Warning: Spoilers included in the post.
Dead Poet’s Society is a beloved movie for many movie buffs in our world. The combination of witty, sudden humor, awe inspiring scenery, and deep heart-wrenching moments creates a wonderful experience in this movie. Through this experience though, a fascinating struggle is portrayed to the audience. This struggle is held in the viewer’s mind by the commanding presence of John Keating (Robin Williams) as he shapes the lives of the protagonists. Keating comes into the lives of these young men in order to rip them out of their comfort zones by forcing them to ask the deep questions of life. One implicit question, which seems to shape the movie’s conflict throughout, is simple– “What makes life worth living?” The struggle to answer this question is most clearly seen in the impact Keating has on Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard).
We are introduced to our hero, Neil, early in the movie, as he submits to the overbearing will of his Father. Almost immediately you can see two things within Neil. First, his regularly carefree demeanor is quickly swallowed by his “submissive son” mentality whenever faced with his father. Second, Neil is profoundly sad. Throughout the whole movie, small hints are given to the audience of the deep sorrow that haunts Neil; a sorrow from which he perpetually fights to liberate himself. It is this profound sadness that shows the intensity of Keating’s impact on this boy.
Throughout the semester, Keating brings his students through various experiences designed at one thing: to make them free thinkers. He desperately wants to give these students freedom, which their tradition-soaked lives have prevented them from having. But why does this man care so much about making these boys free? His reasoning is, as he says, “we are food for worms.” In the face of impending death, Keating does not want these boys to waste their time. They must be free men in order to fulfill the (ever quoted) command to “CARPE DIEM” (Seize the Day). Keating strongly and impactfully demonstrates that freedom, the ability to be your own person and to experience life to its fullest, is what makes life worth living. This message reaches deep within the viewer and awakened his slumbering poet. Tragically, this freedom alone may not be enough to truly make life worth living; as we can see through Neil’s progression through the movie.
Neil takes to the freedom mentality presented by Keating with a passion that is vastly greater than his classmates. While he is embracing life and “seizing the day,” he seems truly happy for once in his life. The change is drastic and wonderful for the young man who is getting his first tastes of freedom. Unfortunately, this wonder is not meant to last. As the movie progresses, Neil is robbed of this freedom. At the climax, Neil’s father takes him out of Wellton and enrolls him in military school, an experience which Neil sincerely equates to a prison sentence. In light of this loss, Neil is forced to seek his only remaining option of “freedom”—he takes his own life. In the climax of this movie, our hero is defeated and ends his life in tragedy. While the movie argues that this only occurred because freedom, the most valuable aspect of life, was taken away, there must be a deeper truth to find.
While freedom is valuable, it cannot be the foundation for our life. Freedom is fleeting and elusive, as each person is bound in some way. Something more must be needed, alongside this freedom, to make life worth living. The movie does, in fact, gives us some insight into this deeper truth by showing us what is not there at the end of Neil’s life. What Neil lacked was hope; hope in the next days of his life. As far as Neil could see he was given a prison sentence by being robbed of freedom, and once he died, that was it; he became food for worms. This is the tragic inadequacy of Keating’s view, it places everything in the present. With a view of freedom that is wholly focused on the present, the worth of life is based on your current condition and cannot overcome temporary condition because the temporary is all you have. Freedom is overcome by tragedy.
Hope, however, overcomes tragedy. Real sorrow, real loss, and real suffering cannot be ignored, and should be grieved. But in the end, hope prevails. If we are to expect that death ends it all, then death will always win no matter how much we embrace life. Only through hope does the enjoyment of life have victory over death and over daily loss. What Neil had was part of the puzzle, he knew that he live life to the fullest, but the fatal end of it all in hopelessness destroyed him. In the end, Keating only provided the boys with half the secret to life’s worth, “Seize the day,” but missed the latter half: “Hope in the Next.”