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Film / Dead Poets Society

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"Carpe diem! Seize the day, boys! Make your lives extraordinary!"

Dead Poets Society is a 1989 drama film directed by Peter Weir and starring Robin Williams in one of his earlier "serious" roles. The movie was nominated for four Academy Awards: Robin Williams for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Director, Best Picture and winning for Best Original Screenplay.

It is 1959 and the prestigious Welton Academy has just hired John Keating (Williams) as the new English teacher for the upcoming school year. A Blithe Spirit, Keating uses his classes to inspire his students to go against the flow and be themselves, somehow managing to make reading poetry seem like a cool, rebellious thing to do. A group of the boys, including Todd Anderson, Neil Perry, Charlie Dalton, Knox Overstreet, Richard Cameron, Steven Meeks and Gerard Pitts, form the Dead Poets Society, a group wherein they all sneak out at night to read poetry in a secluded cave. After witnessing many of Keating's unorthodox teaching methods and the effects on the students, Headmaster Nolan, the Dean Bitterman of Welton, tries to put a stop to this.


A novelization of the film was published shortly afterwards by N.H. Kleinbaum.

This film provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Many of the Welton parents have a image in mind for their child to do when they're older and wouldn't be open to anything else. Even all they give to or do for their children are associated with their expectations that want for them. Among the main characters, Neil and Todd's parents are standout examples:
    • Mr Perry is unrelentingly controlling of Neil, forcing him into a life plan he hates, making him give up even Welton-encouraged extracurricular activities and the normally outgoing, confident Neil is noticeably cowed around him. When Neil goes ahead with performing in the local play, Mr Perry immediately drags him home and plans to send him to military school.
    • Mr. and Mrs. Anderson treat Todd as The Unfavorite, make a big to-do out of Jeff's accomplishments while ignoring him and a deleted scene reveals they told Todd he was only worth his body's chemical worth if he didn't improve; leaving Todd with crippling insecurity and shyness.
  • Added Alliterative Appeal: When the students are going along the stairway to their classes:
    Mr. McAllister: Slow down, boys! Slow down, you horrible phalanx of pubescence!
  • Advertisement:
  • All for Nothing: After reducing Neil's extracurricular activities and unenrolling Neil from Welton after his onstage performace in the hopes that Neil would become a doctor, Mr Perry's plans for Neil's future are tragically halted when Neil commits suicide.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: According to Pitts: "All the good ones go for jerks, you know that."
  • All Guys Want Cheerleaders: Similarly, both Chet and Knox are attracted to Chris, who is a cheerleader.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Neil and Todd's dynamic definitely comes across as closer than simply roommates. Todd reacts to Neil's death like a distraught lover, and all of the other poets are more worried about looking after him than their own grief, even though they've been friends with Neil for years, and Todd has only known him for a few months. Unlike the rest of boys, neither of them show much interest in the girls Charlie brings into the society.
  • Ambiguous Ending / Left Hanging: The film ends on the iconic desk sequence with the boys defying the school to farewell Keating...but it's unclear what will happen to them all afterwards. Nolan had just threatened to expel anyone if they spoke up and Todd especially is bound to face severe punishment for starting the rebellion. Is the Dead Poets Society over for good or will the boys start it up again? Keating's fate is uncertain as well - Word of God said he was depressed after Neil died and the boys actions helped lift his spirits, but it's not confimred if he'll recover or what he's going to do in the future.
  • Anachronism Stew: In one scene, the piper is seen playing "The Fields of Athenry", which was composed in the 1970s.
    • In another, the Algebra 2 book by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich was published in the early 1980s.
  • Ancient Grome: It's subtle, but in a scene of the Latin class room next to the board is a map centered on Greece with the Italian boot being cut off at the heel.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: When Neil consults Keating about whether he should go through with the play:
    Keating: Have you ever told your father what you just told me? About your passion for acting? You ever showed him that?
    Neil: I can't.
    Keating: Why not?
    Neil: I can't talk to him this way.
    Keating: Then you're acting for him, too. You're playing the part of the dutiful son. Now, 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: I know what he'll say! He'll tell me that acting's a whim and I should forget it. They're counting on me; he'll just tell me to put it out of my mind for my own good.
    Keating: You are not an indentured servant! It's not a whim for you, you prove it to him by your conviction and your passion! You show that to him, and if he still doesn't believe you...well, by then, you'll be out of school and can do anything you want.
    Neil: No. What about the play? The show's tomorrow night!
    Keating: Then you have to talk to him before tomorrow night.
    Neil: Isn't there an easier way?
    Keating: No.
  • Armor-Piercing Response: When Keating calls out Charlie for his "phone call from God" prank, Charlie remains defensive until this:
    Keating: You being expelled from school is not daring to me. It's stupid, 'cause you'll miss some golden opportunities.
    Charlie: Yeah, like what?
    Keating: Like, if nothing else, the opportunity to attend my classes.
  • Artistic License – Art: Keating misquotes Walt Whitman's 1892 "Song of Myself". The word "rooftops" should have been "roofs".
  • Assimilation Academy: Welton seems to be only a notch away from a military school. Its methods are centered on demanding total conformity to a program that puts every student on a pre-set path toward the Ivy League and eventually the Establishment. Deviating from this is simply not tolerated.
    • Neil barely manages to avoid the harsher military academy by committing suicide.
  • Assurance Backfire: When Neil comes before Keating, he is urged to talk about his feelings with his dad regarding acting. Keating tells him that as soon as he's 18, he'll be free to do as he pleases, which comes into direct conflict with Mr. Perry telling Neil that he can only do as he pleases after he graduates college and becomes a doctor. Keating has a puzzled look as Neil dejectedly walks away, being unable to tell Keating that he couldn't muster up the courage to talk with his dad.
  • Bad Liar: For a skilled actor, Neil certainly isn't all that convincing when he tries to tell a lie. It doesn't even look like Keating believed him when Neil claimed that his father was letting him stay in the play.
  • Berserk Button: Never contradict or talk back to Mr. Perry, especially if you happen to be Neil.
    • Keating finds J. Evans Pritchard's "Understanding Poetry" mathematical formula of poetic excellence to be utter rubbish, and even has his students tear that preface out of their textbooks.
  • Big "NO!": In slow motion!
  • Blatant Lies: Neil saying that his father gave him permission to be on the play and that he will be going to Chicago for a few days so he won't be able to attend.
  • Blithe Spirit: Keating. He spends a lot of the time telling his students to "seize the day." Everybody Has Standards, though: There is a difference between finding sense in your life and doing stupid stunts that will ruin it, and he calls out Charlie on how his pranks may have him suffer the latter.
  • Boarding School: Welton Academy is a posh boarding school full of WASPs, where its students are prepared to enter Ivy League Colleges and be successful in life.
  • Broken Ace: Neil is a top student, involved in multiple extracurriculars, acts as the leader of the group and turns out to be a pretty good actor too. But his father's abuse cuts too deep and he's ultimately driven to suicide.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Neil's father is extremely controlling and dominating, and at one point Neil starts to call him out on never listening to his own son or showing any interest in what he wants to do with his life, but he never gets the chance to speak when his father won't hear anything that has to do with acting. Defied when Mr. Perry calls Neil's bluff:
    Neil: I've got to tell you what I feel!
    Mrs. Perry: We've been so worried about you!
    Mr. Perry: What? What? Tell me what you feel! What is it? Is it more of this, this acting business? Because you can forget that! What?
    Neil: Nothing.
    Mr. Perry: Nothing? Well, then, let's go to bed.
    • When Todd is brought into Nolan's office, his parents urge him to sign the papers that will blacklist Keating from ever teaching again, Mr. Anderson asks why Todd cares so much about Keating, and Todd's outburst is "He cares about me! You don't!"
  • The Captain: Keating is not actually one, but his students call him "O Captain My Captain" at his suggestion.
  • Captain Obvious: Lampshaded when Neil re-convenes the Society:
    Cameron: All I'm saying is, we have to be careful; we can't get caught.
    Charlie: No shit, Sherlock!
  • Carpe Diem: Discussed, as Keating tries to inspire his students to love poetry and live life.
  • Catapult Nightmare: Mr. Perry upon sensing his son's final actions.
  • Chromosome Casting: Due to being set at an all-boys boarding school. It's downplayed, as there are a few female characters, but they only appear in a handful of scenes and have very limited dialogue.
  • Church of Saint Genericus: The Welton school chapel, as well as its religious association.
  • Coming-of-Age Story: Over the course of the film, a group a teenagers will learn to seize the day, to assert their own values and opinions and to question the social norm. Some of them will disagree with their parents for the first time, fall in love for the first time, experience grief for the first time...
  • Commonality Connection: The seemingly opposite Todd and Neil are drawn together by their poor parenting.
  • Cool Teacher: Keating, duh.
  • Corporal Punishment: Charlie is paddled by Nolan for his "phone call from God" antics.
  • Crosses the Line Twice: In-Universe, Keating advocates taking such an approach to Charlie after the latter's "phone call from God" joke.
    Keating: Phone call from God? If it had been collect, that would have been daring.
  • Dead-Hand Shot: Right before Mr. Perry finds Neil's body in his study.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Neil is the focus student for much of the film, but after his death, it becomes apparent that the real protagonist is Todd.
  • Dean Bitterman: Nolan is against everything fun the boys do and especially Keating's unorthodox teaching methods.
  • Defiant Stone Throw: A defiant standing on desks is how the movie closes.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Nolan reveals to Keating that he too was an English teacher once; the two men both believe in the value of education, both love teaching English, and both believe they're doing what's best for the students at the school. Keating's ideas are those of the modern generation and Nolan's are those from a few decades ago, creating irreconcilable conflict.
  • Disobey This Message: Keating encourages his students to think for themselves, praising Charlie when he disobeys one of his requests.
  • Do Wrong, Right: After Charlie pulls off the "phone call from God" prank in the chapel saying that girls should be allowed to attend Welton, Charlie gets swatted on the butt several times with a hardwood paddle. Keating rebukes him, telling him that there's a time for caution and a time for daring, with a wise man understanding which is called for. A moment later, Keating remarks that the "phone call from God" would have been even more daring if it had been a collect call.
  • Dog Latin: From the novelization, Knox has one of these moments when trying to make a move on Chris:
    Knox: Carpe breastum. Seize the breast.
    • And Charlie (in the novel version) when he claims the cave:
      Charlie: Carpe cavem, boys, seize the cave. note 
  • Do Not Call Me "Paul":
    Charlie [recurring line]: The name is "Nuwanda."
  • Driven to Suicide: Neil shoots himself with his father's gun.
  • Education Mama: Neil's father is a pretty severe example of an education papa, making clear that he expects his son to follow the course he set for him until he's at least in his thirties, if not forever, and denying him anything at all that would help him blow off steam or maybe even help get brownie points with his teachers/when looking for work. Deconstructed HARD, as his Control Freak attitude leads to Neil’s suicide.
  • Elaborate University High: The fictional East Coast boys' prep school Welton Academy.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Neil's father is clearly distraught over his death. But he reminds us of the 'evil' part when he tries to attack Keating it instead of accepting his responsibility.
  • Everybody Smokes: Lots of scenes of the Society members smoking with cigarettes and pipes.
  • Everyone Loves Blondes: Of course Chris - the girl Knox falls for - is a blonde. She's also charismatic and fun-loving, as well as being very friendly. The girls Charlie brings to the cave are also blonde.
  • The Evils of Free Will: Keating holds an exercise in the courtyard, with the students starting out walking at their own freestyle pace, then uniformly marching in cadence. Later on, when Nolan asks what the exercise was about, Keating mentioned that it was to demonstrate the evils of conformity. Nolan tells Keating that the curriculum has been set and proven.
    Keating: I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.
    Nolan: At these boys' age? Not on your life!
  • Fantasy-Forbidding Father: Neil's father doesn't want Neil to have anything to do with poetry or theatre, and upon discovering that Neil is playing Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, he goes utterly ballistic. He sends Neil to a military academy, but Neil is Driven to Suicide before he can be shipped off.
  • The '50s: The film is set in 1959. There are glimpses of the popular culture of the day, including early rock and roll music and teenagers openly smoking in (the public) high school without reprisal, in the scenes which take place outside Welton.
  • Five-Man Band: The main group, with Keating as the Mentor.
  • Foil: Several examples:
    • Charlie and Cameron. Charlie is rebellious, a poor student and goofs around, but remains loyal to his friends. Cameron is a brown-noser, studious, hates breaking the rules, and betrays everyone at the end of the film to save his own skin.
    • Neil and Todd. Neil is confident, successful and excited by Keating's ideas, while Todd is insecure, nervous and scared to act. However, underneath it all, Neil is deeply beaten down and miserable, and ends up killing himself, while Todd reveals his inner strength and inspires the other boys in rebelling against Welton.
    • Nolan and Keating. Both are English teachers, but Nolan is traditional, authoritarian and regimented; while Keating is unorthodox, a friend to the boys and teaches them to think for themselves.
    • Mr Perry and Mr Anderson. Both are emotionally Abusive Parents to Neil and Todd respectively, but Mr Perry is overly controlling of Neil's life and determined he'll have a successful future and career; while the Andersons neglect and ignore Todd, viewing him as the failure of the family.
  • Fond Memories That Could Have Been: Subverted. All Neil's father has to say is "My son, my son," and he blames Keating for the boy's being Driven to Suicide, completely failing to understand that it's his own fault.
  • Foreshadowing: At the beginning of the first meeting when Neil reads the passage from Thoreau: " ...and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." In addition, when Keating discusses mortality in the first meeting with the boys, the camera focuses on Neil at the line "stop breathing and go cold."
    • Keating stands on his desk to remind the students they must force themselves to look at things from a different perspective. By the film's end, many of the class members (with Cameron being one of the few exceptions) stand up on their desks, looking at things from a different perspective.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: The four main Poets. Todd is melancholic, Neil is sanguine, Charlie is choleric, and Knox is phlegmatic.
  • The Friend Nobody Likes: Cameron only gets included in the Society because he's part of the other boys' study group and is Charlie's roommate. It's obvious they wouldn't have included him if they had any hope to hide the Society from him, calling him a creep. And he betrays them in the end.
    Neil: Hey, he's your roommate.
    Charlie: That's not my fault.
  • Friendship Moment: Several between the Dead Poets:
    • All the boys supporting Knox when he calls up Chris and cheering after she invites him to a party.
    • Charlie refusing to rat the others out to Nolan, even after a painful beating.
    • The whole group going to Neil's play and "yawping" when he takes a bow.
    • Charlie, Knox, Meeks and Pitts comforting a grief-stricken Todd about Neil's death.
    • The final scene when the remaining poets follow Todd's lead standing up for Mr Keating as he leaves.
  • Gender-Blender Name: Chris, a girl who goes to a local public school.
  • "Gender-Normative Parent" Plot: Neil's father disapproves of his acting (traditionally a more feminine profession). Gets a pretty Downer Endingsure, Neil was able to prove once and for all that he can hit it out of the park as an actor, but his father then follows by stomping down on him so hard that Neil decides blowing his brains out is the better solution.
  • Gone Horribly Right: Neil's father does his damndest to get Neil to give up on his dream of acting, and indeed any hobbies outside of preparing for a career as a doctor. It technically works: Neil does give up on being an actor once he accepts that his father will never allow it. Then he kills himself out of despair immediately after.
  • Grew a Spine: Todd, very much. Demonstrated by the end scene.
  • Hate Sink:
    • Nolan is at odds with Keating and the boys for most of the movie, with his old-fashioned values being portrayed as out-of-touch and stifling everyone.
    • Mr. Perry is abusive to Neil, completely crushes his dreams of acting and drives his son to suicide, and even blames Keating for everything and solely focuses on his reaction to the events, thinking himself blameless.
    • Cameron is a brown-noser, doesn't like anything the others do, is constantly looking over his shoulder to make sure things don't come back to haunt him, and rounds it off by ratting on everyone to save his own miserable hide. Eventually, Charlie decks him hard enough to cause a nosebleed—and boy is it satisfying.
  • Heroic BSoD: Keating goes into one after Neil commits suicide and doesn't get better until the final scene. Todd also suffers one from the same event.
  • Holding Hands: During the play, Knox holds Chris's hand and she seems to reciprocate.
  • Hollywood New England: The movie is set in Vermont, filmed in the Delaware cities of Middletown, New Castle, and Wilmington.
  • Honor Before Reason:
    • Cameron claims he has no other choice but to uphold Welton's honor code, instead of risking expulsion.
    • Mr. Perry is furious that Neil forged his dad's name and made him look like a liar, especially after the play when his reputation is tarnished, once the truth turned Neil's lie into the truth, the play and has turned the rumor into truth when he performs on stage.
  • Hope Bringer: According to the director, Keating is in a severe depression after Neil's suicide and the one thing that brings him out of it is the boys standing up for him.
  • Hourglass Plot: Todd and Neil's arcs. At the beginning of the film, Todd is shy, timid and hesitant to get involved with Keating's philosophy; while the outgoing Neil is the group's leader, determined to "seize the day" and is the one encouraging and supporting Todd. By the end of the film, it's Neil who is unable to stand up to the pressure on him and commits suicide; while Todd finds his voice, leads the boys to defy the school, and is ultimately the one to live out Keating's teaching.
  • Hypocritical Humor: Knox, who had no objections to visiting Chris at her high school, gets called out by Chris when she visits him at Welton before Neil's performance:
    Knox: Chris... what are you doing here?
    Mr. Keating: [offscreen] Gentlemen, let's go!
    Knox: Go ahead guys, I'll catch up.
    Dalton: Yeah, come on guys.
    Knox: Chris, you can't be in here. If they catch you, we're both gonna be in big trouble.
    Chris: Oh, but it's fine—
    Knox: Shh, sh, Chris...
    Chris: Oh, but it's fine for you to come barging into my school and make a complete fool out of me?
  • I Did What I Had to Do:
    Cameron: In case you haven't heard, Dalton, there's something called an honor code at this school: if a teacher asks you something, you tell the truth, or you're expelled.
  • I Die Free: Neil, after being taken out of Welton, chooses suicide over military school, telling himself: "I was good. I was really good."
  • It Amused Me: Is there anything that Charlie says or does which is not simply intended to have fun?
  • Ivy League for Everyone: The aspiration of most of the Welton students — the school takes quite particular pride in stating that many of its graduates went on to study at schools that belonged to the very prestigious Ivy League.
  • I Will Show You X: From the novelization, Dean Nolan asks Neil to define what the pillar of excellence means:
    Dean Nolan: Excellence, Mr. Perry?
    Neil: [In a loud, monotonous voice] Excellence is the result of hard work. Excellence is the key to all success, in school and everywhere.
    Dean Nolan: Gentlemen, at Welton you will work harder than you have ever worked in your lives, and your reward will be the success that all of us expect of you.
  • Jerkass: Cameron.
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • Keating's antics don't go over well with the school administration and teachers. He has at least two conversations about this during the course of the film. While the audience is set up to believe their adherence to tradition and conformity are a bad thing, both conversations drive the point home.
    • "Free thinkers at seventeen? Teach them to learn and the rest will follow." A prep school education is designed to send the young men on to college, and trying to be an artist usually ends in disappointment. Not to mention that a traditional prep school education doesn't exclude the possibility later on.
      • Though to be fair Keating isn't telling the boys to go off and become artists - just to appreciate art, poetry and beauty in general, and make their lives meaningful in their own way. While Neil discovers a love for acting; the other boys seize the day in different ways, such Knox pursuing Chris and Todd gaining confidence.
  • Jerk Jock: Chet. Which of course leads to problems when Knox falls head-over-heels for the former's girlfriend.
  • Karma Houdini: It would have been meaningful to see Neil's father get called out for driving his son to suicide, even though he wasn't consciously mean to him — just utterly oblivious to the consequences of his actions. Unfortunately, losing his son may bring about emotional long-term grief in the future, giving him opportunities to ponder how he could have been a better parent due to the lack of communication.
  • Large Ham: Charlie has his moments, and is clearly enjoying himself at the line "To indeed be a god!"
  • Love at First Sight: Knox, Knox, Knox. One-sided as the object of his affections is "practically engaged" to someone else.
  • Major Injury Underreaction: Charlie doesn't let a harsh paddling deter him.
  • Maybe Ever After: The last we see of Chris, she's decided to go to Neil's play with Knox as a Throw the Dog a Bone after chewing him out for his excessive courting. He goes to hold her hand and she allows him, and that's all we get.
  • Meaningful Name: It couldn't have been coincidence that John Keating is a lover of poetry. As well as being close to John Keats, the -ing suffix usually implies a verb or an action. Thus, he's a more active John Keats by teaching poetry.
  • Measuring the Marigolds: The J. Evans Pritchard introduction to the students' textbooks is a detailed instruction guide on how to determine the quality of a poem by creating a line graph based on the poem's subject and how well it was written using meter, rhyme, etc. Keating understandably thinks this is complete nonsense and orders the class to tear the page out.
  • Military School: Neil is threatened with this by his controlling and dominating father.
  • Monochrome Casting: The entire cast is white. Somewhat justified as it's set at a traditional, elite boarding school during the '50s.
  • Mood Whiplash: Neil experiences this when he is thrilled to pieces about getting a major role in A Midsummer Night's Dream, only to open the door to his dorm room and become white with fear to see his father sitting there, already waiting to scold his son ruthlessly. Even though Neil did falsify a letter of permission from his father earlier in the film, which wasn't the smartest move, the fact remains that Mr. Perry's behavior throughout the film is still displayed as thinking of his own interests rather than Neil's, given how overly strict and authoritarian he is, which only makes Neil want to pursue acting more.
  • My New Gift Is Lame: Todd receives a monogrammed desk set for his birthday, just like last year's gift. After noting that Jeff's birthday is more festive, he flings the desk set off the roof.
  • Nerds Are Virgins: Meeks claims he'd try anything once. Charlie's reply is "Except sex!"
  • Never My Fault: Neil's father blames Keating for his son's suicide even though it was largely his fault.
    • After Neil commits suicide, Cameron accuses Mr. Keating of being responsible for Neil's death by encouraging him to pursue acting, even going as far as putting the accusation in writing:
    Cameron: They're not after us, we're the victims... us and Neil.
    Dalton: What's that mean, who are they after?
    Cameron: Why, Mr. Keating, of course. The Captain himself! You guys didn't really think he could avoid responsibilty, did you?
    Dalton: Mr. Keating responsible for Neil? Is that what they're saying?
    Cameron: Well, who else do you think, dumbass? The administration? Mr. Perry? Mr. Keating put us up to all this crap, didn't he? If it wasn't for Mr. Keating, Neil would be cozied up in his room right now, studying his chemistry, and dreaming of being called Doctor.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero!: As soon as Charlie pulls off the "phone call from God" prank, Nolan is aware of the Society's presence and starts to keep a closer watch on the students' activities. Even Keating reprimands Charlie for going too far.
  • No Sense of Personal Space: Neil blithely bypasses any personal space Todd has; whether he's tussling with him in their room, smacking him with whatever object that's on hand, or leaning in oddly close for conversations.
  • Now, Let Me Carry You: Keating spends much of the movie encouraging Todd through his anxiety and insecurities. At the end of the film, when Keating is at his lowest, it's Todd who instigates the boy's show of support, assuring Keating that they're grateful for him. Word of God says that was the only thing that comforted Keating in his depression.
    • Subverted with Neil and Todd. Like Keating, Neil spends much of the movie supporting Todd, notably over his terrible parents. When Mr Perry turns up to take Neil away, Todd attempts to speak to Neil, but he's dragged off before Todd has a chance to do anything. Neil commits suicide that night.
  • Obsessively Normal: Neil's father, who has already plotted out his life (becoming a doctor) and won't accept anything that deviates from this a single bit (including activities that could look good on his portfolio), even when Neil tries to defend himself by pointing out that he's an A+ student regardless. He can't even bother to label Neil's acting desire a hobby but rather an obsession, and even with everybody in the theater giving Neil a thunderous ovation, he still makes a scene to drag his son away, can't bother to admit it was a good performance (even if he won't let him act again), and takes overkill measures to make sure Neil will never deviate from the goal he's made for him.
  • Odd Friendship: Surprisingly, rebellious Charlie and geeky Meeks get on well; with Meeks helping Charlie with classwork and Charlie fondly calling Meeks "a genius". (In contrast to his irritation towards Cameron).
  • Oh, Crap!: Neil's reaction to seeing his father at the play — during the performance no less.
  • One-Gender School: Welton Academy is an all-boys school.
  • One-Liner Echo: "Oh, Captain, my Captain!" at the end.
  • Parental Substitute: Keating takes on a fatherly role for both Neil and Todd, as they're distant from their own Abusive Parents. He counsels Neil on finding his own way in life and standing up to Mr Perry; and encourages Todd to overcome his insecurities. In a deleted scene, Todd outright declares that Keating cared more about him than his parents ever did.
    • On the other hand, Keating telling students to vandalize textbooks by ripping out their appendixes could hardly be considered actions of a responsible parental substitute. Neil feels disappointed when Keating urges him to talk with his dad, believing that Neil can do as he wishes at 18, which conflicts with Neil's dad saying that he can only do as he pleases once he has become a successful doctor and graduated from college.
  • Performance Anxiety:
    • Todd has a very severe case of this, leading to initial reluctance to join the Dead Poets Society, since he thinks it will mean having to read aloud in front of other people. Fortunately Neil insists that he doesn't have to read, and lets him take meeting minutes instead.
    • Keating knows all too well that Todd has butterflies in his stomach, and still encourages him to come up with an ad-libbed poem, resulting in a Moment of Awesome for Todd.
  • Pretentious Latin Motto: The official motto. The students' parody is somewhat modified, shall we say.
  • Prisoner's Dilemma: After Charlie's prank where he "receives a phone call from God" saying that girls should be admitted to Welton, he is taken into Nolan's office and spanked, where Charlie insists that he acted alone. Nolan warns him that if the Society has any other members, they will be expelled and Charlie will remain enrolled at Welton; he apparently refuses to turn them in. Later on, after Neil commits suicide and Mr. Perry launches an investigation, Cameron goes to Nolan and informs against the other students, aligning himself with the faculty and the honor code to avoid personal punishment.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: The writers tried to avoid the good-students versus bad-teachers angle by writing the faculty and parents as just doing their jobs and teaching the kids the way it was done at that time.
  • Puppy-Dog Eyes: Todd can pull off the kicked puppy variety when he's scared or shy (which is most of the time). Best seen when Keating first tries to get him to speak in class, but quickly relents after Todd only offers a pleading look.
  • Raging Stiffie: When Keating has Cameron, Knox, and Pitts walking around in the courtyard (see Silly Walk below), Knox is clearly thinking of Chris, which Keating lampshades when he imitates Knox's walk.
  • "Ray of Hope" Ending: Neil commits suicide to escape his abusive father; Todd is left even more unhappy than he was at the start of the film; Dean Nolan fires Keating and intends to prevent him from ever teaching again; the Dead Poets Society is disbanded and forced to turn on Keating and Charlie gets expelled for punching Cameron. In the final scene, Nolan takes over Keating's class, throwing aside everything he taught and reinstating the unfeeling, Pritchard approach to learning poetry. ...But just before Keating leaves for good, Todd - the student he encouraged the most - finds his courage and leads over half his class (including students who weren't in the Society) to farewell Keating, proving to him they will see the world in new and inspiration ways and that they won't be forget him. note 
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: After Neil's dad finds out that Neil went through with the play in defiance of his orders, Neil is withdrawn from Welton and assigned to a bleak future at Braden Military Academy, which Neil avoids by taking a shot to the head, killing himself.
  • Rebellious Spirit: Charlie's actions make for an interesting contrast with what Keating actually encourages. While the latter is trying to teach his students to think for themselves and be masters of their own lives, the former takes that to mean "rebel for its own sake, fight against authorities for fun." When Charlie nearly gets himself expelled for a joke, Keating calls him out on this misinterpretation. Still, when he "exercises the right not to walk" during the strolling lesson, Keating notes that he righteously "illustrated the point" by "swimming against the stream". Charlie may not actually misinterpret him but simply over-interpret. See also It Amused Me.
  • Satellite Love Interest: Chris for Knox, to an extent. Through no fault of her own, though, she just doesn't get much character development onscreen and is only really loved by Knox for her appearance. She even points this out to him when she goes to confront him at Welton, replying to his repeated insistence that he loves her, "You don't even know me!"
  • Save Our Students: Welton is an Assimilation Academy with a program designed to make its students models of the Establishment and stick to the status quo. Keating's goal is to try to inspire the students to think in different ways and be their own persons, rather than just follow and conform to their superiors' instructions.
  • Scenery Porn: students at Welton enjoy very pretty surroundings, highlighted by several stunning shots along the movie.
  • School Play: A community one. Neil wants to do it.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Charlie "Nuwanda" Dalton, who already got the Society in hot water with the "phone call from God" prank, confronts and punches Cameron after he ratted the D.P.S. out to Dean Nolan, and gets expelled from Welton in the process.
  • Sexy Sax Man: Charlie pretty obviously tries to be this. Though he claims to like the saxophone because it is more "sonorous" than the clarinet, which his parents forced him to take.
  • Shirtless Scene:
    • The students have one after taking a shower.
    • Neil takes off his shirt before wearing his headgear for the play for a last time and committing suicide. It's suicide, so it's not played for fanservice.
  • Shoo Out the Clowns: Charlie gets expelled before the climax of the film.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The works of Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Robert Herrick, Lord Byron, Vachel Lindsay, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Abraham Cowley, Raymond Calvert, Robert Frost, and William Shakespeare are refered to during Keating's class and the meetings of the Dead Poets Society.
    • Neil plays Puck in a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare.
    • The film's ending where the students (except for Cameron) stand on their desks in a farewell salute to Keating is reminiscent of The Twilight Zone (1959) episode "The Changing of the Guard", where Ellis Fowler, an aging prep school teacher has been asked to retire, and just when Fowler is looking back on his life wondering if his teachings had any impact on the youths he had instructed, he hears the bells ringing and enters his classroom, seeing ghosts of other students who had died in heroic actions, and is inspired to know that his efforts were not in vain.
    • Knox's crush, Chris Noel, may have been named after the real-life Chris Noel, a model, actress, and singer who became a favorite of American troops during The Vietnam War. The real-life Chris Noel is a blonde, just like the fictional Chris Noel, and graduated high school in 1959, making both women similar in age.
  • Shrinking Violet: Oh, Todd. At the beginning, at least, he seems to just be trying to blend in with the wallpaper half the time. Fortunately his friendship with the other Poets (Neil in particular) goes a long way toward making him a more confident person.
  • Silly Walk: Keating encourages each student to find his own walk, some of which are rather silly. One even exercises his right to not walk.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: Although deconstructed, double subverted, and generally played with beyond all recognition, the film still tries to promote an idealistic viewpoint, even though a lot of situations in the film are firmly on the cynical end.
  • The Smart Guy: Meeks, who aced Latin and tutors Charlie in just about every subject, something that Charlie happily admits, calling him a genius.
    Meeks: He flatters me. That's why I help him with Latin.
    Charlie: And English. And Trig.
  • Smart People Know Latin: Meeks, the smartest of the students, tutors Charlie in Latin and also is readily able to translate "Carpe Diem."
  • Smug Snake: Cameron has definite shades of this.
  • Snow Means Death: Symbolized by the society walking through snow after Neil kills himself. This was actually a spontaneous snowstorm that happened while filming, and Peter Weir was inspired to relocate it to fit the snow.
  • Sour Supporter:
    • A student named Hopkins shows no enthusiasm towards Keating's teachings and puts the least effort into the class. Nevertheless, he is one of the students who stands on his desk to support Keating at the end of the film.
    • Cameron, by contrast reluctantly attends the meetings, not embracing Keating's passionate "living life to the fullest" philosophy and is more concerned about them getting caught, and ultimately pulls a Face–Heel Turn when he rats out the other members to save his own hide.
  • Stalker with a Crush: Knox, in regards to Chris. Well-intended, but watching her from afar wearing dark glasses can come off as slightly creepy.
  • Stutter Stop: Todd has a noticeable stammer and struggles through most conversations. However, Keating manages to provoke him into producing a fluid, free-style poem in front of the whole class and at the end, Todd shouts out his salute to Keating.
  • Thousand-Yard Stare: Neil after the play and his father crushing his dream, just before he kills himself.
  • Tone Shift: Set up as a classic feel-good, inspirational story about a teacher encouraging students to follow their dreams. After Neil dies, the film takes a sharp turn to a much darker tragedy.
  • Tragic Bromance: Neil and Todd. They're particularly close, share an intense friendship and Todd is devastated by Neil's death..
  • Tragic Dream: Neil and acting, thanks to his father.
  • True Companions: The Dead Poets Society becomes this.
  • Turncoat: Richard Cameron, from the Society to the school authorities.
  • Two First Names: Neil Perry. Knox Overstreet.
  • The Un-Favourite: Todd is clearly second-best to his successful, accomplished brother Jeffrey. A shot of the Anderson's family photo shows Jeffrey standing in the middle of his proud parents, while Todd is shunted off to the side. In the original script Todd states it outright.
    Todd: When I was little, I thought all parents automatically loved their kids. That's what I believed...Well, my parents might have loved my brother but they did not love me.
  • Unfortunate Names: Pitts and Meeks, as pointed out by Keating. Becomes a Punny Name during the soccer/poetry lesson when Keating hands the boys lines to read
    Keating: Mr. Meeks, time to inherit the Earth. Mr. Pitts, rise above your name.
  • Visual Pun: When Keating is writing the Pritchard formula on the blackboard, it reads Perfection x Importance = Greatness, or without the math symbols, P.I.G.
  • Was It Really Worth It?: Neil managed to live out his dream of acting on stage as though it was his last night on Earth, only for his dad to withdraw him from Welton and send him off to a military academy. When he's alone, he tells himself "I was good, I was really good," only to break down and commit suicide with his father's handgun.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Keating chews Charlie out for his "phone call from God" prank, telling him that putting himself in danger of getting expelled from the school and jeopardizing his future isn't noble, it's just reckless and stupid. A moment later, Keating remarks that the prank call would have been more effective and daring if it had been a collect call from God.
  • Why Couldn't You Be Different?: Both Neil and Todd get this from their parents. Mr Perry wants Neil to be an obedient son set on medical school, while the Anderson's want Todd to be like his successful older brother.
  • You Are Better Than You Think You Are: Both Keating and Neil try to get Todd to realise this about himself. They're more than proved right in the end.
    Keating: Mr. Anderson thinks that everything inside of him is worthless and embarrassing...Well, I think you're wrong. I think you have something inside of you that is worth a great deal.

    Todd: I-I'm not like you. All right? You - you say things and people listen. I'm, I'm not like that.

"Only in their dreams can men be truly free. Twas always thus, and always thus will be."


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