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Attitudes Towards Life in “The Catcher in the Rye”and “Dead Poet’s Society”

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In this world, there are many attitudes towards life that one can possess. This attitude can range from nihilism to ignorant idealism depending on the human being. The works entitled “Dead Poets’ Society” and “The Catcher in the Rye” hold a variety of stances on life. However, the novel, “The Catcher in the Rye” mainly paints the mind-set of idealism because it is about an adolescent named Holden Caulfield who is highly idealistic. The novel goes on to tell about how Holden cognizes that the reality of life is not as idealistic as he perceives. Therefore, he pretends to be cynical. Meanwhile, the movie, “Dead Poets’ Society” presents an assortment of attitudes towards life which generally range from pessimism to idealism depending on the character. Thus, through watching the movie and reading the book, one can witness an assortment of outlooks to life in general.

Holden Caulfield narrates “The Catcher in the Rye” in a cynical tone. To many juveniles, this protagonist might appear as a misanthropic person because his tone and wording proposes that he thinks people are lousy and fake. Nevertheless, Holden’s misanthropical narration throughout the novel is just a façade that conceals his idealistic thoughts about the world. In reality, Caulfield believes that the world is beautiful and he holds great merit in innocence and childhood (For example, when he watches Phoebe sleep, Holden comments on how children look fine while they slumber with their mouths wide open, although adults who sleep in such a manner appear lousy, pg. 159). Holden cognizes that the reality of life is not as quixotic as he perceives. He is aware of the existence of superficiality, corruption and hypocrisy in the adult world.

Nonetheless, Holden is disinclined to accept that he is surrounded by the spitefulness and flaws of life. Therefore, as a result of not wanting to lose his ideal standpoint, he coins a shell of pseudo cynicism to protect his naive perceptions. He constantly announces throughout the novel that people are “phonies.” For example, on pg 151, when referring to the superficial behavior of his ex-girlfriend, Sally and her adult friends, Holden says, “All of them swimming around in a goddam pot of tea and saying sophisticated stuff to each other and being charming and phony.” Caulfield just pretends to be cynical. If he were a real misanthropist, he would just know it; he wouldn’t be constantly reminding himself of how horrible people are. In sum, Holden represents an idealistic outlook towards existence that can be misread as cynical.

In the movie, “Dead Poets’ Society”, the headmaster Mr. Nolan and Neil Perry’s father represent a realistic and pessimistic combinative view towards life. The school, Welton Academy is founded on conventional ideas and excellence. Its raison d’ĂŞtre is to provide its students with strict preparation for the Ivy League. Mr. Nolan and Mr. Perry are realists. These men believe that adolescent boys cannot reason properly because they are simply too young and naive; therefore, they must be guided by shrewd forces (i.e. rigid Welton Academy staff) in order to dominate in life. Mr. Perry constantly lectures Neil, on one occasion he says: “After you’ve finished medical school and you’re on your own you can do as you damn well please! But until then, you do as I tell you to!”

Mr. Nolan also makes a similar comment to Mr. Keating, after Keating says that education is there to guide one on the path of purposeful decision making. Mr. Nolan retorts, “At these boys’ ages? Not on your life! Tradition, John. Discipline. Prepare them for college, and the rest will take care of itself.” Mr. Perry and Mr. Nolan are both realists since they understand that education is first priority if one wishes to have an admirable life. They are also pessimistic in the sense that they both believe that teenage boys are incompetent of making good decisions and will stray from the path of excellence if they do not follow tradition. Hence, Mr. Nolan and Mr. Perry represent the pessimistic to realistic range on the life spectrum.

John Keating is the outgoing, unorthodox, new teacher at Welton Academy who represents the optimistic view of life. In the movie, Keating thinks that his students are able to make decisions by themselves based on knowledge that they have gained from school and other sources. He generally believes that people are intelligent and able to reason for themselves. For instance, Keating once says, “I always thought the idea of educating was to learn to think for yourself.” Mr. Keating is also a romantic; this trait is evident because he encourages his students to “seize the day” as if only the moment mattered. But although he himself is romantic, he is also optimistic and evades taking a step further into idealism. There are vivid illustrations of this throughout the film.

One instance is when Mr. Keating warns the boys about Dead Poets’ Society, he knows that its lack of discipline and surplus for romanticism can only lead to madman behavior. Through this action and several others, readers can conclude Keating is actually aware that tradition is significant. Therefore, Keating is an optimistic character who believes that people are bright able thinkers; nevertheless, he is conscious that occasionally people will strike failure.

The idealistic standpoint of life is embodied through several of Keating’s students named Neil, Knox, and Charlie. Keating teaches them romanticism. One can say these boys misinterpret Keating’s teachings and become idealistic. They are indeed overly idealistic and perhaps even naive. Neil, Knox, and Charlie are all different personas. Neil is the intelligent, popular kid who yearns to act. Charlie is the rebellious, attention seeking, wannabe leader who pulls outrageous stunts, and Knox is the besotted idiot who is infatuated over a girl who is practically engaged to the son of his parents’ friends. Nonetheless, they all pursue their passions relentlessly and presume that their outcomes will be ideal. Alas, the conclusions are dire.

Neil feels hopeless that his father will not allow him to continue acting; thus, spontaneously he commits suicide. Charlie is expelled from Welton, on account that he can not restrain his emotions and strikes another boy. Nonetheless, Knox is the sole idealistic character whose outcome is semi-desirable since he gets to hold his dream girl’s hand. Although, through that action, Knox ruins the relationship he has with his parents’ friends and his own parents! This is not ideal at all. Therefore, in sum, Charlie, Neil, and Knox are all idealistic because they are capricious and act on their whims believing that everything will turn out “all right”.

In conclusion, a person who has experienced the works of Dead Poets’ Society and The Catcher in the Rye can conclude that The Catcher in the Rye is more hopeful about life than Dead Poets’ Society. This conclusion is based upon the endings of both stories. The Catcher in the Rye finishes with Holden saying, “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everyone, pg 214.” This statement suggests that he now values human life since he demonstrates emotion for the race. In addition, this saying is not cynical which implies that Holden is presently maturing and shedding his coat of defensive cynicism. Although, it can be argued that the ending is fairly ambiguous because Holden stills narrates in a cynical manner during the final chapter and says sentences such as, “I’m sorry I told so many people about it (his story), pg 214,” one can see that Holden is going to recover from his breakdown and mature as a person.

In chapter 25, the reader witnesses Holden’s maturation through his discussion with Phoebe about his fantasized plan to run away. In the end, he abandons his runaway plan for the sake of his sister’s life because she wants to go with him. By the end of the novel, Holden has begun to abandon his idealistic fantasies and takes a step into the real world as he announces that he will try to apply himself to school. However, in the movie, Dead Poets’ Society, the ending is not nearly as optimistic. The romanticists (Knox, Charlie, Neil, and Mr. Keating) that audiences are rooting for, all wind up in atrocious situations.

As previously mentioned, Neil dies, Charlie is expelled and Mr. Keating is fired. Their idealistic/optimistic outlooks on life have done them harm while the realists, (i.e. Mr. Nolan and Cameron are unharmed and ultimately win over the idealists). Hence, one can conclude that both Dead Poets’ Society and “The Catcher in the Rye” portray idealism through its main characters, but, “The Catcher in the Rye” illustrates the image of idealism in a more promising light. Therefore, the book in itself is more hopeful about life as it demonstrates that one can be idealistic and survive while the film suggests that one has to be conventional and realistic in order to endure the hardships of life.

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