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Transcendental themes in the movie “Dead Poets Society”

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The movie “The Dead Poets Society” is about a group of private school boys in the North East. They encounter a teacher, Mr. Keating, whom is a little different than most teachers. He wanted to instill the motivation to look past what society was telling them to do rather than teach the normal curriculum. He used Thoreau’s ideas on transcendentalism by showing them to transcend or go beyond the rules that society poses and create their own independence. Mr. Keating succeeded in his efforts by teaching them to think for themselves.

Director Peter Weir illustrates that the movie “Dead Poet’s Society” echoes Transcendentalist notions in content in that self-reliance and individualism must outweigh external authority and blind conformity to custom or tradition, intuition is superior to deliberate intellectualism and rationality and in structure through the idea that one can find truth and beauty in nature.

One of the main ideas of Transcendentalism is that one’s own opinions should prevail over deliberate conformity. Emerson wrote concerning that notion saying, “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.” Emerson tightly relates one’s being with nonconformity, therefore illustrating that one who does conform to society’s wishes is less of a man, or yet a real man at all, saying, “Imitation is suicide.” He declares conformity is the same as throwing one’s own ideas, identity, and soul away, which is the equivalent to ending one’s life. Henry David Thoreau has beliefs similar to Emerson on the topic of conformity, stating, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” To hear a “different drummer” insinuates to believe or act differently from the common consensus. Thoreau asserts that it is all right to think or act in this “different” manner, as abstract from the common as it may be.

“Dead Poet’s Society” relates the idea of self-reliance through its content. Mr. Keating desperately wants the boys to hear something different from what other adults are telling them by telling the students, “Don’t be lemmings, find your own walk!” and, “Don’t conform; make it for yourself.” Mr. Keating wants them to defy the familiar values and follow their hearts instead. All of his lessons have the common thematic idea of non-conformity, which are the singular most important aspects of his teachings. On the first day of class Mr. Keating persuades the young men to stand on their desks. “I stand upon my desk to remind you that we must constantly look at things in a different way.” Standing on the desk symbolizes individualism, while everyone who merely sits in his or her desk is just conforming to the typical expectation.

The most blatant instance of the fight against conformity in “Dead Poet’s Society” is the circumstance surrounding Neal Perry’s suicide. After Mr. Perry saw his marvelous performance in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream,” he brings his son home and roughly tells him, “We’re trying very hard to understand why it is that you insist on defying us. Whatever the reason, we’re not going to let you ruin your life. Tomorrow I’m withdrawing you from Welton and enrolling you in Braden Military School. You’re going to Harvard and you’re going to be a doctor.” This is not Neal’s dream or wish; he wants to be an actor. After this encounter, Neal commits suicide. Neal displays that he wants more out of life than what his family was pressuring him to do, but the fight with conformity was too great for him. In Neal’s situation imitation is literally suicide. While Neal is the free spirit who chooses to look deeper than expected, Mr. Perry, whom Neal was fighting, is the epitome of conformity. Mr. Perry neatly places his slippers in the same spot every night. His action asserts the unnecessary structure of conformity. He does this because it is the “proper” and “correct” way and he does not care to challenge it.

Transcendentalists not only believe that it is necessary to look into one’s heart to find a personal calling, but they also believe that individual insight is superior to proven thought. Emerson takes the ideology and puts it into striking poetry pronouncing, “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature.” The student’s teacher, Mr. Keating, believes that intuition is untouchable compared to intellectualism, and he tries to share his knowledge with his students. After Mr. Keating asks Neal to read an essay by Mr. J. Evans Pritchard that informs how to grade the greatness of poetry on an x, y axis, Mr. Keating jumps out of his chair and yells, “Armies of academics going forward, measuring poetry. No, we will not have that here. No more of Mr. J. Evans Pritchard. Now in my class you will learn to think for yourselves again. You will learn to savor words and language. No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

Mr. Keating completely disregards Pritchard’s idea and encourages the boys to not measure the poetry by a heartless graph, which is deliberate intellectualism, but to think for themselves.

The ideas of elegance and knowledge of nature are apparent throughout the structure of the “Dead Poet’s Society”. Peaceful pictures of nature at its best were always revealed between various scenes of the movie. These tranquil shots of nature remind the viewer that nature is serene and wonderful, and it is there that true wisdom is found. “The Dead Poet’s Society” did not meet in a dorm room or lavish meeting hall, but in a dark, damp cave deep in the woods. The setting of their meetings emphasizes the topic of their conversation, transcendental poetry. The young men of the society are living out their beliefs by attempting to find inspiration there. During the dramatic minutes before Neal’s suicide the camera reveals very symbolic items. First, snow is pictured outside when Neal opens the window. Neal opens the window because he wants to be comforted by the white, glistening, snow-covered nature. Then, a close up of the crown of thorns that he wore in the production “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” comes into focus. The crown that Neal slowly puts on his head confirms that he thinks that nature led him to the right answer in his dilemma. Throughout the movie the transcendental idea of beauty within nature is exuded through camera angles and the setting.

Overall, Dead Poet’s Society exhibits three particular characteristics of the transcendental philosophy: the strong belief that the world should not conform to society, rational intellectualism is shoddier than instinct, and reality and loveliness are located in nature. Thoreau and Emerson would have loved this film!

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