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.