Romanticism and The Dead Poets' Society

An Essay By Naomi // 2/13/2005

“The Men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.”
- G.K. Chesterton

From standing atop desks to kicking soccer balls while quoting Walt Whitman, the schoolboys in English teacher John Keating’s class learn to walk the path of the individualist, the non-conformist, and the “extraordinary”: in other words, the Romantic. The story of these boys and their teacher in Tom Schulman’s movie The Dead Poets’ Society (directed by Peter Weir) creates an appealing picture of Romanticism—a philosophy based on the concept of man as basically good and his feelings as a standard of inherent value. Through characterization and imagery, the movie’s director contrasts Romanticism’s vitality and emotional appeal with stereotypes of traditional values and teaching methods—thus creating a chasm between Realism and Romanticism in the movie and in the viewer’s mind. Based on their underlying assumption of man’s innate goodness, the creators of The Dead Poets’ Society wield drama’s emotional medium to preach Romantic ideals and subtly undermine traditional values, religion, and education.

Romanticism’s foundation—and thus the message of The Dead Poets’ Society—rests on a belief in man’s inherent goodness. When the problem of the sin nature haunts mankind no longer and man is considered the measure of all things, values are rendered relative and emotions rule as gods. Rather than proving the philosophy of man’s essential goodness, the dialogue and drama of the movie simply assume its truth. For example, the new teacher Keating tells his class of boys to “find [their] own voice” and “consider what [they] think” above all. He encourages them to trust and express themselves. Keating also exalts and embraces the philosophy of Walt Whitman—the foremost of the “dead poets” in the movie—who said, “I do not understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.” In one of his unconventional exercises, Keating has his students shout lines by Whitman while kicking a ball: they proclaim the glory of man accompanied by the Romantic vigor of Schiller’s Ode to Joy. The narrative, emotional style of the movie engages the viewers’ sympathies and convinces them to concur subconsciously with this inherently flawed philosophy. Once they believe in the boys’ goodness and potential and see Keating’s good intentions, they are easily induced to agree with his methods.

By undermining belief in man’s sinful nature and by pitting the dead Romantic poets’ philosophy against a legacy of education and morality, The Dead Poets’ Society subtly wages a war against tradition. Welton Academy—the elite, all-boys school-setting—epitomizes a stereotype of tradition, from its old stone buildings to its stuffy, disciplinarian professors. At the school’s symbolic core are its “four pillars”: tradition, honor, discipline, and excellence—and the latter three virtues make up key defining values of the former. The movie does not blatantly challenge these principles, but instead psychologically prejudices the audience against Welton and thus against them. Strategic imagery and high-sounding sentiments garb the Romantic ideals in an emotionally appealing and apparently innocuous guise. Keating’s theme of carpe diem, “seize the day,” seems inspiring but proves shallow, because in his philosophy, nothing higher than man determines true meaning. Besides self-satisfaction, there is nothing for which to “seize the day.”

Powerful visual imagery portrays the movie’s message in a positive and emotionally engaging light. The scene introducing Keating as the new, non-conformist teacher builds up to his unconventional style with a series of short clips showing the veteran teachers’ boring classes. Implicit in the visual medium is the stark contrast between dull tradition and Keating’s new, exciting, “enlightened” methods. Keating defies order, teaching his students to stand atop their desks to get a new perspective on the world. He intrigues them with the idea of reviving the secret “Dead Poets’ Society”—not just a nighttime gathering of schoolboys reading poetry, but a mystical meeting in which emotions and self-expression run rampant. His encouragement of the society subtly challenges the tradition of honor by sanctioning disrespect for authority and disregard for obedience and honesty.

Aristotle profoundly said that the purpose of education is to make students like or dislike what they ought. Instead of teaching this ordo amoris (proper affection), The Dead Poets’ Society continuously emphasizes the ultimate importance of one’s own feelings. Keating teaches his students to exalt subjectivism and so to shun Aristotle’s view of objective morality. He encourages them to uncork their bottled-up feelings and passions: to “suck the marrow of life” and “make [their] lives extraordinary.” Thus by disregarding traditional teaching, order, and ordinate emotion, Keating teaches unrestraint—directly opposing discipline, another of the school’s pillars and a symbol of tradition. The lack of discipline and the disregard for tradition, honor, and authority ultimately undermines excellence, too. Keating only asks his students to aspire to heights of emotion and expression within the confines of their finite selves; he essentially tells them that they are the measure of all things by praising their feelings and intrinsic goodness. But they have nothing higher to pursue—no meaning beyond themselves to spur them on to truth and excellence.

Allied with Emerson, Shelley, Thoreau, and Whitman, Keating preaches these poets’ form of egocentric spiritualism and thus undermines traditional religion. Interestingly, the movie removes the essence of true religion yet cleverly uses religious imagery to further its Romantic educational message. Though without substance, the pictures do have enough emotional impact or suggestion to capture the viewers’ emotional agreement. For example, when the boys first slip away to their secret cave for the initial Dead Poets’ Society meeting, they look like monks in cowls escaping the austere walls of a monastery (the academy). Through subconscious association, the viewers understand that “real” meaning and spirituality lie outside the bounds of formal religion—that “real” education comes from far beyond Welton’s teachers and textbooks: according to the movie, ultimate reality, ability, and meaning lie within oneself.

Carrying the religious metaphor further, the movie even presents a type of “salvation”—an initiation into Romanticism. Keating seeks to “convert” his students from the dullness and complacency of traditional methods to the liberty of self-trust and free thinking. To this end he even symbolically gives them his old poetry book—an allusion to the Bible—to begin the Dead Poets’ Society anew. The boys’ conspiratorial meetings seem reminiscent of secret gatherings of the early Christians. Yet the vaguely familiar and visually pleasing imagery hides a dangerous lack of true meaning or morality: it is merely Romanticism’s feel-good religion in masquerade—subtly seeking to convince us that it contains some deep spiritual significance through its visual imitation of Christianity.

The salvation metaphor gains central significance in the movie with the climax and tragic dénouement involving the suicide of one of the main characters—a student named Neil. Keating successfully converts a core group of his students, and they flourish as free thinkers—treading the dangerous and untraditional ground of expressing their emotions. Yet a taste of free thinking uninhibited by traditional restraints and values proves fatal to Neil. He follows Keating’s philosophy: he discovers his passions and aspires to attain them. But in an example of the stereotypical laying down of the law, his authoritarian father destroys his dreams. Hopeless—having tasted the liberty of indulging his passions and then having had them denied—Neil takes his own life. Neil’s death and the ensuing investigation lead the school administration to fire Keating, but the tragedy also becomes a kind of sanctification for the few “saved” students. In the end, those faithful to the fired Keating prove their “salvation” by standing on their desks to salute him in non-conformity—led by a key existential character, Neil’s roommate Todd.

“We’re talking free thinkers,” says Keating of his teaching methods to McAllister, one of his fellow teachers in the movie. “Free thinkers at seventeen?” McAllister counters. Keating calls him a cynic, but McAllister defends his view by saying, “Not a cynic, a realist. Show me the heart unfettered by foolish dreams, and I’ll show you a happy man.” Keating replies, “But only in their dreams can men be truly free.” Neil’s suicide later in the play gives their words poignant significance. His death reveals the consequences of Romantic thought—yet in a clever twist, the movie uses the emotional impact of the tragedy to remove all blame from Keating and place it on the father-figure and Welton Academy—essentially on tradition. McAllister and Keating’s key conversation reflects the contrast between the school’s traditional realism and Keating’s Romanticism, showing also the warring philosophies in today’s educational system.
Despite its inherent flaws and consequences, Romanticism’s popularity and appeal still hold strong—as evidenced not only by the reality of America’s educational system, but also by movies like The Dead Poets’ Society. But Romanticism will ever remain a doctrine of dreams: an illusion of freedom in the reality of close-minded slavery to self. Subtly inherent in its effective and appealing message to think for oneself, throw off the fetters of tradition, and express one’s emotions freely, The Dead Poets’ Society preaches the self-glorifying precepts of the dead Romantic poets and undermines the traditional standards of morality and education.

This is a paper I wrote for my Foundations of Education class last semester...

Comments

your essay

you essay is shortsighted and opinionated in the worst way. You sell yourself short writing, or rather, thinking and interpreting, the way you do here.

Anonymous | Sun, 11/23/2008

your essay is well written

your essay is well written but completely dead. How did you watch this movie and see that? Keating was not to blame for Neil's death. It was not his dangerous and subversive teaching combined with unconscious religious imagery that killed Neil. It was his father's insistence on determining his life. He would not let Neil be himself and Neil thought it was better to die, than to walk through the rest of his life dead inside. Keating inspired him to reach his potential and become what he truly was. He showed him that their is more to life than saying "yes, sir" to his father, going to Harvard, and becoming a doctor. That is NOT what Neil ever wanted. But Keating was the first one who asked him, actually listened and asked him, what do you want? [Admin:  inappropriate use of "Jesus" edited out, 11/30/09, please keep language clean], how can you say Keating was to blame and Welton and his father were the heroes?

Anonymous | Fri, 01/02/2009

joking?

you choking me?

Anonymous | Sun, 03/01/2009

sell yourself short? not at all

On the contrary, I think you engaged an important question and tackled it! What you said about romanticism was clear-cut and well-expressed, and you uncloaked some of its more seductive messages.

I, personally, wouldn't throw romanticism completely out the door. Some of its thinkers make me laugh (Walt Whitman was such a self-worshipper!) and its basic principle, that man is the ultimate good, is wrong. But I like some aspects of it... such as a deeper love of nature, and a deeper search for self-knowledge, and more of a trust in the brotherhood of man. (I love Thoreau and Louisa May Alcott!) But you must also have wisdom and a rounded knowledge of men's nature (which includes sin - not just his goodness, or self-sacrifice, or nobility), and you must have your passions ordered under reason. And if you think something like these examples (love of nature, self-awareness, etc.) are good because they better you as a person, well and good. But if you go along with the notion that these examples will incur salvation, um... no.

To counter the romantic notion I would have enjoyed to see even more development on Aristotle's view on education, to show how a student SHOULD be taught the order of the affections. What rule is used? If it is not feelings, what is it? Reason? Truth? Goodness? God? But a student has a word limit in an essay. :D

GREAT job analyzing a movie, too. It's so easy to go along with the current of a film and not stop to even question its basic philosophy. And you were spot-on about the tools film uses to capture sympathies. Our reason often submits!!

Sarah Bethany | Tue, 03/03/2009

God

Sarah, Unless you know the true nature of God (how could anyone?), then man is the ultimate good. Religion is a contrivance of human beings. If you simply believe God exists, with no preconceptions, and do not conjure up arbitrary morals and laws, then man is left as the ultimate good. Why cannot doing unto others ... be enough for you? Mike McArthur

Anonymous | Mon, 09/07/2009

poor essay

 This is completely biased and doesn't go into detail at all about the fact that we need a balance of realism and romanticism in society.  If everyone was realist, nothing new would ever occur and the great minds of the age of reason and enlightenment would never have existed, henceforth you only argued that there should not be romanticism and did not dwell on the combination of both in society.

Anonymous | Tue, 11/10/2009

i agree with you

sarahs essay is written very well

but shes making people understand what its about and not focusing on not been misunderstood

i honesty love sarahs introduction its great but she needs to add more things in it to make those who havent watched dead poet society understand where shes coming from

Anonymous | Tue, 10/12/2010

Actually...........

Actually, i just finished seeing this movie with my advanced reading and writing class, and i can say that the movie was truly amazing and i loved it. it taught me carpe diem( sieze the day) and to never waste a moment of your life because it is to short. you can get a lot from a movie like Dead Poets' Society. And i do agree with you though, keeting was not to blame for neil's death, but he encouraged him to be an actor, which went against his father. When his father found out, he asked neil why he wanted to be an actor, and neil didn't reply. so it was actually neil's father's fault for making him feel unhappy.

Anonymous | Wed, 11/03/2010

really short

sarah the romantic age didn't always believe in the inherent goodness of man. in fact atleast 40% of the writers believed mankind was inherently evil and had to struggle to be good.(example:Edgar Allen Poe.)

Anonymous | Wed, 12/01/2010

Neil

while i agree that neil wouldn't have killed himself if mr. keating hadn't intervened. mr. keating did want neil to talk with his father about acting. neil instead snuck behind his fathers back lied to mr. Keating, and went to the play. Mr.Keating isn't entirely at fault. in my personal opinion neil would have killed himself eventually. just like Newanda(can't remember real name) would have eventually been expelled. the seeds of recklessness and dispair hadalready been planted it may have not happened as soon if mr. keating hadn't intervened but it would have happened eventually.

Anonymous | Wed, 12/01/2010

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