Dead Poets Society Movie Summary

By Jessica See

Dead Poets Society explores the conflict between realism and romanticism as these contrasting ideals are presented to the students at an all boys preparatory school. Welton Academy is founded on tradition and excellence and is bent on providing strict structured lessons prescribed by the realist, anti-youth administration. With the dawning of each new semester, hundreds of parents abandon their sons, leaving them in the tried hands of Welton staff in hopes that they will raise doctors and lawyers. When a replacement English teacher arrives, who happens to be a Welton alumnus, he brings with him a passion for teaching romanticism, thus opening a never-before-seen world to his students.

The story is predominantly viewed through the eyes of Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), a newcomer to Welton, and his roommate Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard). Todd is painfully shy and terrified that what he might say is insignificant and meaningless. This is particularly disturbing to him since he is repeatedly told that he has “big shoes to fill” being the younger brother of a former valedictorian. Neil, on the other hand, is bright and full of ambition, which is unfortunately squelched by his overbearing, controlling father. Mr. Perry dictates every detail of his son’s life including extra curricular activities, future plans, and specifically what others think of him.

The new English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) begins his teachings with a fervent lecture on their imminent deaths, explaining to the students that their lives are fleeting so they should seize the day to make their lives count, to leave a legacy of “carpe diem.” He continues his teaching by instructing the class to rip out the pages of their books which describe a scientific way to determine the greatness of poetry. He teaches them the works of the romantic poets such as Thoreau and Lord Byron and employs outdoor exercises to warn them of the dangers of conformity and the power of sports as a way which human beings push each other to excel.

Amidst these eccentric activities, the students, intrigued with their new teacher, learn that he was a member of the Dead Poets Society. When asked, Keating describes glorious moments of creating gods, but warns them to forget about the idea. Nevertheless, they repeatedly sneak off campus to convene their own version of the Dead Poets Society. Todd is allowed to attend as an exception: since he does not want to read aloud, he keeps minutes of the meetings. Throughout these meetings, each character is able to develop his own romantic or realist nature.

The shocking clash between realism and romanticism begins to unfold when Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen) prints an obnoxious article in the school news in the name of the Dead Poets. The administration is appalled and begins an investigation. Meanwhile, Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) fall madly in love with a girl who is practically engaged to the son of his parent’s friends. He pursues her relentlessly, driven by romantic ideals, in the face of the threats on his life by her boyfriend. Neil realizes that his real passion in life is acting and proceeds to land the role of Puck in a Midsummer Night’s Dream at the local theater. He begins to weave a tangled web of deception by failing to inform his father, then lying to Mr. Keating when his father finds out and demands he quit the play. Feeling trapped, after his final performance and a standing ovation, he takes his own life.

This horrible outrage echoes through the hallowed halls of Welton, applying even greater pressure to the Dead Poets. When Mr. and Mrs. Perry demand a thorough investigation, Welton administration links the Dead Poets Society, which they determined as the cause for the upheaval, to Mr. Keating. Each member is called before the administration and their parents to sign a confession statement indicating that Mr. Keating filled their minds with these lofty ideals ultimately leading to Neil’s suicide. Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman), ultimately a realist concerned most with doing what is already determined to be right, signs the statement and encourages the rest of them to do the same. Knowing full well that Keating was not responsible, Cameron lets him take the rap to free himself.

Angered by this betrayal, Dalton punches Cameron in an impulsive fit displaying his final romantic act, only to be expelled. The last to sign, though unwillingly, is Todd, thus removing John Keating from his treasured position. In one final scene, displaying the beauty of a balance between the two ideals, Todd is able to cry out to Mr. Keating, who stopped by the class to collect his belongings, “O Captain, my Captain!” Todd, who previously had no identity, contributed his verse to mankind, climbing to the top of his desk to salute his fallen teacher, who changed his life.



14 Responses to “Dead Poets Society Movie Summary”

  1. Starr says:

    i love this movie it has a meaning to life and how you should live life to its fullist

  2. Solstice says:

    This is a wonderful movie, and I have watched it many times, both inside school and out. I can’t really describe how I feel after watching it, though.

  3. Kelly says:

    I have truely heard the maternal advice to not live the life yu always wanted through your child. I loved the parts of outdoors Nature that they the class just read about in the poetry is also right outdoor. the flock of geese in motion is actually insync with the student body going to the meal down the stairs. Its a comparision. The few Candian geese are wasting time at the creek flow with the lone student on the bike, Charlie Dalton. The blanket of snow is now visable for Todd. Even the changed fall leaves in the bathroom window in the shower/restroom scene can signal a change is already taking place. The young men are in a “den” or “study” of a cave with a one way in and out door and a smoke hole on top. Did they go back into the womb with one way in and out and the cord is cut this time or is that seeing to much into the film? Maybe I’m just a girl.
    Who loved those cheek bones on Robert Sean Leonard. Thank you.

  4. Kelly says:

    I only am left ready to pamble you, Ms Jessica. What is on display here in the story and stories like it, such as School Ties or With Honors? Eastern Seaboard location about its locals. Or Dawson’s Creek even. They are very disarming yuong men already and maybe we the Staff and Adminnistration can loosen them up some. Make them make a mistake and learn the We are not Perfect lesson in life. My parents and relatives are always trying to stich that onto my brain. Which really did have to come back down a couple of inches in size if you should read A beautiful Mind instead of keep up with the movies. Mena=tal health and rweather you kept the story in the 1950′s and not quit into the 1960′s you coould see it as a lot less hippie things to say. Yeah, the radio goofing off moment with the fencing and crew rowing in the back gruond, I mean damn it. Their sport isn’t up yet. Everybody is in more comfortable clothes.
    Poeple like you really, really burn the cookies for me. You ,from my up bring on the eastern seaboard, had nothing so even remotely sophisticated of an upbringing. Yes the school will keep the sons on a tight schedule and even in structered uniforms meant to guard and gesture to a uniformity of camoflage. But I wish you could see the story as something a little bit at the mercy of gravity. Please burn your copy of Dr. Spok and enjoy the film for the sak that it is just a movie about men. That truely are back from war of the generations. You just could begin to the student body as a group of Americans going “Nanny Nanny Boo Boo, You stuck you head in Duu Duu”. Put down the ailooms you see and speak about being proud to be born this intelligent.

  5. Nick says:

    Okay, Ms. Kelly. You act so proud and intelligent, yet you can’t even spell. That’s ‘people,’ not ‘poeple,’ and since when is ‘mena=tal’ a word? Really? Get a life. This is a summary, not an analysis. It served its purpose for me and the rest of the people who read it. Only your sophistocated upbringing type could actually enjoy bashing someone who spent time helping others. You REALLY burn the cookies for me, I mean damn it. Good job Jessica, awesome summary!

  6. YEPZ says:

    We saw this movie in literature class and have to write a report on one of the main characters.

  7. alexander says:

    it was a nicee mvie It relates to our lives. we watch it in our class.

  8. Frank Bachteler says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed your site. I will be introducing the site to my students today for them to use as a resource.

  9. LAURA ROSSO says:

    DEAD POETS SOCIETY
    REFLECTION
    In the movie “ dead poets society” is presented the poetry as one way of changing the reality of our students but this poetry is just a symbol that really try to tell us that dreams of our students are important to create a real and prosperous society made up by brave ,free ,happy human beings. Besides the movie shows us that although the world is unique, it presents a great diversity of personalities and perspectives and we as a teachers have to learn how to deal with it.
    Many teachers spend all their life trying to create perfect students. However, are few teachers who achieve this goal since as it is common known we as a teachers are just worried to teach content and knowledge. That is why , when it comes to students’ needs we just think about the best ways of teaching aspects that do not have to do with students’ personalities ,life styles and worries etc. That is , most of the time we do not look at students as a human beings who have feelings , fears, desires, challenges instead we look at them as people who want to receive many things except respect and love maybe because they do not belong to our family or probably because their families are not part of our club our friends.
    Nowadays it is important that learners are taught to look for the ways of experiencing the force of their strengths and the value of their state of being humans being who are able to do everything that they want to achieve because only in that way our students can be independent and they can overcome their fears creating a society in which exist people who are able to create new and useful things and think freely respecting others. Besides, students have to be conscious of the idea that it is necessary that they are dreamers to change the world.
    In conclusion, we as teachers have the responsibility of reshaped this poor society in which mos of the time dreams our students are left out but we do not have any right to establish rules that are obstacles and barriers for the development of the our society.
    By: LAURA ROSSO.

  10. Ohh MaGiC says:

    a brilliant film exerting the great disiplines of life.

  11. Karla says:

    I agree with Nick.
    This summary helped me a lot with my project and I used it as one of my sources. Great job! :)

  12. Gabriella says:

    “Solstice” I find you’re comment towards Kelly very Rude. She is entitled to her own opinion and so what if she makes a typing error no need to go all ballistic on her. Other than that I love this summary, thank you for the hard work!**
    Gabriella*

  13. Nick says:

    Please leave no arguments on this page, the film is too beautiful for it to be brought down by synicism. This is my favourite movie of all time. I found myself putting myself in Niel’s shoes and I just couldn’t accept the fact that a father could do that. This summary is amazing. Well done, Carpe Diem.

  14. Ruel says:

    This film really inspired me a lot as a teacher. It helps me to open my mind how to deal with my students and open my eyes to the reality of life. This movie is a must- see – movie to all, especially to the parents who are still meddling to the course or career that they children want to be. The final message of the film is the transcendentalist ideal that a man should think for himself and be self-reliant. Just like what Mr. Keating taught to every boy in his English class to be free thinkers, so must all individuals. When faced with conformity that does not distinguish between a man and a society, it is a man’s responsibility for himself to stand up for what he believes in is right, and not what others tell him is just. What a beautiful message, is’nt it?

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