Transcendentalist Principles from Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman in the film, The Dead Poets Society
Dalarna University, Falun SWEDEN
The purpose of this essay is to evaluate a modern movie, The Dead Poets Society, in light of the principles of transcendentalism. These principles, and indeed their definition, are much too extensive and varied to deal with in their entirety here, so the essay will accordingly limit the principles of transcendentalism to three major transcendentalist authors, appling them to the characters in the movie and their respective unfolding destinies. The fundamental argument is that the tenets of transcendentalism from the 19th century remain firmly in the hearts and minds of American people, as is manifest in this movie. More than one transcendental principle often applies to each character, particularly when in regard to individualism. Finally some positive and negative consequences of transcendentalism and its implementation will be assessed.
TRANSCENDENTALISM AND SELECTED WRITERS: EMERSON, THOREAU AND WHITMAN
The American War of Independence (1775-83) and the Civil War (1861-65) built a new military and political entity, symbolically and literally a fortress since political and military issues took up much of the focus in the beginning of nation building. Nevertheless this is a country that is building itself on principles never before seen in the history of humanity. In a world of suppression of the individual under kings and queens, despots and warlords, or simply a lack of any civilized coherence, something new happened in the history of humanity on July 4, 1776: The Declaration of Independence. This document, drafted by Jefferson, began with three words that would change the world forever. These words were simply "We the people " and would set in motion a new liberation, the right of the individual to be equal to its government, to criticize and to influence and form that government, and indeed to be part of that government, which in turn would be accountable to the people. The individual and the government are to be indiscernible.
I believe, however, that it is in between these two wars that building this "fortress," as I melodramatically refer to the military and political unit that is America, now begins to focus internally, no longer on the force of weapons and diplomacy but on strengthening the values of this new nation, where true individualism, free thought, views of democracy and much more. This new revolution builds a national literature and philosophy with pens rather than guns. In many ways, transcendentalism dominates the intellectual life of this period. I believe that this is the true beginning and even source of American humanism.
Moreover, by the 1860's, America is no longer just a nation of soldiers and authors, farmers and merchants but of individuals, free men, and later free women, and later free blacks and free minorities, scientists and technologists, diplomats and leaders, visionaries and pragmatists, writers and artists, intellectuals and philosophers, industrialists and environmentalists, foresters and fishermen, construction workers and engineers, immigrants and migrants. People from all parts of the world came to America, and would launch this experiment, this diversified nation, into a superpower, unprecedented in the history of humanity. Technology accelerated living standards with automobiles, radio and television, telecommunications, information technology, not to mention the enormous infrastructure built by engineers. Communism, an ineffective economic and oppressive system during this century, is made obsolete. The democratic forces win two major world wars fought against German and Japanese megalomania and fascism and gain a democratic military alliance led by the USA after a generous reformation of post World War II Europe under the Marshall Plan as well as democratization of Japan. The world would come closer together with the League of Nations and then the United Nations, followed by countless organizations dedicated to brotherhood, human rights, the environment and democracy around the globe. All this is not possible without the USA, which I maintain, has its soul entrenched in transcendentalism. All this could not be accomplished on the back of a hollow value system.
What then is transcendentalism? What is this force of ideology that shaped America? It begins as a period in history that expressed itself vividly in New England roughly between 1830-1860 (Wilson 2) with revolutionary changes and debates in attitudes towards individualism, nature, religion, philosophy, education, politics, society and culture. Nothing is left untouched and America itself is not left unchanged. There is no specific definition of transcendentalism. It is not limited to the literature or the time, but instead penetrates the American psyche up until today, and is reflected in current writers, poets, and films, like the one being evaluated here, Dead Poets Society, released in 1989, roughly 130 years after the transcendental movement gave way to a new literary period of realism. The transcendentalist writers were rebels who expressed new ideas and new ways of writing on a whole spectrum of principles. It was and remains integral to the energy of being American: rebellious and individualistic. It has also taken on new forms from the original identification of nature and spirituality to political forces of environmentalism, for example or the scientific reasoning of ecology.
I contend that the fundamental principles of transcendentalism are based on the American conscience as firmly as the Constitution itself, and both just as strong today as they were when they began. Whitman said, "The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem" in his preface to Leaves of Grass. In my mind he is picturing transcendentalism's merger into American patriotism.
The objective here is to take the fundamental principles of transcendentalism, as reflected in the writing of three major transcendental authors, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), and Walt Whitman (1819-1892), and connect some of these principles with the modern movie, Dead Poets Society, a movie with clear transcendental messages. The discussion of transcendentalism is limited and subjective. Thoreau and Emerson can be thought of as part of the core of transcendentalism, active around Concord, Massachusetts where the movement thrived in the 1840's, whereas Whitman appeared somewhat later as an admirer of Emerson and as a poet. Most pertinent works include Walden, "Civil Disobedience", "Life without Principle", and A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers by Thoreau; "Self Reliance" and "The American Scholar" by Emerson; and "Song of Myself" by Whitman. These all echo the major principles of transcendentalism: freethinking, self reliance and non conformity, growth and renewal of the individual, revolt against tradition and established institutions, civil disobedience, brotherhood of man, nature and spiritual unity, and educational reform. These are also important principles reflected in Dead Poets Society.
The movie Dead Poets Society is set in 1959; 100 years previously, all three authors Thoreau, Emerson and Whitman were still alive and, by most accounts, the transcendentalist period is drawing to a conclusion at that time. Both time periods are also staged on the verge of revolution, with the transcendentalism movement proceeding the Civil War starting in 1861 with the abolition of slavery in this post-transcendental period, while the time of the movie preceeds the social upheaval, anti-war demonstrations and civil rights movements of the 1960's. Both periods liberated the African Americans in differing degrees. One revolution, the Civil War, dealt partly with the inner conflict, slavery; the later revolution also dealt with the same principles, except this time the threat against individualism came from both inside the country in the stifling conformity of the 1950's, and the perceived threat outside the country in the form of communism and the war against Vietnam, a synonym back then for state control, a threat to capitalism and a lack of human rights. There is also much protest and civil disobedience against that war within the United States.
The Dead Poets Society brings to life many of the principles of transcendentalism in a modern setting. It is enormously popular and brought alive American literary history in a very powerful way. The movie begins im a setting in New England at a boy's preparatory school centered around a new unconventional teacher played by Robin Williams.
ASSOCIATING TRANSCENDENTALIST IDEAS IN THE DEAD POETS SOCIETY WITH THE MAIN CHARACTERS
The English Class
This new English teacher, a freethinker, John Keating, immediately sets the scene for his teaching and reveals his personality by saying by saying "Oh Captain, My Captain. Who knows where that comes from? Not a clue? It's from a poem by Walt Whitman about Mr. Abraham Lincoln." Then he says "Now in this class you can call me Mr. Keating. Or, if you're slightly more daring, Oh Captain, My Captain." Initially no one takes the challenge but as the story progresses calling him "Captain" becomes at least as common as "Mr. Keating."
Then as he asks one of the students to open his textbook to page 542 and read the first stanza of the poem that he finds there. He reads, "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, / Old time is still a flying, / And this same flower that smiles today,/ Tomorrow will be dying" (Herrick). Keating then responds "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, the latin term for that sentiment is Carpe Diem. Who knows what that means?" Another student replies, "Seize the day".
Keating then draws their attention to the old pictures of men in the trophy cases, obviously now dead, saying, "They're not any different from you, are they? Full of hormones just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they are destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils". Then he encourages them to lean in really close to the pictures and listen as he whispers, "Carpe. Carpe Diem. Seize the day. Make your lives extraordinary."
This introduction establishes the tone of the movie and John Keating has already introduced some of the ideas of transcendentalism. What is important is that the teacher begins to bond with the boys in his class, in particular Todd Anderson, Neil Perry, Knox Overstreet, Charlie Dalton, Steven Meeks, Gerard Pitts, and, later to be despised as a "fink", Richard Cameron, all who have previously worked together as a study group. Their friendship, brotherhood being another central transcendental principle. is integral to the movie. Both Thoreau and Emerson wrote poems on friendship, and in particular Emerson wrote, "It was a pleasure and a privilege to walk with him"(351) in his essay "Thoreau." Whitman wrote in "Song of Myself" that "All the men that are ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters" (26) as well as "I am the mate and companion of people." (27. In particular, the first four boys will become significant in this analysis. Apart from the study group, being in Mr. Keating's English class, the boys become prominent members in the Dead Poets Society. A fundamental transcendental principle of brotherhood is established here.
The first lessons of the English class reveal John Keating's unorthodox teaching methods, freethinking and non-conformity. In one class Keating asks Neil Perry to read the introduction from their poetry textbook. Neil proceeds, "Understanding Poetry, by Dr. J. Evans Pritchard. Ph.D." He continues to a paragraph that reads "If the poem's score for perfection is plotted along the horizontal of a graph, and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness." He goes on with examples and Keating draws the graph on the blackboard. And then Keating faces the class and says "Excrement! That is what I think of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard. We're not laying pipe, we're talking about poetry." Then he has the students rip out the entire introduction. "Armies of academics going forward, measuring poetry", says Keating. "No, we will not have that here. Now in my class you will learn to think for yourselves again," again picking on the transcendental principle of freethinking from. Thoreau writes in Walden, "If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees to not what extremes, or even insanity it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies." (265). In his controversial speech, "The American Scholar," Emerson reinforces this principle of freethinking with the recurring theme of "Man Thinking," encouraging the student to learn to think for themselves. There he states that "the eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his hindhead." Thought should be free and should not be weighed down by historic dogma but rather new and creativity. In harmony with Keating's views Emerson says "Books are for the scholar's idle times" (87) and Whitman challenges the student in a short poem "To a Pupil" to pursue self-development:"Rest not until you rivet and publish yourself of your own Personality". Finally relating the issue to Thoreau, he writes in "Life without Principle "Shall the mind be a public arena, where the affairs of the street and the gossip of the tea-table chiefly are discussed? Or shall it be a quarter of heaven itself-a hypethral temple consecrated to the service of the Gods?" (367). All of these quotes are central to the idea of individualism in the writings of the authors and the movie.
In another class Keating stands on his desk and says "I stand on my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way. Just when you think you know something, you have to look at it in another way." He has all the students stand up on his desk. "Even though it may seem silly or wrong you must try! Now when you read , don't just consider what the author thinks. Consider what you think. Boys, you must strive to find you own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said 'Most men lead lives of quiet desperation'. Don't be resigned to that. Break out!" In this passage Keating is quoting directly from Walden. The real issue here is also central to transcendentalism, non-conformity, as in "Life without Principle," Thoreau states that "The title wise is, for the most part, falsely applied. How can one be a wise man, if he does not know any better how to live than other men?" (360) and Emerson in "Self Reliance" writes that "To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,--that is genius" and finally on the principle of non-conformity Whitman writes in "Song of Myself" that "You shall not look through my eyes either , nor take things from me, / You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself."(23)
The same principle on "the dangers of conformity" as Keating puts it is likewise demonstrated after this. Three boys are parading in the courtyard. Keating then comments "Thank you gentlemen. Now, we all have a great need for acceptance. But you must trust that your beliefs are unique, your own, even though others may think them odd or unpopular, even though the herd may go, "That's baaaaad." Robert Frost said, "Two roads diverged in a wood / And I, I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference." (1866), which echoes Whitman in "Song of Myself" that "Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you, / You must travel it for yourself." (68). Keating continues, "Now, I want you to find your own walk right now. Your own way of striding, pacing. Any direction. Anything you want. Whether it's proud, whether it's silly, anything. Gentlemen, the courtyard is yours."
As an example, non-conformity can connect with civil disobedience, becoming directly linked to another aspect of inspiration from Henry David Thoreau. In his essay "Civil Disobedience," he states, "The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right"...."Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?" (92). These deal both with non-conformity and civil disobedience. He begins the essay with "That government is best which governs least" (85). This citation touches on the basic principle of individualism that inspired the revolt that is the War of independence that began the United States, setting the fundamental tenets of Thoreau's principle of individual rights over the state and giving purpose to the exercise in non-conformity.
The Dead Poets Society
This consists of different English students yet the focus is mainly on the four main boys, Todd, Neil, Knox, and Charlie. They will have a central role in the transcendentalist principles of the Dead Poet Society. Their attitude is clear from the beginning when at the official commencement the administrator asks what are "The four pillars" of Welton Academy and the unanimous and rehearsed answer from the students "is tradition, honor, discipline and excellence." When some of the friends are alone in a room Neil Perry asks, "Gentlemen, what are the four pillars?" meaning what are "really" the four pillars and he responds together in humor and spite with the others, "Travesty, Horror, Decadence, Excrement." This is the first sign of a resistance to the school's conservatism. The group later formed as the Dead Poets Society is a natural continuation of this group.
Keating explains to the boys that the Dead Poets Society was something that he was part of as a student at Welton Academy and that in the spirit of Carpe Diem they were dedicated to "sucking the marrow out of life". He explains "That's a phrase from Thoreau that we'd invoke at the beginning of each meeting. You see, we'd gather at the old Indian cave and take turns reading from Thoreau, Whitman, Shelley; the biggies. Even some of own verse. And in the enchantment of the moment we'd let poetry work its magic." A classic line from Keating is then, "We didn't just read poetry, we let it drip from our tongues like honey. Spirits soared, women swooned, and Gods were created, gentlemen. Later he says, "Gods were created gentlemen." At this point there is a problem that manifests itself as the dangers of transcendentalism. While Keating is encouraging the boys about this Dead Poets Society he goes on to say "I doubt the current administration would look favorably upon that," giving the boys a double message.
Nonetheless, the boys pursue this challenge and proceed to build their own Dead Poets Society, here again with little if any warning from Keating. The main transcendental principle brought forth in the Dead Poets Society is spirituality in nature, reciting poetry in the Indian cave at night as described by Keating. The group also embraces all the transcendental principles of brotherhood, and civil disobedience
Neil is the most enthusiastic and encourages the group, including Knox, Charlie, Cameron, Pitts, Meeks and Todd.. The boys run through the college at night and then across the fields and towards the woods for the first meeting. As had been usual the meeting was held in "the old Indian cave", an important natural environment compared to their institutional rooms. In particular, the cave chant from "The Congo" (Lindsey) gives a very religious tone as the boys exit the cave. In this scene there is a a real sense of spiritual unity with nature and even an aspect of mysticism.
Brotherhood is manifested simply by the boys bonding together as former friends from the previous year's study group in an atmosphere of doing something that the administration would disapprove of, in other words, civil disobedience. This brotherhood is manifest more concretely between Todd and Neil. Todd says that he is too shy to go and read. In his words, "Keating said that everybody took turns reading and I don't want to do that." Neil's response in a sympathetic tone is "Gosh you really have a problem with that, don't you." He goes on to arrange for Todd to be at the meeting without having to say anything, announcing that, "Todd Anderson, because he prefers not to read, will keep minutes of the meetings." A true act of caring. It is also noticeable that, while the boys present their different poems or ideas in the cave, there may be some kidding around but never maliciousness.
Neil begins the meeting with the traditional opening message by society member Henry David Thoreau, "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" (Walden 172-173).These lines clearly show the freedom and the spiritual experience in the cave as opposed to the rigid discipline in the academic institution, bringing out the nature and free spirit over rigid laws of man and God.
Freedom of speech as described by Keating earlier is guided by the spiritual statement by Keating that "we were romantics." This is important and has been a source of debate (Rose 42) because it shows the romantic aspect of transcendentalism and that no clear boundaries exist in these classifications. Transcendentalism is itself a type of romanticism. Neil reads the romantic poem "Ulysses" (1929) from Alfred Lord Tennyson, who has some notable similarities with Walt Whitman, in for example poems dealing with patriotism and nature. There is also Charlie's romantic poem by Cowley, a segment of "The Prophet." And finally Meek's cave chant, an excerpt based on the author Vachel Lindsey from "The Congo." The others follow on exiting the cave in the dark, again looking on nature with a spiritual eye. There is also a brotherhood of chanting together.
Keating embodies most aspects of transcendentalism, especially those related to individualism (freethinking, self reliance, non-conformity, revolt against tradition and established institutions, perfection, growth and renewal of the individual, civil disobedience and brotherhood). Certainly man and spirit in nature could be added based on Keating's idolatry of Walt Whitman who speaks highly of his respect for these values as well. It would be a large task and probably redundant to bring into play Keating's transcendentalist characteristics since most of them are played out through the students. I think, however, that there are some important incidents related to Keating that are directly worth revealing.
For example, at lunch when Keating is sitting beside another teacher, McAllister, who happened to witness the tearing of the Pritchard section of the poetry book, McAllister comments that the class was "very fascinating, misguided as it was" Keating asserts that the issue is freethinking, which McAllister questions. Then Keating hits a weak spot saying, "Funny, I never pegged you as a cynic." McAllister then defends himself as a realist not a cynic, citing a poem "Show me the heart unfettered by foolish dreams, and I'll show you a happy man." Keating's romantic response with his own poem leaves McAllister somewhat reflective. His reply is, "But only in their dreams can man be truly free. 'Twas always thus, and always thus will be."
Later Keating has a minor confrontation with the headmaster, Mr. Nolan, on the issue of the conformity exercise in the courtyard, which Nolan observed. According to Keating it was an exercise on the "dangers of conformity" and goes on to say that "I always thought the idea of educating was to learn to think for yourself," an important principle of freethinking but also another theme of transcendentalism, educational reform, more typical of other transcendentalist authors not dealt with here, like Bronson Alcott. Nonetheless, In this particular scene, Nolan's response is "At these boys' ages? Not on your life! Tradition, John. Discipline. Prepare them for college, and the rest will take care of itself."
Keating does not argue with Nolan, and this is important since he implements his own advice to the students that "there's a time for daring and there's a time for caution and a wise man understands which is called for." Reform does not come at once with a immediate confrontation but rather with forbearance. This is an important dialogue in the movie because it acts as the most clear indication of foreboding, the dangers of transcendentalism to come in the story. If the principles of transcendentalism are not respected, that is to say exercised with caution over daring, then the forces that resist institutional change will not only react, but they may react with tragic consequences. Resistance to change can be a powerful force. Change must be negotiated carefully in conservative institutions. I think that he was somewhat negligent for Keating to not be more forceful with the boys on this point. Like he said about the introduction to the poetry book "This is a battle, a war. And the casualties could be your hearts and souls." This was put forth in a positive light, but like any war you cannot only be offensive, you have to be defensive. There are always land mines, cruise missiles and ambushes, to name a few dangers in this analogy.
In another scene Keating plays the role of father and friend to Neil the night before the play. This is just one manifestation of the bonds that Keating has created with his students, one of the more poignant as it shows that Keating is more than a teacher to these boys. I'm sure Keating meant well, but perhaps he just struck the wrong balance between brotherhood and authority. Simply the fact that Neil turns to Keating in this time of crisis says a lot. Neil's father does not want him to act generally or specifically in this play. Keating listens and asks Neil if he has ever been as sincere with his own father to which Neil responds, "I can't talk to him that way" to which Keating asks, "Have you ever told your father what you just told me? About your passion for acting. You ever show him that?" And Neil says sadly "I can't." Keating's words encourage Neil's individualism, and self reliance: "Then you're acting for him, too. You're playing the part of the dutiful son. I know this sounds impossible, but you have to talk to him. You have to show him who you are, what your heart is." Neil does not tell his father and lies to Keating.
Keating knows this and should have taken his responsibility as a teacher and member of the staff rather than being "one of the boys", but he is irresponsible albeit well meaning. Given the circumstances it was not an easy position for Keating to be in. Keating eventually becomes a scapegoat in a tragic ending because of this poor judgement and lack of forcefulness with Neil and his lack of initiative to mediate the situation.
Todd is best characterized as a nervous and shy boy, studious and a high achiever butlacking in confidence and social skills even among his friends. He is, however, accepted and liked in the spirit of brotherhood despite, or perhaps because of, his reticence. Keating perhaps picks up on Todd's difficulties in the first class, because after an intensive introduction in to the class he cites Whitman's poem "O Me, O Life" (219) and when he comes to "Answer. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse," and whether by coincidence or design he looks directly at Todd and asks, "What will your verse be?"
Keating quickly notices Todd's reticence and in a very important demonstration of growth and renewal of the individual, a central transcendental principle, when Todd says that he hasn't prepared a poem to read to the class, Keating addresses the class and says, "Mr. Anderson thinks that everything inside of him is worthless and embarrassing. Isn't that right, Todd? Isn't that your worst fear? Well, I think you're wrong. I think you have something inside of you that is worth a great deal." And then Walt Whitman enters the picture. Keating writes a phrase on the blackboard from "Song of Myself":"I sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world." (73). He asks Todd to give a demonstration of a barbaric "Yawp" in front of the class, provoking the boy into breaking loose. Keating asks "The picture of Uncle Walt up there. What does he remind you of? He then relentlessly encourages Todd to form a poem spontaneously, albeit somewhat fragmented. A complete and coherent version is given in the Appendix. Keating tells Todd to close his eyes and accelerates the chaos as he spins Todd around. Todd's poem gains and has an impressive finish. The class is first silent, then breaks into applause and cheering. Todd distinguishes himself, thanks to Keating.
Todd's room mate and friend is Neil. Todd is not too encouraged about Neil's rebellion against his father. When Todd is woken up in the night to get the news that Neil is dead, after committing suicide, Todd's reaction is indicative of nature and spirit, and the beginning of a rebelliousness.
The final scene and the final rebellion by Todd reveal much. There has been growth and renewal in Todd, along with a rebellious spirit, civil disobedience and non-conformity that allow him to take the lead as well as brotherhood and admiration of Keating. This is following the expulsion of Keating based on the false notion that he encouraged Neil to pursue acting without Mr. Perry's consent and the boys required admission to the Dead Poets Society.
Mr. Nolan takes over Mr. Keating's class and as the boys sit there, Keating asks permission to come in and retrieve some of his personal items from his room adjacent to the class. Nolan consents. As Keating is leaving the classroom the most dramatic moment in the movie occurs in my opinion. Todd leaps up from his seat and turns to face him. "Mr. Keating! They made everybody sign it," referring to the document admitting to the Dead Poets Society. Nolan becomes annoyed and tells Todd to be "Quiet" to which Todd responds "But it wasn't his fault!". Then Nolan says, "One more outburst from you or anyone else, and you're out of this school! Leave, Mr. Keating." Keating hesitates at the back of the classroom. I said leave, Mr. Keating." As Keating slowly turns and faces the door it is Todd who first stands on his desk and turns to Keating saying, "O Captain! My Captain!" Nolan persists in telling him to sit down, but then Knox climbs up onto his desk and says, "O Captain! My Captain!". By this point Nolan is rather frantic but the students continue one by one followed by Pitts, ignoring Nolan. Keating looks at the boys standing on their desks, seeing the world in a different way as he first taught them, but more significantly, paying him tribute by showing respect for the transcendental principles that he has taught them and their affection for him, of course brotherhood being one of those principles..
Neil reveals characteristics of revolt and self reliance. He is one of the nicest boys in the group, and had a big part in drawing together the brotherhood and forming the Dead Poets Society The main focus on Neil in the story is, however, his interest in acting. The other side of that is his very inflexible and dominating father, who controls Neil's life. It is clear that Mr. Perry is very intolerant. Neil has a passion to act and he gets the part of Puck in the Shakespearean play in Midsummer Night's Dream but without his father's permission. He "manufactures" his father's permissions by writing a letter on behalf of his father to the headmaster." Neil is elated until he one day finds his father waiting for him in his room. His father confronts Neil saying, "It's bad enough that you've wasted your time with this, this absurd acting business. But you deliberately deceived me! How, how, how did you expect to get away with this? Answer me. I don't care if the world comes to an end tomorrow night. You are through with that play." This is when Neil talks to Mr. Keating. Neil has lied to Keating, telling him that he actually did follow his advice and consult his father. This is his fatal mistake because he needed to heed Keating's advice as well as his encouragement.
After the play, Neil has given a wonderful performance and Keating compliments him by stating, "Neil. Neil. You have the gift. What a performance You left even me speechless. You have to stay with- " and then Mr. Perry appears. Neil's success in the play soon becomes a tragedy and his father tells him that he is withdrawing him from Welton, and sending him to military school, a place that defies individualistic values. Neil kills himself that night.
Neil's self reliance as an actor is admirable and his performance reflected successful personal growth. His revolt against his father is, however, a failure. Had his disobedience been civil, in other words had he tried to reason with his father, as Keating strongly urged, then he may have accomplished something. Given his father's obstinate personality, this may not have been the case. The point is that he does not try and that made the whole situation volatile. He probably would have had to postpone his acting career until he is free from his father's control. However, the type of disobedience is nothing less than a revolt, and he only stood a chance against his father in that case, if his father had remained totally unaware. Instead of transcendental qualities being something positive that made him a potentially superb actor, transcendentalist rebellion can be seen here to have fatal and tragic consequences. Not only does Neil fail, but it would have serious consequences for the optimistic atmosphere amongst the other boys, destroying the Dead Poets Society, making it into a sad reminder. Todd loses a room mate and friend, Mr. Keating will eventually face consequences, and perhaps most discouraging, the transcendental principles have failed. The institution has effectively defeated the transcendentalist rebellion, and both Mr. Nolan and Mr. Perry have no understanding for their own responsibility.
Knox personifies self reliance and, I suppose, brotherhood with a sexual bond. His character development centers around a girl who he meets. She is the daughter of a friend of his father's in a nearby town and he becomes infatuated with her. She is attached to a stereotypical overbearing American college football player named Chet. As often is the case, the "love" for Chet is partly based on a strange combination of Chet's domination and popularity, and Chris' lack of individualism.
Knox works up the courage to actually call Chris after a Dead Poet Society meeting. Charlie urges him to calm down and Knox replies: "No Charlie. That's just been my problem. I've been calm all my life. I'll do something about that. And shortly after Knox declares "I'm goin' call her." The boys follow Knox back to the college and he makes the call. He hesitates and then says "Carpe Diem. Even if it kills me." A strong force of self reliance rises.
When Knox talks to Chris she tells him that she was thinking about him and that he is welcome to a party. Even though Knox naturally recognizes that Chris has suddenly become Knox's girlfriend, an exchange between Knox and Charlie illustrates self-reliance as an evolving trait. Charlie says, " So, you don't really think she means you're going with her?" to which Knox replies "Well, of course not, Charlie. But that's not the point. That's not the point at all."
Charlie is curious and asks, "What is the point?" to which Knox replies "The point, Charlie, is, that she was thinking about me. I've only met her once, and already she's thinking about me. Damn it. It's gonna happen, guys. I feel it. She is going to be mine. Carpe. Carpe!"
Knox takes the next step and goes to Chris' school with flowers. He says, "Please, accept these. Please." Chris replies "No. No-- I, I can't. Forget it" and walks away. The school bell rings and she enters her classroom, closing the door behind her. Undaunted, Knox follows, opening the door and standing before her desk. Chris says, "Knox, I don't believe this." And Knox says "All I'm asking you to do is listen." Knox reads his poem, the classroom grows quiet as everyone stops to listen. "The heavens made a girl named Chris. / With hair and skin of gold. / To touch her would be paradise." This is directly inspired bythe Dead Poets Society as Chris holds her head in her hands in embarrassment and credit has to be given to Knox for once again believing in himself, self reliance.
In the next stage Chris comes to see Knox at Welton College. Snow is lightly falling as Chris and Knox walk outside - a kind of romantic and nature scene in a spiritual framework. They argue but in the end Knox convinces Chris to follow him to Neil's play and the tide begins to turn, you can sense that Chris likes Knox and admires his persistence.
He says "Come on, Chris. Just give me one chance. If you don't like me after tonight, I'll stay away forever. I promise. You come with me tonight. And then, if you don't want to see me again, I swear I'll bow out." Eventually Chris walks away from him and then turns to face him. "You are so infuriating." Chris gestures for Knox to follow her. Charlie does a little twirl as he joins her and puts his arm around her. They walk away.
In the audience, Knox takes Chris' hand in his. The romance has begun and all because of Knox's self reliance. His persistence and individuality prevails and Chris even takes a courageous step towards growth and renewal.
Charlie is not afraid of revolt against traditional institutions and his behavior can not really be called civil disobedience although I think that his forefathers would be proud of him and in "Civil Disobedience" (88) Thoreau makes the point that "all men recognize the right of revolution" and this quote is personified in Charlie. Even though the context is different, Charlie rebels against the conservatism right to the end until he is expelled. He does not surrender.
He shows his individualism in the form of non-conformity in Keating's demonstration in the courtyard. While everyone is finding a different type of walk, Charlie just stands there. When Keating notices this he asks Charlie, "Mr. Dalton? You be joining us?" to which Charlie replies "Exercising the right not to walk." And Keating applauds that attitude saying "Thank you, Mr. Dalton. You just illustrated the point. Swim against the stream." His great revolt is then to publish an article under the name of the Dead Poets Society demanding that girls be allowed to attend Welton. In the context of this institution at this time this is a major declaration of a new viewpoint. This is Charlie's finest moment. A general assembly is called and Mr. Nolan's speech follows "In this week of Welton's Honor there appeared a profane and unauthorized article. Rather than spend my valuable time ferreting out the guilty persons -- and let me assure you I will find them - - I'm asking any and all students who know anything about this article to make themselves known here and now. Whoever the guilty persons are, this is your only chance to avoid expulsion from this school."
The sound of a phone ringing can be heard. It's a fake phone that Charlie has rigged up. The professors look about for its source. Charlie picks up a telephone receiver and answers "Welton Academy. Hello. Yes, he is. Just a moment". Charlie stands up, holding a phone and bell in his hands. "Mr. Nolan, it's for you. It's God. He says we should have girls at Welton." This is one of the funniest parts of the movie, combining non-conformity, revolt against the institution, self- reliance and, importantly, a non-transcendental theme, humor, a great liberator of free speech.
Nolan punishes Charlie with a flat wooden paddle on the backside requesting names of the members of the Dead Poets Society but Charlie does not succumb. At the Dead Poets Society meeting Charlie had previously announced that from now on he will be called "Nuwanda".
On that note, when Neil asks, "So what happened?" Charlie replies "I'm to turn everyone in, apologize to the school and all will be forgiven." On Neil's inquiry, "So, what are you going to do? Charlie!" Charlie's response in keeping with his defiance is "Damn it, Neil, The name is Nuwanda." signifying that Charlie does not and will not give in. He has a lot of fortitude and is a true revolutionary. Apparently that is not enough to result in expulsion at that point, and gave Keating an opportunity, which probably his strongest reprimand about exercising caution to the boys. Keating's weakness, however, is that he is mainly not giving enough preventative advice but waiting until after the mistake, as in this case. The boys are surprised at Keating's reprimand, friendly as it is. In fact the reprimand turns into a joke when Keating remarks, "Phone call from God. If it had been collect, it wouldn't be daring," This shows the gap in giving the boy's serious advice, and a certain irresponsibility or lack of foresight.
After Neil's suicide the administration becomes more serious and another boy, Cameron, tells about the Dead Poets Society, putting all the other boys in a difficult position and giving the administration an opportunity to use Keating as a scapegoat and get rid of him. Charlie calls Cameron a fink "He's in Nolan's office right now, finking." Says Charlie and when Cameron returns Charlie lunges at Cameron and punches him in the face. Cameron falls to the floor as the boys pull Charlie away. Cameron lifts a hand to his bloody nose. This time it results in Charlie's expulsion.
To the end Charlie holds to his principles of being self reliant and rebellious, and he probably would have made the transcendentalists proud had they understood the context. What becomes of Charlie, whether it be a tragedy or success, is beyond the scope of the movie. He does have the essential components of a transcendentalist. How far does that get him in this world, or does he have to temper it?
To sum up what can be said about transcendentalism as portrayed in the movie, the Dead Poets Society? To use an analogy for transcendentalism, like technology, is neither good nor bad. It depends on how we use it. At the institutional level in the Dead Poets Society it can be said that nothing really changed within the administration or the college, except that an excellent teacher, Mr. Keating, had to leave. At the end we see the latin teacher teaching his students to memorize latin, as the movie began. Hardly the transcendental principle of thinking for yourself. Mr. Nolan remained in charged with his conservative views. He was challenged in the end when the boys stood on their desks showing respect for Keating, but I would expect that they would receive some discipline for that. One might expect, or at least hope, that the coming generation will change some of that. People die. New ideas emerge.
Another boy, Neil Perry committed suicide. And yet another, Charlie Dalton, is expelled. Two boys, Todd Anderson and Knox Overstreet are left to return to the strict college and their studies. Nonetheless, there is no doubt growth and renewal are sparked within these boys and others in the English class. Keating survived in the minds of these boys by "planting seeds." Ideas cannot die, they can not be killed, expelled or fired.
At a more general level, transcendentalism has brought much change through history and also in the context of this movie, albeit sometimes negative change. However, the change has had positive results. Even Henry David Thoreau in his civil disobedience found himself in prison and one can question the wisdom of his private revolt against taxes, since they are necessary to maintain coherence of the state. However, his idea of civil disobedience, to passively resist influenced Gandi and a whole nation way beyond his time. I would however argue that the logical extension of Thoreau's reasoning is a system of libertarianism, advocating minimal to no state intervention in the lives of the citizens. Thoreau seemed to overlook the danger in this, which is the disintegration in society and various valuable services and infrastructure resulting in turmoil and breakdown.
Again wisdom needs to be tempered by the objective of the civil disobedience. There can not be rebellion without consequences, and those consequences may be well intended but turn out to be devastating. Mr. Nolan's argument is that Welton Academy has functioned for 100 years, and like the other teacher, McAllister, argues against change. It works so why fix it. You don't change 17-year-old minds into freethinkers or artists; preparing them for university is sufficient and the boys will develop accordingly. He may have a point. Change for the sake of change, or change for a purpose? We see in our own times that change brings with it challenges and not always positive results and many long to go back to the past. Since young boys at 17 are very impressionable, the argument falls both ways. They can accomplish a great deal of growth and renewal at that age, and yet they can also be a victim of someone else's subversive and misguided ideas. We have, for example, had teachers that tried to reinvent history and teach their students that the Holocaust never happened. That is an extreme example but nonetheless an example that there has to be some sort of conservatism and reasonable limits and judgement on education. Learning to think for yourself is worth striving for; however, that needs to be balanced with knowledge.
John Keating, I believe, is quite aware of this. He is an intelligent man and a good teacher. He ought to have known, however, that to encourage the Dead Poets Society had risks and it is his responsibility to counsel the boys and keep them in line. He does try, as when he lectures Charlie about the phone call saying, "You being expelled from school is not daring to me. It's stupid." He is, however, not forceful enough. Keating strikes a poor balance between teacher and member of the administration, and friend to the boys. Keating's dismissal is rigged and unjust; he becomes a scapegoat and in the end he failed to revolt against tradition and established institution. He ought to have known that this upper class preparatory school is not the best forum for his agenda. He does, however, gain a memory for life in the final scene.
Of all the four boys, it was Todd who experienced real growth and renewal most tangibly. He becomes an individual and has to face the crisis of the death of Neil more than any other. In my opinion, Todd is the real hero, the one who will quietly become a true transcendentalist. He listens and learns more than the others; he is less liable to get too involved and more cautious. In the end he shows real courage in show of compassion and respect for Mr. Keating. His action probably enhanced Keating's sense of accomplishment and self-esteem. Keating successfully influenced one person and I suspect that this was an enormous victory. Success does not have to be measured in numbers.
Neil Perry's suicide is the most obvious tragedy and here is again the imbalance between Immaturity and enthusiasm on the one hand, and revolting with lack of guidance on the other.. Killing himself seemed to be a rather extreme measure, especially after Keating had such wise advice. He either had to confront his father and explain his passion for acting or wait another year or two to do what he wanted with his life, as Keating said.
Although Neil is understandably frustrated, if he had taken Keating's advice, he could have compromised with the awareness that life always opens new doors, and time changes everything. I think that Neil's suicide is overdone and a flaw in the story. In any case it is beyond my understanding that a person shoots himself because he has issues with his father. It did not seem very realistic either because Neil had more character and he had friends. Conversely, it did make the point that transcendentalist ideas can be fatal. Why are wars fought by Americans if not for the rights of individuals, and how many men "are now fertilizing the daffodils" as Keating puts it, fighting essentially in defense of the values of transcendentalism? So I think that is why Neil's death is in the plot of this movie.
Neil's mistake is Keating's main downfall. I think at the point where Keating became involved, when he knew the circumstances of Neil's passion for acting and Mr. Perry's resistance, then he probably could have stepped in and taken more responsibility and action. He tried too hard to be Neil's friend and mentor, and distanced himself from the adult world and the school.
Knox needs to be included here, not because he is particularly reflective of transcendental principles. He is a major character and experienced growth and renewal as he worked up the self reliance to find a friend in Chris. He is an active Dead Poets Society member with his memorable saxophone poem, and above all, he benefits from transcendentalism and survived as Todd. He is one of the four major boys.
Charlie is in a similar category as Thoreau, also exercising non-conformity and extreme self reliance, but perhaps not considering the purpose or consequences of his actions. Does Thoreau really accomplish anything by living alone and not paying his taxes? Is the quality of his life improved by simply being a non conformist? As Keating said "sucking the marrow out of life doesn't mean choking on the bone." So the question as to what Charlie's motives were, and what future awaits him, remains open. Does he contemplate the possibility of expulsion? Is that what he actually wants? He certainly had courage if not the reflection to temper that. And to illustrate my previous theory, he shows how humour can be used as a tool against conformity in the telephone scene.
The other major aspect of transcendentalism is nature, and the movie shows how the boys come to life, express their true selves in contrast to the rigidity of the institution. It has to be remembered that New England can get pretty cold in the winter, and even though nature takes us back to our roots, it is nice to have a warm place inside. Again there is an important balance that we need to remind ourselves of. Civilization and institutions are a precondition for ideals like transcendentalism.
Finally, there are the original authors themselves: the "Dead Poets." They could never have imagined such times or even motion pictures. And the setting of this movie is almost 50 years ago. These men gave us ideas in artistic form that have in a sense transcended themselves from books, essays and poetry to cinematography. Like their forefathers who signed the Declaration of Independence, these three med could never have predicted their influence so far into the future. Nonetheless, their principles are solid even as the world around us changes. They stood for civil disobedience, free thinking, nature and spiritual unity, and romanticism, for example. Theseprinciples have transcended themselves into human rights, democracy, ecology, and protecting our humanity against technology.
My own thoughts remain enthusiastic towards the principles of transcendentalism. In particular my own background and opinions has given me enormous respect for individuality and my profession has enhanced my respect for nature. Henry David Thoreau continues to leave an impression on me in this respect but both Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson have now joined with him in my universe and given me new perceptions. Valuable perceptions.
Change is a fundamental reality in our lives now, more than ever before in the history of humanity. We can embrace or reject a certain idea, but however we deal with it wisdom and foresight need to be the guiding principles. The movie illustrates this point very well. With all of Keating's good intentions, his methods are ineffective and the change is mostly unfortunate for the students and himself. The learning institution with its century-old traditions might benefit from proper implementation of some change but it resists and rejects it. Nobody is really any wiser or any better off. The results remain status quo at best, and tragic at worst.
Mr. Keating's Poem
While speaking with another teacher, Mr. McAllister
In front of the English class
In front of the English class
Played in a Dead Poets Society meeting
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