Dead Poets Society is a 1989 drama film directed by Peter Weir, starring Robin Williams in one of his earlier "serious" roles. The supporting cast includes Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles, Norman Lloyd and Kurtwood Smith.
It's 1959, and the prestigious, all-boys' Welton Academy in Vermont has just hired John Keating (Williams) as its 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 students — including Todd Anderson (Hawke), Neil Perry (Leonard), Charlie Dalton (Hansen), Knox Overstreet (Charles), Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman), Steven Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero), and Gerard Pitts (James Waterston) — form the Dead Poets Society, a secretive clique who sneak away from campus at night to read poetry in a secluded cave. But after witnessing Keating's unorthodox teaching methods and their effects on Welton's students, school headmaster Gale Nolan (Lloyd) is determined to rein in both him and the unsanctioned Society.
A novelization of the film was published shortly afterwards by N.H. Kleinbaum.
This film provides examples of:
- 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.
- 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!
- All for Nothing: After forcing Neil to quit some of his extracurricular activities and unenrolling him from Welton after his onstage performance in the hopes that he would become a doctor, Mr Perry's plans for his son's future are tragically halted when the boy 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.
- Ambiguous Ending: The film ends with the boys defying the school to give Keating his farewell... 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 might well 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 says he was depressed after Neil died and the boys' actions helped lift his spirits, but it's not confirmed if he'll recover or what he's going to do in the future.
- 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 the boys, neither of them show much interest in the girls Charlie brings into the society.
- Anachronism Stew:
- In one scene, the piper is 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 classroom, 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 careers in the Establishment. Deviating from this is simply not tolerated. Especially if you're Neil and the deviance involves acting.
- Neil barely manages to avoid an actual military academy by committing suicide.
- Assurance Backfire: When Neil comes to Keating for advice, Keating urges him 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, although Keating is likely unaware that Mr. Perry said that. 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 believes him when Neil claims that his father was letting him stay in the play.
- Beautiful Dreamer: At the make-out party, Knox watches Chris as she sleeps on the couch.
- Be Careful What You Wish For: Neil's father does his damnedest 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.
- Big "NO!": Mr. Perry gets one when he discovers Neil's body in his study. 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.
- Boarding School: Welton Academy is a posh boarding school full of WASPs, where its students are prepared to enter Ivy League Colleges and become "successful" — by the school's definition, at least.
- But Liquor Is Quicker: Knox takes a final sip from his glass of "whiskey" in order to muster up the courage to kiss Chris at the party.
- 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 refuses to 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?
Mr. Perry: Nothing? Well, then, let's go to bed.
- When Todd is brought into Nolan's office, his parents urge him to sign papers for Keating to be fired. Mr. Anderson asks why Todd cares so much about Keating, and Todd bursts out, "He cares about me! You don't!"
- 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 refuses to hear anything that has to do with acting. Defied when Mr. Perry calls Neil's bluff:
- 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 to the fullest.
- Catapult Nightmare: Mr. Perry upon unconsciously 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 affiliation.
- Coming of Age Story: Over the course of the film, a group of teenagers learn to seize the day, to assert their own values and opinions, and to question the social norm. Some of them disagree with their parents for the first time, fall in love for the first time, experience grief for the first time...
- Commonality Connection: The seeming opposites Todd and Neil are drawn together by their poor experiences of parenting.
- 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.
- Daddy Didn't Show: Subverted. It looks like Mr Perry won't make it to Neil's School Play premiere. When he eventually shows up, it's a Hope Spot, since it turns out he didn't change his mind about Neil's future after all.
- Dead-Hand Shot: Right before Mr. Perry finds Neil's body in his study.
- 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 if understandable conflict.
- Delicious Distraction: When the boys sneak out at night, they feed the guard dog treats so it won't alarm the staff.
- Disobey This Message: Keating encourages his students to think for themselves, praising Charlie when he disobeys one of his requests.
- 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.
- Also from the novelization, Charlie when he claims the cave:Charlie: Carpe cavem, boys, seize the cave. note
- From the novelization, Knox has one of these moments when trying to make a move on Chris:
- Do Not Call Me "Paul":Charlie [recurring line]: The name is "Nuwanda."
- Do Wrong, Right: After Charlie pulls off his "phone call from God" prank in the chapel saying that girls should be allowed to attend Welton, he 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.
- Elaborate University High: The fictional East Coast boys' prep school Welton Academy.
- Everybody Smokes: There are lots of scenes of the Society members smoking with cigarettes, and once with pipes.
- Everyone Loves Blondes: Of course Chris — the girl Knox falls for — is a blonde. She's charismatic and fun-loving, as well as being very friendly. The girls Charlie brings to the cave are also blonde.
- Everything's Louder with Bagpipes: A bagpipe is played in the opening ceremony scene, and Keating later plays one himself.
- 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 says 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!
- Flowers of Romance: Knox hands them to Chris in front of all her classmates. She is totally embarrassed.
- 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 that he'll have a successful future and career no matter the cost to his son's happiness and well-being, 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 when he discovers Neil's corpse 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.
- 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."
- A bit later, Todd asks Neil, "Won't [your father] kill you if he finds out you went to an audition..." While Neil's dad doesn't technically kill him, the ensuing conflict ends with Neil Driven to Suicide.
- 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 to bid him farewell, 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.
- 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 in standing up for Mr Keating as he leaves.
- Fun with Acronyms: When Keating is writing the Pritchard formula on the blackboard, it reads Perfection x Importance = Greatness, or without the math symbols, P.I.G.
- "Gender-Normative Parent" Plot: Neil's father disapproves of his acting, traditionally a more feminine profession.
- 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, and was 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 permission and made him look like a liar, especially after the play when his reputation is tarnished, but Neil getting to perform in the play turned Neil's lie and any possible rumors into the truth.
- 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 who most encourages and supports Todd. By the end of the film, it's Neil who is unable to stand up to the pressure on him from his father, and tragically commits suicide, while Todd finds his voice, leads the boys to defy the school, and is ultimately the one to live out Keating's teachings.
- 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: At least, that's what Cameron tells Charlie. Charlie doesn't buy it, of course.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."
- Ivy League for Everyone: Mr. Nolan mentions that 75% of the previous year's graduates went to Ivy League schools. Pitts says he might go to Yale (but he might not), and Neil's father intends for him to go to Harvard.
- 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 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.
- After Charlie publishes a crude editorial in the school newspaper advocating for girls to be admitted to Welton and signs it as the Dead Poets Society, an irate Cameron points out that it's going to anger the faculty and they're going to launch an investigation into who published it and what the Dead Poets Society is. Neil agrees with him and tells Charlie he really shouldn't have risked all of their necks by using the society's name.
- Keep Away: At one point, the boys snatch Cameron's book from him and toss it around the group so he won't be able to reach it.
- Killed Offscreen: The last shot we see of Neil before he kills himself is him sitting at his father's desk, holding the gun before the film cuts to his dad waking up. Cue Dead-Hand Shot when he finds Neil's body.
- Love at First Sight: Knox falls in love with Chris the first time he sees her.
- Major Injury Underreaction: Charlie doesn't let a harsh paddling deter him from seizing the day.
- 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.
- 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.
- Mistaken from Behind: When Knox arrives at Chris' school, he goes after a blond girl in the corridor who he thinks is her, but it turns out to be some other girl.
- Monochrome Casting: The entire cast is white. Somewhat justified, as it's set at a traditional, elite boarding school during the 1950s.
- 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 prioritizing 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 own 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: After Charlie sneaks a letter into the school newspaper asking for girls to be admitted to Welton signed "the Dead Poets Society", Nolan becomes aware of the Society's existence, 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 bubble 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 boys' show of support, assuring Keating that they're grateful for him. Word of God says that that is 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.
- 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: "O Captain! My Captain!" at the end.
- One-Liner, Name... One-Liner: The heartwarming closing scene with Keating saying "Thank you, boys. Thank you."
- Performance Anxiety:
- Todd has a very severe case of this, leading to his 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 about public speaking, yet still encourages Todd to come up with an ad-libbed poem.
- 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 following him sneaking an article into the school newspaper under the name of the Dead Poets Society to the same effect, 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, but 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 (in particular, Dean Nolan) as just doing their jobs and teaching the kids the way it was done at that time.
- 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 Keating encouraged the most — finds his courage and leads over half his class (including students who weren't in the Society) to bid farewell to Keating, proving to him they will see the world in new ways, inspired by him, and that they won't 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 shooting himself.
- Save Our Students: Welton is an Assimilation Academy with a program designed to make its students models of the Establishment, sticking to the status quo. Keating's goal is to try to inspire the students to think in different ways and be their own people, rather than just follow and conform to their superiors' instructions.
- Scenery Porn: Students at Welton enjoy very pretty surroundings, highlighted by several stunning shots throughout the movie.
- School Play: A community production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Neil wants to be in it more than anything.
- Screw This, I'm Outta Here: Charlie "Nuwanda" Dalton, who already got the Society in hot water with the newspaper and "phone call from God" prank, confronts and punches Cameron after he rats 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.
- Shoo Out the Clowns: Charlie gets expelled before the climax of the film.
- 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 referred to and quoted 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 died doing 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.
- 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 Versus 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.
- 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 the scene to take advantage of the weather.
- 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 of the Dead Poets Society, but doesn't embrace Keating's passionate "living life to the fullest" philosophy, being 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.
- Standard Snippet: Ode to Joy can be heard on the soundtrack when the boys play soccer.
- Students' Secret Society: John Keating's students form a secret society who meet at night to read poetry by Whitman, Thoreau, Frost, and Shakespeare (among others) as a rebellion against the Welton Academy's rigid curriculum.
- Stutter Stop: Todd has a noticeable stammer and struggles through most conversations. However, Keating manages to provoke him into producing a fluid, freestyle 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: The movie is set up as a classic feel-good, inspirational story about a teacher encouraging students to follow their dreams. As the film leads up to Neil's sudden and senseless death, it takes a sharp turn into a much darker tragedy.
- Tragic Bromance: Neil and Todd. They're particularly close and 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. Well, except for Cameron, who betrays the society just to avoid expulsion.
- Unfortunate Names: Pitts and Meeks, as pointed out by Keating. They become Punny Names during the soccer/poetry lesson when Keating hands the boys lines from a poem to read.Keating: Mr. Meeks, time to inherit the Earth. Mr. Pitts, rise above your name.
- Villainous Breakdown: Nolan has one as Todd leads the surviving society members (excluding Cameron) and other students to stand up saluting Keating, defying Nolan's demands that they stay seated.
- Was It Really Worth It?: Neil manages 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 school newspaper/"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. However, Keating remarks a moment later that the prank call would have been more effective and daring if God had made a collect call to lighten the blow.
- Why Couldn't You Be Different?: Both Neil and Todd get this from their parents. Mr Perry wants Neil to be an obedient son bound for medical school at Harvard who will someday become a doctor, while the Andersons 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 proven 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.