Dead Poets Society Summary

N. H. Kleinbaum

Dead Poets Society

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Dead Poets Society Summary

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Dead Poets Society (1989) by Nancy H. Kleinbaum is a novelization of Tom Schulman’s film of the same name starring Robin Williams, although it uses an earlier version of the script so there are a few differences in plot between the two. The film was a commercial and critical success upon release, earning an Academy Award for Best Screenplay.

The story takes place in 1959 at Welton Academy, a prestigious boarding school for boys in Vermont. It opens during an elaborate opening ceremony for a new school year, where we meet Todd Anderson, a new student entering his junior year. Transferring from another school, he is nervous to start at Welton as his older brother, Jeffrey, had attended before him and achieved excellent academic results.

Todd has always felt that his parents prefer Jeffrey; he is reminded of the pressure to live up to his legacy by the Dean. He meets his new roommate, Neil Perry, a friendly boy with a difficult relationship with his father, who has set out a detailed path for Neil’s life to go to Harvard and become a doctor. Neil is not interested in this future but is too scared of his father to confront him. Todd also meets uptight overachiever Richard Cameron, rebellious rule-breaker Charlie Dalton, and romantic Knox Overstreet.

As classes start, the boys are surprised by their new English teacher, John Keating. Unlike the other strict and conformist teachers at the school, Keating is energetic, charismatic, and passionate. In his first lecture, he stands on his desk to teach the boys about different perspectives and talks about “Carpe Diem,” inviting the students to seize the day. He wants to teach his students to live extraordinary, individual lives instead of simply following the rules. While the other teachers at the school are suspicious of his methods, Keating’s easygoing nature keeps him protected by the headmaster, Nolan.

Neil does his best to become friends with Todd, but he is initially too shy to respond. However, they start bonding after Neil finds an old yearbook that shows that Keating studied at Welton. The boys ask Keating about a note in the yearbook that says he was a member of something called the Dead Poets Society.

Keating explains that he used to meet in a nearby cave with his friends and read poetry to each other, celebrating the beauty in it and in life. Soon after, Neil finds a poetry anthology labeled “Dead Poets” in his room and convinces the boys to go to the cave and replicate the old Dead Poets Society. The boys soon become enthralled by the poetry.

Keating’s lessons inspire the boys to pursue their passions and open up. Todd succeeds in expressing himself through an improvised poem about Walt Whitman in class and starts opening up to Keating and his new friends. Neil feels empowered to try out for a local production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, despite fear of his father’s disapproval, and is ecstatic when he gets the role of Puck. Knox decides to pursue Chris, a girl he loves but who is going out with Chet Danbury, the son of family friends.

However, their acts of inspiration start getting them into trouble. Charlie Dalton writes an article for the school paper in which he argues that Walton should admit women, and signs it “The Dead Poets.” The school is furious, and Charlie admits to writing the article. Nolan uses corporal punishment to try to get him to involve the others, but he refuses. Knox gets drunk at a party and feels Chris’s breasts, which angers her boyfriend.

Nolan, suspicious that Keating is the one behind this behavior, threatens Keating with consequences if he does not stop encouraging nonconformism to his students. Keating decides to curb his lessons a bit, teaching the boys that they will have to be realistic, make their way through college, and do many things that will bore them.

Neil’s father finds out about his part in Midsummer Night’s Dream and is furious, forbidding him to go through with it. Neil is torn apart and turns to Keating for advice, who tells him to be honest with his father and tell him how much acting means to him. Neil is not brave enough to do this, and he lies to Keating, saying that his father agreed after all.

Knox sneaks out to Chris’s school and reads her a poem; she later visits Welton to warn Knox that Chet is threatening to kill him. Knox begs her to come on a date with him to go see Neil’s play, promising he won’t bother her again if she doesn’t enjoy herself. She agrees and, during the evening, starts to like Knox and kisses him.

Meanwhile, Neil’s performance as Puck is excellent, and everyone is incredibly proud of him. However, his father appears after the show, furious, and says he is going to send him to a military academy where he will have no distractions from his goal of becoming a doctor. Brokenhearted and desperate, Neil kills himself with his father’s revolver that night.

Neil’s father demands an investigation into the suicide. Cameron betrays the Dead Poets by going to Nolan and telling him everything about the secret society. Nolan is looking for a scapegoat to avoid losing funding for the school, and this is the perfect opportunity for Nolan to blame the suicide on Keating. Keating is accused of warping the boys’ minds with ideas of freedom that they cannot achieve.

The administration forces all of Keating’s students to sign a document stating that he had corrupted them and this caused Neil’s suicide. Most of the boys comply, except for Todd, who remains loyal to Keating and is placed under probation as a result. Keating is fired and barred from teaching, having to leave his post in disgrace.

The novel ends with the boys in English class, being taught the “proper” curriculum by Nolan. Keating comes in to pick up his personal items, and Todd runs to him to explain that the students were forced to turn against him. Keating understands but readies himself to leave. In an act of protest, Todd stands on his desk as Keating had done on his first day. One by one, the other boys do the same to show solidarity with their teacher.

Dead Poets Society is set at the end of the 1950s, an era where conformity and uniformity had become important societal constructs. This was the beginning of the American ideal of a stable job, picture-perfect marriage, and white-picket fence home in the suburbs. The book’s themes of individuality and struggle for self-expression reflect the changes that were to come in the 1960s, as young people broke free from this mold in huge numbers to explore new ideas. In the case of the Dead Poets, this is shown by a dawning interest in poetry, theatre, and girls and a rejection of conventional careers and education.