivates change in others, and it is these others who supply the bulk of dramatic interest and engagement.

The theme and very purpose of education is explored as John Keating, a newly arrived but experienced teacher of English at Welton Academy prep school for boys, makes use of unconventional strategies and methods to engage and inspire his students. These techniques will cause some friction and will contrast with the conservative principles and teaching methods employed at Welton, whose core values are tradition, excellence, discipline and honour. Fine values indeed, but in fostering them Welton appears to advocate conformity, the training and moulding of the individual and robotic learning to promote the creation of model citizens and success in society.

This contrasts sharply with Keating's view that the purpose of education is to allow or enable an individual to think for himself or herself and he encourages passion, personal fulfilment and ambition based on one's own aspirations, not the expectations of others.

This does not mean the abandonment of old principles and values, but it does imply the recognition of personal freedom and choice, and the need to adapt. It is probably no accident that the action of the film takes place in 1959, on the cusp of the sixties. Our story may reflect something of a turning point in society as we moved from relative rigidity and intransigence toward the freedom, challenge and counterculture of the 1960s.

Keating introduces his students to the concept of "carpe diem" or seize the day. He draws attention to the fact that his students' days are numbered and therefore they should make the most of life and the opportunities presented to them. He advises each student to find his voice and live in such a way that there should be no regrets at the end. He champions personal fulfilment over playing a role or fulfilling the dreams and ambitions of parents, teachers or other interested parties. Curiously, in many ways this resembles the philosophy of Sean Maguire, the teacher also played by Robin Williams in "Good Will Hunting".

Keating's convictions are embodied in his instruction to tear out an introduction in a text book devoted to the study and analysis of poetry. This introduction promotes a somewhat mechanical means of measuring the worth of a poem and Keating rejects it entirely, suggesting this coolly analytical, almost mathematical approach to understanding poetry denies or ignores the very purpose and point of poetry. Keating wants to explore and sensitise his students to the raw reactions, passion, feelings and thoughts of poets as they reflect on love, disappointment, delight, relationships, nature and life in general. He wants his students to aspire to indulge such feelings and thoughts and to express them in their own words.

Clearly, this desire conflicts with the controlled, distant and uninvolving process of analysis advised in his students' text books, a method which may lead to exam success but which ultimately may fail to elucidate the meaning and purpose of the poems studied.

These boys are sent to boarding school to develop and evolve, but in a particular mould, and they experience the age-old pressure to please their parents and conform to others' expectations and guidance. There is no doubt that their parents and teachers want what is best for these young people, in their view, but at what point should the character, aspirations and hopes of these youngsters themselves be taken into account?

This existential conundrum, with repercussions on both sides of the debate, is beautifully and sympathetically depicted here, though it is taken to extremes for dramatic effect.

In contrast with this pressure to conform, Keating encourages the boys to look within themselves and recognise and explore their own thoughts and feelings. The effect varies from individual to individual, but all make choices, all gain and all come into conflict with the status quo and with themselves.

Todd, with direct and personal intervention from Keating, manages to overcome his shyness and insecurity to find his voice and express his inner thoughts in class. He will go on to lead the defiant expression of recognition and sympathy at the end of the film.

Charlie discovers his own hidden depths as well as wit and daring as he leads an uprising against the status quo in a quest for modernisation, adaptation and reform within the school.

Knox falls head over heels in love with a young lady named Chris, which is not attributable to Keating's influence, but the fact he recognises his own feelings and finds the courage to approach Chris and express his feelings for her, is undoubtedly due to Keating's teaching.

Neil finds the courage to fulfil his ambition to act and he wishes to pursue this as a career but this brings to a head the friction between him and his parents and, unable to see a way of both satisfying his parents' ambitions for him and fulfilling his own desires, tragically he takes his own lifeā€¦

Keating is judged by the school to be largely responsible for this tragedy and he loses his position at Welton, though he may be viewed as something of a scapegoat as society seeks to apportion blame in this existentially complex matter.

There is a tremendously moving final scene in which Keating's students convey their view of things when, in reference to a previous lesson, they stand on their school desks, in defiance of the headmaster's commands to sit down, suggesting they have taken on board Keating's urging to see things from a different perspective and to think for themselves.

The acting of all concerned is to be commended and Robin Williams is often rightly praised for his wonderful performance, but I would say that the performances of the boys also deserve the highest praise, especially that of Robert Sean Leonard.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie ( BLOG