To start, I want to express that I don’t believe Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) is the main character, and I would like to stress that Neil’s character always remains static – meaning he does not undergo a change in his character at any time during the movie. Just because he died at the end does not mean that he changed.
I believe his life was an act – to his father, to Keating, even to himself, but when he wasn’t acting, he thought he had nothing to contribute – he was just as lost as Todd was when Todd first came to Welton. Neil couldn’t deal with the idea that to give up acting was to quit playing the roles that he lived everyday, and so he killed himself because he “realized that he had not lived” up to that point. I can’t think of any justification for calling Neil a martyr when the only thing he stood for was an act – an illusion – in itself. He just took on a different role to fit the circumstance. He never was upfront and honest about his passions to anyone. He even lied to Keating about his father giving him permission to act because he knew that Keating
would disapprove if he knew Neil’s father wouldn’t allow it. He says (in one of the extra scenes), “Think about it, most people, if they’re lucky, get to lead half an exciting life, right? If I get the parts I could live dozens of great lives.” I think that could be interpreted to mean that Neil wanted to be someone else – a person who could express his passions when the time was appropriate.
Neil seems to symbolize his kneeling down before everyone – such as his father (who takes away all control Neil tries to have – such as the editor of the newspaper) and the school. Perry seems to be symbolic for “perish” and death, foreshadowing Neil’s suicide later in the movie. I think that’s why Todd and Neil got along so well. (On the first day of Keating’s class, Keating states that they are all going to die. Neil looks incredibly disturbed while considering this.) Neil could control Todd, and that was the only thing in his life he felt he had control over. Also, in a way, I think Neil saw himself in Todd, because Neil acted towards his father the way Todd acted towards everyone. By trying to help Todd, he thought maybe he could help himself. Neil claims, “the meek might inherit the earth, but they don’t make it into Harvard,” and he’s right – he’s meek, and he never makes it into Harvard.
Neil seems thrilled at the idea that he may be able to contribute a verse. He prompts Cameron to tear out J. Evans Pritchard’s introduction to poetry. He is the one to call Keating “Captain,” and is the first to ask what the Dead Poets Society was. He is also the one to organize the first meeting. Neil also tells Todd that he must participate in the club. Todd tells Neil that he can make his own decisions about the DPS, but Neil tells him “no” and grabs Todd’s poetry and they again form a Congo circle signaling chaos. Each are Neil’s attempts to lead – to gain control over his own life.
These are the poems that Neil recites at the first Dead Poet’s Society meeting. These lines and his Madman Story not only explain Neil’s philosophy but foreshadow what is about to come – his destruction.
“I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. To put to rout all that was not life, and not when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.” – from Walden
“Come, my friends, ‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
For my purpose holds To sail beyond the sunset, and tho’ We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” – from Ulysses
“It was a dark and rainy night. And this old lady who had a passion for jigsaw puzzles
sat by herself in her house at her table to complete a new jigsaw puzzle. As she pieced
the puzzle together, she realized to her astonishment that the image that was formed was
her very own room, and the figure in the center of the puzzle, as she completed it, was
herself. And with trembling hands she placed the last four pieces and stared in horror at
the face of the demented madman at the window. The last thing that this old lady ever
heard was the sound of breaking glass.”
The Madman and the Puzzle
The puzzle symbolizes life, the madman symbolizes passion, and the death of the woman is caused by letting her passion overcome her. This story explains Neil’s existence and his suicide.
In the end, Neil realized that it was his own life and he was in the center of it. Since his dad had control over him and he was too afraid to stand up to him, before the madman could break in the window and overtake him, he let the madman in as a last attempt at controlling his own life. His passion was acting in his puzzle of life.
As he put the last pieces of his puzzle together, he contributed his verse (Puck’s soliloquy in a Midsummer Night’s Dream). The last pieces were father’s ruling over him and with no more pieces left, he left the madman in the window before it was broken (meaning he killed himself before his passion killed him.) He felt he couldn’t live according to his father’s wishes, and the only way out was to kill himself. As Knox Oberstreet stated, “Carpe Diem, even if it kills me.”
Neil’s Last Four Pieces
- The scene with Neil and his father at Henley Hall.
- Mr. Perry’s comments for Keating to stay away from his son after the play.
- Mr. Perry’s speech to Neil about how he will not tolerate Neil’s passion for acting and that Neil will be transferring to military school.
- Neil’s putting on his Puck costume and opening the window to let the madman inside, which led to his suicide.
Midsummer Night’s Dream
When Neil learns about the play, he is filled with his passions. He claims that this is the first time in his life that he knows what he wants to do, even if his father disapproves. When Todd mentions this, he asks, “Can’t I just enjoy the idea for a while?” This is the beginning of his loss of control to his passions.
Neil plays the part of Puck in a Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the play, Puck (also called Robin Goodfellow) is a mischievous servant of the King of the Fairies, Oberon, who likes to play pranks on others such as changing the head of Bottom into an ass. Also, he is ordered by Oberon to anoint Demetrius with a special love potion so that he will wake up and fall in love with the first person he sees – which is supposed to be Helena – but Puck confuses Lysander with Demetrius and anoints him instead. Lysander then awakes, sees Helena, and falls in love with her. This is devastating to Hermia, who was supposed to marry Lysander the next day. Oberon tries to correct things by anointing Demetrius, who also first sees Helena after awaking, and falls in love with her. Finally, Puck is able to correct things by anointing Lysander once more, and positioning him so that he will awaken to love Hermia again.
As the role of Puck, Neil is able to express what he could not when he wasn’t acting. The Puck epilogue is said directly to his father, in hopes that his father will forgive him. He cannot say anything later when his father tells him what he expects Neil to do because at that moment he is no longer acting. Neil so desperately wants to have a verse to contribute, but he lacks the words, and can only say them while acting.
“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend;
if you pardon, we will mend;
And, as I am an honest Puck
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue
We will make amends ere long;
So, goodnight unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.”
Finally, in his room, he realizes that the last four pieces of the puzzle of his life have been put into place, and that his only option in order to gain some control of his life is to take his own life. It was just as Puck said in his soliloquy, Neil was his father’s dream. When his father woke up, his dream was gone.
Neil, His Father, and the Suicide
Neil’s relationship with his father is a case of misunderstanding and lack of communication. Mr. Perry wanted what was best for his son, which led to extremely high expectations. Neil wanted to find out who he was and what he wanted to do. Neil was unable to discuss his opinions and options with his father, and Mr. Perry was unwilling to look at Neil’s outlook on life, as it did not appear as Neil had a concrete idea of what he wanted to do. This cyclical pattern led Neil to conclude that suicide was the only way to gain control of his life and stand up to his father.
Neil only considered suicide after the major confrontation with him over the play. In the vast majority of suicide cases, suicide is an act that is contemplated for quite some time. Usually there are warning signs that accompany those thoughts. In this case, however, there is no evidence that Neil thought about suicide up until that night. It appears to be a spontaneous decision made on the basis of the hopelessness he felt that night. Maybe it was an act to break free from his father’s control, but in trying to gain that control over his life, he sacrificed everything to escape.
Mr. Perry was at traditionalist, which unfortunately meant he had a difficult time expressing affectionate emotions. He also had a large number of expectations because like any parent, he ultimately wanted the best for his son, a 16-17 year old with a bright future ahead of him. Unfortunately, Neil never really saw or understood that his father only wanted what was best for Neil. He only saw the tyrant-like authority figure who constantly demanded that Neil achieve greatness in academia and who obeyed him unquestioningly.
Neil, however, did question that role – to himself, to others, even to Keating. Unfortunately, he never truly was able to convey that to his father. The only time he was able to stand up to his father was in the role of Puck during the play, when he asked for forgiveness with his last soliloquy, an act which deliberately disobeyed and thus enraged his father. He had many opportunities to do so before then, but he never seized the opportunity to reestablish a connection. The father and son were like strangers, each with a specific perception of the other, but neither really knew who the other was. This perpetuated the cycle of misunderstandings between the two and eventually played a major role in Neil’s suicide.
In Mr. Perry’s perspective, Neil was a model child who was focused on getting into a good college. He then learns from another parent that Neil was going to be in the play. This was the first he had heard of this, as Neil had lied to everyone about his father’s approval. Mr. Perry then told Neil that couldn’t be involved, an order Neil deliberately disobeyed by performing in the opening show the following night. When Mr. Perry saw Neil as Puck, he became furious and probably overreacted a bit by concluding that it must be the school (or more specifically, Mr Keating – the new teacher) that was the cause of this and that Neil should transfer schools to regain his focus.
Neil, on the other hand, wanted to know who he was. He was always obedient to his father’s wishes, but he wanted to know more about himself. Acting was something he could do for himself – something that he enjoyed and allowed him to explore what he was able to accomplish. On the other hand, it was also a means of escaping his current reality by being someone else for a few hours. Keating suggested Neil talk to his father about this passion, but Neil second guessed his father’s actions by arguing that his father would never understand. He never gave his father the benefit of the doubt and tried to explain. Keating even went so far as to tell Neil that even if his father didn’t see things his way, he’d soon be out of school and could do what he wished then. Neil wouldn’t listen to this advice, and later when Keating asked if Neil had spoken to his father, Neil said he did consent. (I think Keating knew he was lying but he chose not to pursue the matter because at that point, Neil had to take responsibility for his own actions.)
Yes, Mr. Perry was hard on Neil, but that was probably out of concern. He was paying a lot of money to attend a great school to prepare him for an ivy league school, and Neil, out of nowhere, decides he doesn’t want to go to college. He wants to act. Mr. Perry believed that this was a fleeting dream, and that if Neil followed this path, he would be throwing away a wonderful opportunity for a pursuit that would last a couple of years. After all, most people don’t really have a grasp on their future until at least their junior or senior year of college. If his acting career failed, which in all likelihood, it would have, Neil would have no skills to fall back on.
Also, Neil never really stood up to his father. There were times he tried, like when Mr. Perry told Neil he should drop some extracurricular activities, but he did so in the presence of others, which created a hostile environment between the two. It would have been interesting if Neil and his father would have actually sat down and chatted about what Neil wanted and what they could do to compromise. Even at the very end, when the two confronted each other right before Neil committed suicide, Neil still could not face his father. Mr. Perry specifically asked Neil what he wanted, and Neil couldn’t answer him. I think Mr. Perry really expected Neil to give him an answer, and I think if Neil would have, his father may have been more understanding.
In a way, Neil resembles how Todd was in the beginning of the movie. Todd couldn’t speak to anyone of authority without sounding insecure. In one of the extra scenes, Todd tried to ask for rowing instead of soccer, but could barely speak. He was given soccer instead. Also, in class, whenever he was asked a question, he couldn’t answer. He wanted to say something – especially to recite the poem he spent so much time writing, but he never could. He even ended up ripping up his poem.
So, then, is Neil a martyr? Well it depends on your own interpretation of the word. I choose to think he isn’t, but I suppose given the following definitions from Webster, Neil could be:
“a person who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce a religion”
Well, Neil did voluntarily undergo death because he refused to renounce his religion – which was romanticism.
“a person who sacrifices something of great value and especially life itself for the sake of principle”
Ok, he did sacrifice his life for the sake of his own selfish romantic tendencies.
Now the only thing Neil fell victim to was his own passions. He was not a victim of his father because his father did not make him nor want him to kill himself. Neil crucified himself. If Puck’s costume is supposed to be symbolic of the crown of thorns – which I’m not certain it is – then it was Neil that put it on his own head. It was Neil that pulled the trigger and killed himself. No one else made him do it. I personally don’t view him as a martyr because his cause was a completely selfish one. There was no reason for him to do so. A martyr sacrifices his life for a specific cause, and it is usually beneficial to that movement, but Neil was not a part of any kind of great cause. He was a coward and took the easy way out of a difficult situation.
I interpret Puck’s costume to be symbolic of Neil’s romanticism. It all started with the idea of going into the woods to start the Dead Poets Society. Here, the woods represents romanticism – Neil entered the woods, and never came out. His entire identity was transformed into the role of Puck – who lived in the woods and did what he pleased – taking the romantic way of life. The final scene where Neil puts the Puck costume on is symbolic of his continuing presence in romanticism. He never once took a step back to realize that he was the one who was sacrificing himself. If he had been willing to stand up for himself – his true identity -and say his verse, than this probably wouldn’t have happened, but the only time he could attempt to say his verse was in the role of Puck. Puck became his identity, so in the end, he had to become Puck in order to take the final step and kill himself, again making one last attempt to try to say his verse.
One last comment from a response I received:
“Neil is not a martyr! His religion was self centered. His
death was absolutely needless! A true saint accepts the Christ like example. What was completely lacking was humility, true suffering (waiting until he graduates from HS and than doing what he is called to do), and
patience. He took the easy way out (sad way actually). Instead of enduring a bit of momentary suffering (not acting) he gave up his life and forfeited his real destiny. To take on the suffering of not acting, to accept this with all humility and patience would have made him a great artist, and a saint. He put on the Crown of Thorns, but without the Agony in the Garden, the Scourging, Carrying his Cross, and the bitter passion.”
Who is Responsible for the Suicide?
In the end, both the realists and the romantics blame the other for Neil’s suicide. The romantics say it was Neil’s father. Even Todd says this when he first confronts his romanticism in the snow. The realists say it was Keating, and in the end, force Keating to leave. Neither side wants to believe that through the act of suicide, Neil is taking control of his own life decisions and therefore must assume the responsibility.
Suicide is a personal choice, and only Neil could decide whether or not to commit the act. He did what he thought was best at that moment without considering what the next morning or the next week would bring. He didn’t look at other more rational options, such as openly discussing the situation with his father or even waiting until he was a couple years older as Keating suggested. There is a point in everyone’s life where they feel that no one understand them, and no matter what they say, it doesn’t change the situation. However, by Neil killing himself, Mr. Perry never had the opportunity to understand his son’s desires and passions. All he had were memories and should have beens and could have beens. There were no definites. At least if Neil would have spoken his own verse, maybe Mr. Perry could have understood just a little better what his son was feeling, and maybe things could have ended on a happier note.