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Table of contents
1.2 The definition of the general topic “hero worship and disillusionment”
2. The Plot
2.1 What does the film/ the novel have to do with “hero worship and disillusionment”?
3. Social background of the students and the general atmosphere at the school
4. Short characterisation of the main protagonists
4.1. John Keating
4.2. Neil Perry
4.3. Todd Anderson
4.4. Mr. Nolan
5. The scenes in the novel
5.1. Scene 1 (p. 148- 156)
5.1.2 Analysis of the first scene with reference to the general topic
5.2. Scene 2 (p. 157- 166)
5.2.2. Analysis of the first scene with reference to the general topic
6. The scenes in the film
6.1. Analysis of the technical methods
6.1.1. Scene 1
6.1.2. Scene 2
6.1.3. Scene 3
6.1.4. Scene 4
7. Comparison of the scene in the novel and the equivalent in the film
7.1. What is different?
7.2. What do they have in common?
The topic of this paper is “Dead Poets Society - hero worship and disillusionment”. In this paper I am going to focus on hero worship regarding the film and the novel of “Dead Poets Society.”
First, I will give a summary of the story in the context of hero worship. After having introduced the main protagonists, I am going to analyse a scene in the novel and the equivalent in the film.
My aim in this paper is to find out if and how the main protagonists have changed and how the hero of the story, Mr. Keating, is involved in their development of character.
1.1. The definition of the general topic “hero worship and disillusionment”
Hero worship has changed in the course of time. Different societies created themselves different heroes at different times which were always idealised.
In their lives and work one can see the moral principles which are worth to be followed - even when they were legendary or transfigured. In the antiquity and in the Middle Ages courageous warriors were often admired as heroes. The example of their courage was meant to encourage young warriors to imitate them (for example Achilles). In modern times when the national states developed heroes were “invented”. They anticipated the establishment of a state in any way. They were courageous and fair, often legendary characters whose merit it was to unite the country (for example emperor Friedrich Barbarossa). Nowadays hero worship is not as common as it used to be. Nevertheless in films, novels and also in the media unselfish, uncomplicated humans who are happy to be alive are presented as „heroes”. They represent the hope that life today, which is becoming more and more complicated, can be mastered. Thus one can say that heroes come and go, depending on the ideals, moral principles, hopes and goals that are important to a society.
2. The Plot
The story is set in 1959 at the Welton Academy, a preparatory school in Vermont. At the welcoming ceremony for the new students the director, Mr. Nolan, explains the principles of the Academy: tradition, honour, discipline and excellence. The new English teacher, John Keating, has his own values: passion, imagination, beauty, language and love which he integrates in his classes. Inspired by these values he teaches the students to think for themselves and to make their lives extraordinary. Some of the boys re-found the Dead Poets Society. This is a secret club where, free from the restrictions and expectations of school and parents, they can express their emotions. Once in his youth this club had been found by Mr. Keating himself. They meet in a cave in the woods to read and write poetry. With passion and ambition they each make different attempts to "suck the marrow out of life" (Nancy H. Kleinbaum, Dead Poets Society, p. 110).
These meetings change the boys. Charlie Dalton is the first to express this new lifestyle by giving himself a new name and by playing pranks at school. Mr. Keating reprimands him for this action because he wants the students to undermine the system. Todd Anderson overcomes his shyness. Knox Overstreet wins the girl he loves by being persistent and writing poems for her. Neil Perry finds his profession in stage acting without the knowledge of his father who is totally against this. When he finds out he takes Neil off the school after his first, very successful performance to enrol him at a military school. Neil commits suicide. For this Mr. Keating is held responsible by the school administration and by Neil's parents. They make most of his classmates sign a paper blaming Mr. Keating who gets dismissed. Shortly before he leaves he visits the class which is now taught by Mr. Nolan to get his last personal items. Despite the director's orders to sit down the boys step on their desks shouting "O captain! My captain!"1 thus paying their final tribute to Mr. Keating.
2.1. What does the film/ the novel have to do with „hero worship and disillusionment?“
A hero is somebody who accomplishes a courageous, extremely unusual deed.
Mr. Keating does so in the film/the novel “Dead Poet Society”. He is the new English teacher at the Welton Academy, a vocational school with strict rules. Nobody is allowed to break them. If a student does not behave in the right way he either gets extra work to do or he is expelled from the school. The students cannot develop their own way of thinking. They have to study rigid definitions of, for instance, the question “What is poetry?” They are neither allowed to think for themselves nor to practise what they want to do (like Neil Perry who wants to do stage acting but his father does not allow it). They are forced to become what their parents want them to be, for example, a doctor or a lawyer. To this Mr. Keating has a different opinion. In his lessons he teaches the students the love to poetry. He wants them to feel it, to make the words become alive in their imaginations. By having a different way of teaching, he shows them how to make their live extraordinary. He encourages the students to develop their own character which especially Todd achieves.
In the beginning of the film/ the novel, he is a shy and quiet boy but in the end he becomes courageous and actually breaks the rules.
In the end of the film when Mr. Keating has to leave Todd is the first to step on his desk shouting “O captain! My captain” with which he addresses his former English teacher. His classmates follow him. By doing this they all disobey Mr. Nolan who wants them to sit down and be quiet. This ending shows that Mr. Keating has succeeded because the boys are now ready to start their own life.
They are disillusioned when they see him take off because not even their hero can beat or at least kind of change the system.
3. Social background of the students and the general atmosphere at the Welton Academy
The Welton Academy is a preparatory school for students who come from rich families. Its values are the basis of living at the school. The aim of the Welton Academy is to get as many students as possible into the “Ivy League.”2 For the students this means that they have to study very hard to hold up their grades or even to improve them. To be able to do this they have different working groups where they help each other.
Living at Welton means to live in a small, limited world of its own. The students are oppressed by their teacher and their parents. They are not allowed, for instance, to participate in the activities they like, they have to study all day long. Their parents expect them to be scholars and to belong to the “Welton Honour Society.”3 The pressure to do well and the constant obedience to their parents and teachers leads to the statement “(...) you won the booby prize. Don’t expect to like it here.”4 This is said when Todd Anderson arrives at Welton for the first time. His roommate, Neil Perry, welcomes him by telling him that it is really hard to survive at this school. Another statement by Steven Meeks explains the general atmosphere “(...) welcome to Hellton.”5 Nobody likes the school, mostly because they can not do what they would like to do. After Mr. Keating has taught them how to make their life individual and not to obey all the time they disagree and question the methods of the school.
4. Short characterisation of the main protagonists
4.1 John Keating
He is the founder of the Dead Poets Society. Once he has been a student of the Welton Academy as well, now being the new English teacher. He has an individual, unique and successful way of teaching the boys the beauty of poetry. This way he reaches the boys’ imagination and feelings. Through letting them “feel” and “hear” poetry he awakens their fascination and shows the students how to give their lives an individual touch following his most important motto: CARPE DIEM which means: SEIZE THE DAY. Mr. Keating is a hero for the boys because he does not let the system take control over him.
4.2. Neil Perry
Neil is very intelligent, he is one of Welton’s scholars. His passion is stage acting which he wants to do more than anything else. Encouraged by Mr. Keating’s lessons he follows his ambitions to obtain the main role in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. He does this without his father’s knowledge and against his will because his father thinks that acting is a waste of time and not a suitable career for his son. After having had a very successful performance, his father takes him away from Welton. Being disappointed and frustrated, he does not want to live without being able to follow his passion. He also does not want to be oppressed by his father and the school administration anymore. He decides to commit suicide.
4.3. Todd Anderson
Todd is a 16-year-old boy. To be able to attend the Welton Academy he first had to go to Belincrest6 to improve his grades. On his first day at the Welton Academy he has to fill large shoes. His older brother was one of Welton’s best students. He is the youngest son of a family that does not care much about him. One can see this by the fact that he gets the same writing set for his birthday that he got the year before. Being very helpful for the development of Todd’s character, Neil is a good roommate to him. Somehow he brings out Todd’s extravagance.
First, Todd is shy, quiet and does not have much self-confidence. “All the way through the movie he seems to be a bottle which is filled with emotions and Mr. Keating sees it as his job to let these emotions free.”7 During Mr. Keating’s lessons Todd starts to change his personality. He becomes more and more courageous. After Neil’s death he changes completely. He is thoughtful , sensitive and yet courageous. In the last scene he acts like a hero for his classmates by withstanding Mr. Nolan’s intimidations By doing so, he shows his sympathy and admiration for his former English teacher.
4.4. Mr. Nolan
Mr. Nolan is the headmaster of the Welton Academy. While he is praising the four pillars of Welton (tradition, honour, excellence and discipline) his character is well shown. He is severe and takes the goals he has set for the students (to get into the Ivy League) very seriously. He punishes every slight breaking of a rule very hard. He is the one who most openly exerts the system by oppressing the students’ imagination and individuality and by making them study from abstract texts such as Dr. Pritchard’s mathematical text about understanding poetry.
5. The scenes in the novel
5.1. Scene 1 (p. 148-156)
This scene is set right after Neil’s performance in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Mr. Perry has just taken away Neil from the Welton Academy.
Mr. Keating and the boys are walking home being happy and joyous. At the same time, a fateful silence settles over the Perry’s house. Neil commits suicide.
The next morning they boys storm into Todd’s room and tell him what has happened. He vomits and blames Mr. Perry for killing Neil. Mr. Perry has always put Neil under pressure and has never let him do what he wanted to do.
Mr. Keating feels an unbearable grief.
The next day Neil is buried. After the funeral the whole school assembles in the Welton chapel. There Mr. Nolan announce them that he intends to find the responsible person. To achieve that, the student’s complete cooperation is requested.
Later on, the Dead Poets meet in the basement where Charlie exposes Cameron as a traitor. Richard has told Mr. Nolan everything about the Dead Poets Society. When he reveals that the school administration holds Mr. Keating responsible for Neil’s suicide, they are stunned with disbelief. Charlie gets so angry that he hits Cameron right in the face.
5.1.2. Analysis of the first scene with reference to the general topic
“We have contacted each of your parents to explain the situation. Naturally, all are quite concerned. At the request of Neil’s family, I intend to conduct a thorough inquiry into this matter. Your complete cooperation is expected.”8 This is said after Neil’s funeral. It shows Mr. Nolan’s rationality and coolness. He does not care at all about the student’s feelings. By paying all his attention to the four principles of the Welton Academy he exaggerates their importance to the student’s lives. It was Mr. Keating’s intention to make Mr. Nolan recognise his wrong way of leading a school, but he did not achieve it. This, in a way, disillusions the Dead Poets. Mr. Keating is just one teacher among others who, too, depends on the school administration and its rules. He has tried to break the rules and got punished. Being a traitor, Cameron has told Mr. Nolan everything about the Dead Poets Society. For this betrayal he gets hit very hard by Charlie. This shows that he still vouches for Mr. Keating.
5.2. Scene 2 (p.157-166)
It is the day after Neil’s burial. Mr. Nolan talks to the boys. One by one, each member of the Dead Poets Society is taken to Mr. Nolan in order to sign a paper that blames Mr. Keating for Neil’s suicide. Steven Meeks and Knox Overstreet have been broken when they return. Todd is the last one to be taken to the headmaster’s office. There he meets his parents. They try to make him sign the paper but he refuses.
The next day, while Mr. Keating is preparing himself to leave the Welton Academy, the students are sitting in the English classroom. Todd, Meeks, Knox and Pitts look down on the floor being too ashamed to look each other into the eye. Only Cameron behaves as if nothing has happened. Mr. Nolan is now teaching the class until the end of the year. Mr. Keating enters the room to get his personals. He gets them and just as he reaches the door, Todd jumps up telling him that the school administration made everybody sign the paper. Mr. Nolan furiously demands Mr. Keating to leave. But Todd steps on his desk calling out “O captain! My captain.” Almost everybody of the class follows his lead, “standing on their desks in silent salute.”9 First, Mr. Nolan tries to take control over the boys but in the end he gives up. Mr. Keating thanks the boys and leaves.
5.2.2. Analysis of the second scene with reference to the general topic
“It’s not true! I won’t sign it.”10 Todd says this because he is convinced that Mr. Keating is not responsible for Neil’s suicide. By refusing to sign the paper, Todd defends his former English teacher. He also criticises his parents and explains what he thinks of them by saying “He cares about me! You don’t!” This is his response to his father’s question why he cared about Mr. Keating’s future. It shows his affection for Mr. Keating. Even after Mr. Nolan urges him to sign the paper by using intimidations he still refuses to put his signature under it. When Mr. Keating enters the room his view focuses on Todd and the other Dead Poets. Their eyes are full of tears. Todd can not hold back himself and jumps up to tell Mr. Keating that the school administration made everybody sign the paper. Again he refuses to listen to Mr. Nolan who tries to make him sit down. This shows that Todd really defends and likes Mr. Keating.
Just as Mr. Keating turns to leave Todd is overwhelmed by his emotions and with the will to do something, he steps on his desk calling out “O captain! My captain!” Lead by Todd, almost the whole class follows him on their desks to pay their final tribute to their former English teacher. In this last scene Todd is the hero who leads the class to this extraordinary action. In Mr. Keating the class and especially the Dead Poets have found somebody who has really cared about them and who was always there for them unlike the other teachers or their parents. He was the one who supported and helped them with their passions. He just was their hero.
6. Analysis of the technical methods in the scene in the film
6.1. Scene 1
This scene shows that the boys who actually knew that Mr. Keating is not responsible for Neil’s suicide betray their teacher.
Todd is sitting in Mr. Nolan’ office where he meets his parents. They want to make him sign a paper that blames Mr. Keating to be responsible for Neil’s suicide. He refuses to do it while the other’s, except Charlie Dalton, sign it. This is shown by a close-up of the signature of Overstreet, Cameron, Meeks and Pitts which seems to say „Only your signature, Todd, is missing.“ Todd’s parents and the headmaster want him to sign the paper and the second close- up underlines their demand. The third close-up of Todd shows his desperate situation where one can feel his ambitions to stand up against his parents and Mr. Nolan but does not dare to do it.
This scene intends to show that on the one hand Mr. Keating feels sad but on the other hand he is happy because Mr. McAllister, too, tries to “reform” the old way of teaching. A long- shot showing Mr. McAllister and the boys repeating Latin words in the courtyard. By doing so, he imitates a way of Mr. Keating’s teaching methods: he follows his “open air approach to language.”11 Shot from a high angle Mr. McAllister is looking up waving good-bye to Mr. Keating. The former English teacher is looking down on Mr. McAllister in a low angle shot being happy that at least one teacher continues what he has started. In a close-up of Mr. Keating it becomes obvious that he feels sad about leaving the Welton Academy.
6.3. Scene 3
In this scene Todd’s emotions are shown. The good and the bad personalities of the movie are also pointed out.
An over-the-shoulder shot shows the whole class looking down to the floor being ashamed of what they have done. In a close-up of Todd one can see how uncomfortable he feels and how much he dislikes Mr. Nolan. Cameron is shown in a medium angle acting as if nothing has happened thus showing that he does not even have a bad consciousness. This makes the viewer dislike him. When Mr. Keating enters the room Mr. Nolan gets very angry. A close-up shows him having a red-coloured face. Mr Keating looks sad and disappointed which makes the viewer sympathise with him.
6.4. Scene 4
In this scene the development of the boys’ individual personality, especially Todd’s, is shown. First, one hears harp music which is getting louder and louder while Mr. Nolan’s voice which is exclaiming “Sit down!” is rising, too. But one hears less and less of Mr. Nolan’s voice because the boys stop listening to him. There are different close-ups from the Dead Poets and the other boys in the classroom who all have the same facial expression which is seemingly saying “Should I, or should I not.” First, Todd steps on his desk shouting “O captain! My captain!” thus showing that now he has enough courage to disobey Mr. Nolan. Then one after another follows Todd’s action. The very last seconds are filmed in a high angle shot where the boys look down on their “enemy” Mr. Nolan who was always oppressing their imaginations and free thinking while their “hero” Mr. Keating looks up gratefully. A last close-up of Mr. Keating expresses and underlines his triumph over Mr. Nolan and the whole school administration and shows his satisfaction that the students have learned what he wanted them to.
7. Comparison of the scene in the novel and the equivalent one in the film
7.1. What is different?
Before I start comparing the scene in the novel and in the film, I want to state some general features that are different in films and novels. Films use the senses seeing and hearing. They create illusion. While film making is sophisticated, the consumption is straightforward. Novels use the brain. They stir imagination. While the writing is straightforward, the consumption is rather sophisticated.
The scene which I will compare now starts when Mr. Nolan and Todd’s parents try to make Todd sign the paper and goes on until the end of the story.
There are only two slight differences. First in the novel when Mr. Anderson and Todd argue about whether Todd should sign the paper or not. In the film this does not happen. Mr. Nolan’s pen is shown in a close-up and right after that the sequence with Mr. McAllister is shown. This difference in the film intends to leave the viewer in doubt whether Todd has actually signed the paper or not.
The scene of Mr. McAllister and the boys outside in the courtyard is different in the film, too. In the novel, Mr. McAllister looks up to Mr. Keating, takes a deep breath and turns to continue his outside lessons. In the film, he waves good-bye to Mr. Keating and smiles a little. This shows that the two teachers sympathise with each other.
7.2. What do they have in common?
Apart from the two slight differences they are similar. In my opinion, they are similar because all the other details are important to create an heroic atmosphere. Especially the detailed description of the ending in the novel and its translation into action is important for the viewer/ the reader to see and feel the mood of the ending of the story. By reading the novel one feels Todd’s emotions because his thoughts are obvious to the reader. In the film, one can not read the protagonist’s thoughts. Todd’s feelings are made obvious by his facial expression and the fact that he is fighting back tears.
To sum it up I want to state that Mr. Keating is the real hero of the story because through his influence most of the boys in the class, especially the Dead Poets, have changed their personality.
For me Todd’s development changing from a quiet and shy boy to a courageous and almost heroic personality interested me the most. This change could only happen because Mr. Keating entered his life and showed him how to gain self-confidence.
I do not think that a person like Mr. Keating would exist in real life because I can not imagine a teacher coming up with so many extraordinary ideas for his lessons every day. As a conclusion I want to say that it was a valuable experience to write this paper and to work on the material, especially the analysis of the scenes in the novel and in the film.
O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people are exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart! O bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my captain lies, fallen cold and dead.
Written by Walt Whitman
This poem is written in the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, it mourns the dead „captain“ of the ship (of state), which returns victorious from battle (over secession). Keating, who was the „captain“ of the soccer team in his student days at Welton, tells the class that they may address him either by his name or by „O Captain! My Captain!“. Some of them take him up on it thus acknowledging his guidance.12
1. Kleinbaum, Nancy H., Dead Poets Society 5th ed. (New York: Bantam Books, 1997).
2. Liebelt, Wolf, Der Film Dead Poets Society im Englischunterricht 2nd ed. (Hannover, Niedersächsisches Landesinstitut für Fortbildung und Weiterbildung im Schulwesen und Medienpädagogik, 1996)
3. The film “Dead Poets Society”: directed by Peter Weir; script written by Tom Schulmann
1 Cf. annotations
2 Ivy League means the eight best universities in the North East of America (for e.g. Harvard or Yale)
3 This means that they have one of the best report cards.
4 Nancy H. Kleinbaum, Dead Poets Society, p. 12
5 Nancy H. Kleinbaum, Dead Poets Society, p.14
6 Belincrest is a public high school.
7 Wolf Liebelt, Der Film “Dead Poets Society” im Englischunterricht, p. 72
8 Nancy H. Kleinbaum, Dead Poets Society, p. 153
9 Nancy H. Kleinbaum, Dead Poets Society, p. 166
10 Nancy H. Kleinbaum, Dead Poets Society, p.161
11 Wolf Liebelt, Der Film Dead Poets Society im Englischunterricht, p.32
12 Wolf Liebelt, Der Film Dead Poets Society im Englischunterricht, p.71