The Examples Of Transcendentalism In Dead Poets Society

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“Words and Ideas can change the world”. The movie “Dead Poets Society” is about a group of students that attend a very strict, New England prep school, during 1959. Their new teacher; John Keating, uses non-traditional methods of teaching to reach out to this group of teenage students. Utilizing themes from transcendentalism, such as poetry and writing from Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau, Keating gives the students a new, mind-opening perspective of life and what it can be if you take risks and trust in one’s self. The student’s lives in the movie are controlled by their parents and they are unable to pursue their own dreams, or as Keating says, to “seize the day”. Mr. Keating shows them that people are at their best when truly self-reliant and independent. Transcendentalism, a philosophy/ social movement that is influenced by Romanticism, Platonism, and Kantian, and most often remembered through the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, and Henry David Thoreau, were some of the main figures in this philosophy. The film “Dead Poets Society” exemplifies Transcendentalism with its use of characters, quotes, and literature.

Some of the most obvious examples of transcendentalism in the movie are represented by the characters. A main character in the movie is Neil Perry. Neil was enrolled in the school to become a doctor. Neil never wanted to become a doctor but his strict father forced him down that path. Throughout the movie, Neil is trying to break free from his father’s wishes and demonstrate that he would rather become an actor. “For the first time in my whole life, I know what I wanna do! And for the first time, I’m gonna do it! Whether my father wants me to or not! Carpe diem!”. At first, Neil’s father would not allow him to be the lead actor in the play, but eventually, with Keating’s advice, Neil stood up to his father and his father let him be in the play. Neil was in his glory and felt he was doing what he wanted for the first time in his life. The Shakespearean play in the movie was about nature. In the philosophy of transcendentalism, If you surround yourself in nature, you will find the truth. After Neil’s phenomenal performance in the play, his father tells Neil that he is being enrolled in a Military school and becoming a doctor. Neil soul was crushed and he couldn’t live his life the way his father wanted him to, so he sadly decided to kill himself, or in his mind, to set himself free. Both Neil’s father and the school itself represents strict conformity. Ralph Waldo Emerson touches on conformity in his essay, “Self Reliance” when he says, “Man is his own star; and the soul that can. Render an honest and a perfect man”. Emerson advocates his readers to avoid blindly following the paths of others and instead to trust and follow their own instincts and blaze their own path. Conformity, according to Emerson, is death to an individual. Mr. Keating strongly agrees, and In his classes, he would teach the students to decide their own paths and look at the world from a different perspective.

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In “Dead Poets Society” there are many well-known quotes used. One of the most famous ones is “Carpe Diem”. Carpe Diem translates to seize the day. The meaning behind Carpe Diem is used to urge a person to make the most of the present time, to live here and now and give little to no thought to the future. Keating tells this to the students to make them think about their lives and make the best of the moment, instead of worrying about the future like Neil’s father does. Neils father planned out Neils enter life. Neil was supposed to go through military school and become a doctor. Neil didn’t want to follow his father’s instructions but instead be his own leader. Another famous quote would be “sucking the marrow out of life”. This quote came from Thoreau’s Walden Pond. ‘I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. To put to rout all that was not life; and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived”. This quote means that you should follow your dreams and to live the life that you have imagined. If you follow your dreams then you will be met with success. The third quote and probably the most memorable quote is, “O Captain, My Captain”. “O Captain, My Captain”, is actually a poem by Walt Whitman whose writings had an important role in the transcendentalism movement. It was Whitman who said, “The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse”. The poem was about a captain died just as his vessel made it to the end of its voyage after going through a treacherous storm. At the end of the movie, the students stand on their desks and say this to their teacher after he is fired, and partially blamed for Neil’s death, by the school’s administration.

Another piece of literature would be “Walden” by Thoreau. A line from the book was also used in the movie. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”. Thoreau did not want to be like everybody else. He wanted to follow his own path and be independent. Mr. Keating encourages this throughout the movie. Thoreau’s “Walden” is also about the philosophy of life and self-sufficiency. Of course, many people recognize the famous Robert Frost poem which says, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference”. It was this exact concept of transcendentalism that Mr. Keating was trying to teach to his students.

In summary, with the use of characters, quotes, and literature, the movie “Dead Poets Society” exemplifies Transcendentalism. Neil’s father and the prep-school represent societal conformity, and with the use of famous quotes from the heart of the transcendentalism movement such as, “O Captain, My Captain”, the movie refers to different ways of thinking about life, nature, and even death. Mr. Keating wants his students to “seize the day”, “suck the marrow from life” and follow their own true path.

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