Disclaimer: I am choosing to use Britannica and Webster in order define the terminology used on my pages. While to truly understand romanticism, you need to experience it, for the purposes of clarity, these definitions are to aid in expressing the fullness of 19th C. romantic thought, which includes so much more than the modern definition of “romantic,” which many people limit to being in a relationship or thinking solely of love, candy, flowers, sex, etc. I also wanted to define realism, so that people could see that I am using the terms as opposites.
Britanica Online defines Romanticism as:
“Romanticism emphasized the individual, the subjective, the irrational,
the imaginative, the personal, the spontaneous, the emotional, the
visionary, and the transcendental.”
“was marked by emphasis on originality and
individuality, personal emotional expression, and freedom and
experimentation of form.”
Webster defines Romanticism as:
consisting of or resembling a romance
having no basis in fact : IMAGINARY
impractical in conception or plan : VISIONARY
(a) marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous,
remote, mysterious, or idealized
(b) often capitalized of, relating to, or having the
characteristics of romanticism
(c) of or relating to music of the 19th century
characterized by an emphasis on subjective emotional qualities and freedom of form;
also of or relating to a composer of this music
a : having an inclination for romance : responsive to the appeal of what is idealized,
heroic, or adventurous”
Realism from Britannica Online:
“Realism rejects imaginative idealization in
favour of a close observation of outward appearances.”
either from artists’ desire to present more honest, searching, and
unidealized views of everyday life or from their attempts to use art
as a vehicle for social and political criticism.”
“Realism’s emphasis on detachment, objectivity, and
accurate observation, its lucid but restrained criticism of social
environment and mores, and the humane understanding that underlay its
Realism from Webster:
concern for fact or reality and rejection of the impractical and visionary
(a) a doctrine that universals exist outside the mind; specifically : the conception that an abstract term names an independent and unitary reality
(b) the conception that objects of sense perception or cognition exist independently of the mind — compare Nominalism
fidelity in art and literature to nature or to real life and to accurate representation without idealization
Terms Used in this Discussion:
The opposite of romanticism in the movie Dead Poets Society is realism. Instead of the idealized vision of life presented in romanticism that was compounded of hopes and feelings, realism tended to be a mimic of life.
A brief summary of the terms used in the rest of the website:
- Romantic (Madman) = one who submits to romanticism, while opposing realism
- Anti-romantic romanticist = one who controls one’s passions and submits to realism half the time, while the other half of the time, that individual submits to his passions and controls his realistic tendencies. This person can usually distinguish which is called for in each situation.
- Realist (Traditionalist) = one who one who submits to realism; opposes romanticism
**NOTE: Because they are opposites, you cannot control one while being submissive to the other. This explains why I believe Todd is the main character, and all other characters are obstacle characters.**
Conflict Between Dead Poets Society Characters:
Dead Poets Society is about the struggle that takes place between the two extremes, and the way that each character deals with it. Neil, Nwanda, and Knox all go overboard into extreme romanticism, while Cameron adamantly stays on the side of realism. Todd is the only one who finds a middle ground between the two, which I’m going to call “anti-romantic romanticism” for lack of a better term because it is based in romanticism (of feeling and free thinking), but there is also a sense of reality. By the end of the movie, Todd is able to express his passions, but he does not try to live in the ideal world of his imagination like the others do. He does not try to assume for himself an entirely new identity like Puck for Neil; Nwanda for Dalton; or even “Mutt Sander’s brother” for Knox (at Chris’ party).
Also, in this analysis, I’m going to use the point of view that the main character is dynamic while all other characters are just static and obstacle characters that just help emphasize the main character’s change. Obstacle characters are try to persuade the main character that their way is best and that he should follow their philosophy in order to solve his problem. In this case, I’m going to say that the obstacle characters can be grouped into the Realists and the Romantics. Conceivably, you might be able to make an argument using drama theory to claim that there are other main characters besides Todd, but since the purpose of this page is to deal with romanticism vs. realism, I’m not going to discuss who else could be a main character, rather how each symbolizes romanticism and realism.
- Todd Anderson is dynamic, he goes from realism to anti romantic romanticism
- Neil Perry is always a romantic (madman in Todd’s poem).
- Knox Overstreet is always a romantic (madman in Todd’s poem).
- John Keating is always a romantic although he has learned that he must at least try to incorporate some traditional views into his life in order not to go overboard. Hence, although he is a romantic, he tries to teach the philosophy of the anti romantic romanticist.
- Charles Dalton is always a romantic (madman in Todd’s poem).
- Meeks and Pitts are hard to judge because their characters aren’t as developed as the others. They may have understood Keating’s teachings to a degree, but they didn’t really have the opportunity to prove it.
Richard Cameron is always a realist (traditionalist).
Therefore Todd MUST be a (or in my argument, the) main character, he is the only one whose character undergoes a change in the movie. Everyone else is the same as they started. Just because Neil died, that does not count as change, he was essentially a dead man at the beginning of Dead Poets Society.
Also, my interpretation of the character is the overall one – while I do agree that in some instances, they did act in a way different than how I categorized, I meant that given Keating started out being a romantic and the movie ended with him still being a romantic. The school started out being realistic and also ended being realistic. I was contrasting the characters to Todd, who started out being a realist and finished being “anti romantic romantic,” hence a character change. I mean even Nwanda warned Knox about controlling himself with Chris, and I would not classify him as anything other than romantic. Those terms are how I would classify each character overall.
School as Tradition:
Something else to think about (from a response I received) – “The school represents tradition and order. Is it more than coincidence that it looks like a monastery? I always thought that the scene where they first sneak off to the cave at night looked like a group of monks with their hoods pulled up. Perhaps this is intentional.
Here is why: In the monastery the monk submits to tradition, and discipline. His task is to serve God and worship Him with heart, mind, and soul. This means denial of self and leaning to control the passions through ascetic discipline (prayer, fasting, sacraments, etc). The boys leave “the monastery” where the passions are forced to remain in check. They must flee the cloistered walls in order to pursue their unruly passions. Mr. Keating plays the part of the wise spiritual director and corrects them when he has knowledge of them going overboard. He tries to teach them through their failings how to be wise.”
Characteristics of Romanticism:
The movie tells of 7 characteristics of Romanticism from Walt Whitman’s “Songs of Joy”
- O to struggle against great odds, to meet enemies undaunted.
- To be the sailor of the world, bound for all parts.
- O will I live to be the ruler of life, not a slave.
- To mount the scaffolds, to advance to the muzzles of guns with perfect nonchalance.
- To dance, clap hands, exalt, shout, skip, roll on, float on.
- O to have life hence forth the poem of new joys.
- To indeed be a god!
Music of DPS:
I also believe that the music chosen for particular scenes tends to
add to the mood and setting. Each piece of music seems to come at a critical time in the movie, and I think it is important to consider them in my analysis – especially because I think they add so much to the movie.
The tune that Keating whistles is Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture. He whistles this tune one the first day of class to lead the students out of the classroom, and before he tells them of the Dead Poets Society. Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is the “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” song played during the soccer game when they exalt Keating. Beethoven’s Concreto 5 is played in an extra scene where the students are sitting blindfolded at their desks listening to this piece. These are all romantic scenes.
There seems to be a theme for what music is played when. For example, the “Midsummer” music (I still don’t know what it is called or who it’s by) seems to always be played in relation to romanticism (scenes concerning the Neil and the play and also scenes about Knox and Chris). The music played during the kicking the ball scene is Handel who is Baroque. Baroque describes “anything irregular, bizarre, or otherwise departing from established rules and proportions.” (Britannica) Beethoven is borderline classicism/romanticism – depending on which part of his life the piece was composed, and Tchaikovsky is romanticism.