Carpe Diem: Why Dead Poet’s Society is the most important coming of age movie ever
It’s the end of 2018, October of freshmen year to be exact, and I’ve just sat down to enjoy dinner with my dad. Perusing iTunes for something new to pass the time, I come across a cover of an older looking movie I had yet to see. “Oh, that one’s a classic,” my dad comments, and fully engulfed in the quest for my new indie/underground/vintage/”manic pixie dream girl” high school identity, I click the “rent” option instantaneously. I make myself comfy on the couch, and Dead Poets Society begins to play. Completely clueless, yet driven by my love for Robin Williams, I made the immediate assumption that it was some psychological thriller judging by the title. What I experienced that night, however, changed the trajectory of my life in a way that I could never ignore. My dad had made his way to bed only about halfway through; I, on the other hand, was left alone to stare blankly into the credits as they rolled, my juvenile brain and heart completely shattered.
Released on June 2nd, 1989, and directed by Peter Weir, Dead Poets Society depicts the formative first year of the highly prestigious and historically demanding all-boys Welton Academy for a group of 6 freshmen students. The group’s story centers around the introduction of a newly hired English teacher by the name of John Keating, played by Robin Williams. Right off the bat, Mr. Keating introduces a shocking change to the typical “cookie cutter” college-prep style of curriculum that Welton prides itself upon. His introduction to the following year’s course is the baseline idea that death is imminent, and that living through the appreciative lense of art and literature is a vital asset to the short time we have on earth. He encapsulates this narrative in his haunting delivery of “carpe diem. Seize the day, boys,” as he presents his students to antique portraits of past alumni, their glory and mastery of the Welton lifestyle inevitably consumed by death. Quickly taking inspiration from Keating’s refreshing deviance, the boys begin to adopt their own adventurous, romantic, passionate nature. Hidden in the depths of Keating’s own yearbook from his time at Welton, a nod to an elusive “Dead Poets Society” sparked the intrigue of the gang. This discreet and forbidden club had been dedicated to the ravenous revival of the arts, and was formerly assembled by Keating in a small cave shrouded deep in the campus woods. The boys reinvigorate their own version of the club, meeting to recite poetry, play instruments, sound chants, and bond through these brief moments of living by their own spiritual desires.
This stark contrast shown between strict traditionalism and vivid nonconformity is, what I’d like to believe, the underlying conflict of our human existence and the ultimate paradigm of adolescence. For centuries we’ve separated the realms of logic and passion, science and humanities, art and what’s “useful”. What we fail to realize is the naturally unbreakable intertwinement of the two. Physics is just as much an eloquent painting of our environment as music is a complicated, yet perfectly executed formula. In acknowledging the mutual inclusivity and cooperation of what we call opposites, we experience true learning in its most well-rounded sense. On the wake of adolescence, an individual experiences the bridge between these two worlds, taking the information they have been conditioned to memorize and regurgitate, then discovering how to form new and individualized opinions based on it. You learn how to express yourself with all the tools you have been given in your early schooling, and the best way to foster this natural urge to express is to allow for freedom.
What Dead Poets Society contributes to this message is the unfortunate, but realistic consequences of suppressing creative expression, especially in our schooling systems. Welton acts as the unwavering intellectual behemoth, compacting the lives of generations of men to fit the future of Ivy League schooling, fiscal success, and upkeeping the “core values” of an efficient society. Keating breaches this environment with his heart adamantly set for change, acting on the message of “carpe diem” and taking full advantage of this fleeting opportunity. His intentions are objectively good, and he guides the boys hand-in-hand through the illumination of an entirely new world, but his relationship to one student in particular causes a heartbreaking and irreversible event.
Neil Perry, one of the characters included in this central group of boys, follows Keating’s teachings and picks up a peculiar interest in the art of theater. He is completely overjoyed by the discovery of this new passion; with his restricted and regimented upbringing, such activities had been vehemently discouraged by the main oppressive figure in his life: his father. Once Neil’s father is informed of his son’s new devotion, he furiously threatens Neil with transfer, even despite him maintaining an excellent performance in academics alongside acting. Rejecting his father’s demands for the first time in his life, Neil disobeys and continues his participation as the lead in Welton’s performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Once the play has ended, Neil is surprised to meet his father’s gaze in the audience among his ecstatic peers, but his expression is more scornful than proud. Neil is then forcefully dragged home to meet the disdain of his parents, facing a scolding lecture of his unappreciation toward the values of Welton and the wishes of his family. On what was so close to becoming the most influential night of his future, finally tasting a moment of relief from the pressures of his surroundings, Neil silently enters his father’s office, and ends his life.
This moment struck me in a way that to this day, even after countless rewatches, I still am unable to describe. Watching the other characters mourn the loss of such a vibrant, revolutionary soul, it's as if you feel a part of yourself die off as well, the part that lived with Neil in relishing the tantalizing beauty of that forbidden art. This moment in the film encapsulates the danger of this forced division. Some would argue that the human soul is innately predisposed to pursue passion, and that our true purpose in life is to indulge in these acts of happiness and creation. As shown through Neil’s death, however, we have trapped ourselves in a system that prohibits this vital freedom, and its deviants face a cruel fate. Keating’s intention behind “carpe diem” is a message so exhilarating and contrary to the world we see today that, handled without restraint, brings deadly consequences. Living life to its fullest can be easily misconstrued as only living life if it is full, and for Neil that meant relinquishing his existence in the absence of loving encouragement.
I feel as if my time at Parker has provided me with an understanding and sympathetic perspective on the message of this film. Specifically as an artist, I must say that the love and support for my work I was given during my years at Parker shaped my identity today; however, I often ponder how I would cope with the lack of that support, and how detrimental it would be to my motivation to pursue a meaningful existence. This brings me to forever advocate for the acceptance of passion, that childish excitement we feel when discovering our niche, because who knows how that act of love could change someone’s life.
As my final contribution to Parker Press, I hope that my take on this movie of all time impacts someone as much as it did to me. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time writing for you all this year, and I can’t thank the wonderful Parker community enough for the feedback you have provided to both myself and the club as a whole. This experience with Parker Press perfectly encapsulates the message I hope to convey with this article, and through my time here I’ve realized the priceless value of it. This is education, and more importantly, this is what it takes to shape a better world. Thank you again for reading, and carpe diem.