There are simply too many protagonists in this movie. It tries to chase down every facet of life to which carpe diem applies. You have the hopeless romantic, the comedian, the outcast and the “dutiful son” all vying for the protagonist spot. What separates the dutiful son from the rest gets a little muddied when all the kids’ parents live vicariously through them – hammering the message into the audience’s brain. I think a little subtlety would have gone a long way. But I can forgive the movie for this because of two characters and their relationship to Mr. Keating.
Todd was used to being the outcast. He didn’t expect to be noticed. In fact, he hoped to be forgotten. Todd had given up on himself and even though he might not have been capable of suicide, would certainly have suffered a similar fate, one that Thoreau warned against in his poem referenced by the Dead Poets in their first meeting.
Neil hid in the open. He studied hard, like all his classmates, because that was expected of him. But Neil really worked to appease his father so that he wouldn’t take a keener interest in his son. It was a defense mechanism. Neil thought that he had to lead a double-life to realize his dream of becoming an actor.
I think these two choices still prevail in developing minds. “Show me the heart unfettered by foolish dreams and I’ll show you a happy man,” said Keating’s peer. That belief drives the students to learn what to think; not how to think.
Protecting children from dreams will only teach them to fear; it will teach them the implicit message of neglect, that they should not believe in themselves. Many are finally convinced that outside of their diploma or job title, they can do nothing substantive, have nothing to offer and are in fact, nothing. Those who have the heart that finally resigns to this falsehood, loose identity.
Todd’s world was shattered when the very person who challenged him to believe in himself took his own life. Neil took his own life because he was broken by his father’s fear, which told him that life is about security, survival.
Roger Ebert said the final scene in which the members of the Dead Poets Society protested Keating’s firing by standing on their desks made him want to “throw up.” I don’t argue that the movie was not overt. It was. It would have been much better to narrow things down to the friendship between Neil and Todd, and how they responded to the tensions between their parents’ expectations and Keating’s challenge. But the late movie critic missed the point. The students did not protest Keating’s firing. They told him they got his message.
Few have such a mentor as Keating. In fact, the screenwriter based the character on a real-life teacher. While the movie does hold one note throughout its entire run time, I think it’s a very relevant message still today.
“Most men lead lives of quiet despair and go to their graves with the song still in them.”