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Dead Poets Society Rhetorical Analysis Essays

But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen. You hear it?... Carpe... Hear it?... Carpe. Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.

John Keating

This quote demonstrators that Keating appreciates the history and legacy of Welton as much as his fellow faculty members, but that rather than let it intimidate his students, he uses it to inspire them. His view appears to be that the boys should follow in the footsteps of those who came before them not because tradition is the best course of action, but because they are all members of the human race, and the passion and excitement for life that they all share is what makes them special.

We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.

John Keating

One of the movie’s most famous quotes, Keating here acknowledges that many of his students may not care about his preaching about the humanities. After all, Welton prides itself on its ability to churn out doctors, lawyers, and other well-respected professionals. Intuitively, many of its current students are on the path to these careers and so don’t need art and poetry to succeed. Keating therefore reminds the students of why they’re doing what they’re doing, and working as hard as they are. He introduces the radical notion that they’re prestigious and impressive future careers may not actually be the end goal of their lives, but rather the means to living as full a life as possible.

This is a battle, a war, and the casualties could be your hearts and souls.

John Keating

A somber moment of foreshadowing, Keating unknowingly references the eventual loss of Neil’s life in this quote. While his words “battle” and “war” refer to many things, they draw a parallel to the fight that many of the boys have with the conservative authority that dominates their life at Walton. Their hunger to break free from this authority becomes a battle in its own right, one that ultimately costs Neil his life and breaks his friends’ hearts.

McAllister: "Show me the heart unfettered by foolish dreams and I'll show you a happy man."

John Keating: "But only in their dreams can men be truly free. 'Twas always thus, and always thus will be."

McAllister: Tennyson?

John Keating: No, Keating.

McAllister and Keating

Keating is undoubtedly different from his fellow teachers in many ways, and this exchange between him and Mr. McAllister illustrates an example of how. While McAllister feels that the Welton boys need structure set out for them, whereas dreams may “fetter” their hearts, Keating argues that they should use their dreams to be free, and does so with an original quote, whereas McAllister’s was borrowed from Lord Alfred Tennyson. Not only does the content of his response demonstrate his alternate views of how the boys should be educated, but the nature of the quote itself does as well.

For the first time in my whole life, I know what I wanna do! And for the first time, I'm gonna do it! Whether my father wants me to or not! Carpe diem!

Neil Perry

Neil’s enthusiasm at the prospect of becoming an actor demonstrates both the passion brimming within him and the influence of Mr. Keating to bring it to the surface. This is especially true with his exclamation of “Carpe Diem,” a direct reference to Keating’s teachings. The tragic irony here, of course, is that Neil is ultimately unable to do what he wants as a result of his father’s strict hold over him.

I'm exercising the right not to walk.

Charlie Dalton

Ever the rebel, Charlie demonstrates at many points throughout the film how quick he is to get on board with Mr. Keating’s unorthodox teaching methods. Even before the two meet, Charlie establishes himself as the slacker when the boys discuss their academic prowess in Neil and Todd’s room on move-in day. The above quote is not only consistent with his slacker character, but also demonstrates his understanding of Keating’s lesson in choosing to have his own style of walking be one of stillness.

Now we all have a great need for acceptance, but you must trust that your beliefs are unique, your own, even though others may think them odd or unpopular, even though the herd may go, 'that's baaaaad.'

John Keating

This quote nicely sums up what Keating hopes for the boys: that they’ll become individual free thinkers. It’s the lesson that he believes in perhaps most strongly, but also the most dangerous one in the long run, as it’s the one that causes the most friction with Welton’s strict adherence to uniformity and tradition.

Neil Perry: So what are you going to do? Charlie?

Charlie Dalton: Dammit, Neil, the name is Nuwanda.

Neil Perry and Charlie Dalton

Charlie’s interrogation by Headmaster Nolan is a crucial turning point in the film because it’s the first time the boys’ newfound hunger to be free thinkers and poets rubs up against the administration’s strict ideologies about conformity and tradition. Here, when Charlie corrects Neil, he indicates that not even a beating from the headmaster could change the fact that he 1. is loyal to his fellow poets, and 2. wishes to keep the name that the Society inspired him to don. It’s a testament to the unity and passion that the group inspires in him.

There's a time for daring and there's a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.

John Keating

Keating’s talk with Charlie and the other boys after the telephone stunt in the sanctuary demonstrates where he draws the line between teacher and preacher. While he establishes himself as an unorthodox faculty member, he is still an authority figure in the boys' lives and wants them to see their education through to graduation, not get expelled following his teachings. Emphasizing this shows that he considers himself their teacher first, before anything else.

John Keating: I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.

Mr. Nolan: At these boys' age? Not on your life!

John Keating and Headmaster Nolan

This exchange between Nolan and Keating is one of several instances where Keating’s unusual methods begin to get him in hot water. Nolan personifies everything Welton stands for: tradition, discipline, and rules that stand the test of time. Keating, on the other hand, while respecting these beliefs, thinks differently, and it’s this alternative thinking that seems to create such conflict between himself and his peers as well as the boys and the administration.

Individualism in Dead Poet’s Society

by Feross Aboukhadijeh, 11th grade

The movie Dead Poet’s Society explores the concept of individualism in great depth. The numerous conflicts that the characters face throughout the movie demonstrate the fundamental principles of existentialism and transcendentalism. Neil Perry’s suicide, for instance, illustrates the disturbing existential consequences that can transpire when an individual’s authority is allowed to prevail against tradition. On the other hand, however, the triumph of the individual spirit may sometimes have a positive outcome—as in the case of Knox Overstreet, an example of transcendentalism. When Knox becomes obsessed with a certain girl named “Chris”—without actually meeting her—he ends up risking his life to win her heart. In both cases, characters assume individual authority for their choices and stop obeying traditional authority figures; they embark on a trip of self-discovery and individual growth that will have a lasting impact on their futures.

One obvious example of existentialism is Neil Perry’s unfortunate suicide. When Neil Perry decides to pursue a career in the performing arts, rather than in medicine, his father, Mr. Perry, is furious. Unmoved by Neil’s extraordinary performance in the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mr. Perry continues to insist on controlling his son’s life and dictating his every move. But Mr. Perry’s efforts were in vain; Neil had already experienced freedom—a privilege not easily relinquished. Neil eventually stands up to his father, but is unable to communicate his opinions to the increasing tyrannical traditionalist figure that his father has become. Rather than continuing to live a dreary half-life, Neil decides that the only way to gain control is by taking his own life. Though he lost everything in the process, suicide was the only way for Neil to stand up to his father and live life to the fullest (ala “Carpe Diem”). Through the act of suicide, Neil is taking control of his life decisions—and must, as a result, accept the consequences. Neil’s clearly existential actions were a necessary step in his process of self-discovery and individual growth.

On the complete other side of the spectrum is Knox Overstreet, the poster child of transcendentalism—and romanticism, in general. Knox recognizes the vital importance of individualism when he becomes infatuated with “Chris”—a girl that he has never actually met before. Knox, like Neil, recognizes the importance of individual intuition in guiding him through life and helping him make decisions. Knox decides to risk his life by standing up to Chet, Chris’s boyfriend, in a romantic attempt to win Chris’ heart. His numerous attempts do prove to be somewhat effective; Chris does goes to the play with Knox and even holds his hand. In a sense, Knox has succeeded, he has triumphed, and he has prevailed over the authority figure, Chet.

This event serves as a reminder that authority should always act as a guide—never as an absolute power, as in Neil’s unfortunate situation. The only place where one can find out his true identity—their true character—is within himself.

Throughout the movie, there are several situations in which characters acted individually, deliberately disobeying conventional authority, in order to follow their dreams. In some cases, such conflicts had positive outcomes (transcendentalism); in other cases such outbursts of individualism had deadly consequences for reckless individuals, like Neil (existentialism). In either case, however, the process of self-discovery and free thinking was inevitable; after being granted freedom for the first time, both Neil and Knox were reluctant to surrender their new independence without a fight. Neil and Knox’s fearless nonconformity will forever demonstrate the importance and necessity of self-discovery and individual growth to new generations of teenagers to come.

Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Sample Character Analysis Essay - "Dead Poet's Society"" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 13 Mar. 2018. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/english/sample-essays/character-analysis-dead-poets-society/>.

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