For the purposes of this essay, I am delegating Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) as the main character in this movie. He is the only student who sufficiently grasped Keating’s teachings and discovered his verse. Therefore I believe he is the only dynamic character in the movie. (See the philosophy page for my reasoning behind this.)
At first, Todd is very quiet with not much to say. He is the youngest of his family and has many expectations laid upon him due to the success of his brother, who also went to Welton and was Valedictorian and a National Merit Scholar.
Todd was also very shy. He couldn’t speak to anyone of authority including answering questions in class 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. Even in the Dead Poets Society, Todd was an observer, not a participant. He was afraid to read out loud and afraid to participate.
However, by the end of the movie, Todd has found his voice by proving he could stand up and express himself when it really mattered. Todd is the first to stand on the desk in respect for Keating.
Todd’s Fear and the Madman
Todd’s worst fear is that his life has no meaning, and therefore, he has no verse to contribute. For example, after the first day of class, Todd writes “Carpe Diem” on his paper, dreaming of what it would be like if he, too, could contribute a verse and be great like those in the picture. His insecurity gets the better of him, though, and he throws out the paper believing he has nothing to contribute. Later, in class, after being asked to write a poem, Todd tells Keating he never completed the assignment after he spent many hours writing and revising his poem only to have thrown it away before class. This is a prime example of Todd’s struggle between romanticism and realism, where Todd begins dreaming of future possibilities and ways of expressing himself only to have his realistic expectations crash down on him and diminish his thoughts of potential greatness.
Keating sees through Todd’s fear and first makes him yawp, and later makes him say whatever comes to mind. This is the beginning of the change in Todd.
“I close my eyes and this image floats beside me
The sweaty-toothed madman with a stare that pounds my brains
His hands reach out and choke me
And all the time he’s mumbling
Truth, like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold.
You push it, stretch it, it will never be enough
Kick it beat it, it will never cover any of us.
From the moment we enter crying, to the moment we leave dying,
it will just cover your face
as you wail and cry and scream.”
In this poem, Todd is saying that the madman is passion, but passion (the blanket) is not enough, it leaves you cold and exposed. Through your whole life, passion only is shown on your face when you wail and scream and cry. You need it to a certain extent because as Keating said, “the human race is filled with passion” and also that passion is the reason to stay alive, but just following your passions is not enough. You need to be able to control your passions and not let them control you.
Another possible interpretation from a response I received is:
“Todd’s poem, inspired by Whitman’s picture, could be a symbol for the attempt to balance romanticism and rationalism. Forgive me if I don’t remember it correctly if I mess up and if my memory does effect this ignore it. It has been a while. Truth being a blanket that only covers you partially always keeping your feet cold. The blanket is the attempt to balance rationalism and romanticism. No matter how you stretch it one way or the other something is exposed. The feet are symbolizing Todd’s rationalism and the head represents his romanticism. As his rational side was the one that had always won out before that was the one most exposed to criticism, thus being cold. I would argue that Todd slowly throughout the movie began to movie the to cover more of his rational side and uncover some of his romantic side in an attempt to balance the two.”
Todd is the only one in this movie that understood this message that Keating was trying to teach. Neil let his passions take control of his life and it drove him to suicide. Nwanda let his passions get out of hand and it led to his expulsion. Knox also followed his passions and although he did get to be with Chris in the end, he sacrificed his relationship with his family and the Dansburry’s.
After Neil’s death, Todd stares into the eyes of his madman. He first says, “It’s beautiful,” referring to the way that the blanket of truth (representing romanticism) is covering his face (representing realism). Then he starts crying and screaming, “It was his father.” (This was Todd’s first real experience with romanticism.) At this point he realizes his madman (passion) is mumbling truth, but it isn’t enough. Todd is forced to deal with his passions knowing they will never give him the covering and comfort he needs.
Todd was the most upset and emotional of the group after Neil’s death, which is ironic because Nwanda and Knox were the romantics, so they might be expected to be the most upset. They, however, remained calm, not fully understanding why Neil would have committed such an act. Todd did – he remembered his poem, and he was left cold and exposed in the snow – just the way he predicted it in his poem. At that moment, he realized exactly what Neil was facing the moments before his death. The romantics present couldn’t understand because up until that point nothing especially bad had happened because of their passion. The realists present couldn’t understand because they under-emphasize their emotions and would rather rationalize the situation than experience it.
Todd’s Loyalty to Keating
Todd proves his loyalty to Keating by stand up to Cameron’s accusations of Keating. At that point, Cameron had been “deprogrammed” by the school, yet Todd is able to express his opinion that Cameron and the traditionalists are wrong.
Todd was also the last of the five to sign the confession implicating Keating in Neil’s death. He feels incredibly guilty that he’s done so, and to show his loyalty to Keating, and that Keating actually taught him something valuable, he is the first to offer an explanation to Keating as to why they all signed the confession. He then stands on his desk and says, “O Captain! My Captain!” to prove that he does have a verse to contribute.
It is this last scene that sets him apart from Neil. Neil was very much romantic, but Todd didn’t base his life on those principles. Todd started out a realist, believing that he didn’t have a verse to contribute, unsure of his own worth, and unable to express his true thoughts and emotions. Neil, like Todd, also wanted very much to have a verse, and was unable to express his true thoughts and emotions except by living another’s role (i.e. acting) While Todd learned that he could express himself by means of his thoughts and emotions, Neil didn’t. At the end of Neil’s life, he still couldn’t stand up to his father outside the role of Puck, whereas Todd stood upon his desk to show his loyalty to Keating’s teachings. This doesn’t mean that Todd and Neil were opposites, as Neil and Cameron/Mr. Perry/the school were.