Dead Poets Society: The Theme of Conformity in the Film

Published: 2021-06-25
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Wesleyan University
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Research paper
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In the contemporary society, it is expected that every person conforms to the social norms so that order is maintained. However, some members of the society are unable to follow the social norms hence end up rebelling. Such rebellion has its effects. Conformity is the fabric that binds a society in most cases, and those who refuse to conform are castigated and punished (Smaldino, Paul & Epstein, Joshua 140437). In the Dead Poets Society movie, the overriding theme is the theme of conformity and the impact of non-conformity. The Dead Poets Society film, which is set in 1959 in a boys-only traditional school, was written by Schulman Tom and directed by Weir Peter. The film stars Robin Williamson who acts as Mr. Keating, a new teacher of English at the Welton Academy. When he lands in the school, Mr. Keating finds boys who are under pressure from both the school and their parents to conform. The schools motto implies that traditions have to be followed if one is to excel. The school administration is very strict. The parents, on the other hand, have set goals for their children. Neil's parents, for example, want him to become a doctor while Todds parents want him to become a lawyer. To achieve these dreams, they are warned against participating in any school events so that they get enough time to study. However, the students also have dreams of their own. Therefore, the boys are fascinated by Mr. Keatings unorthodox teaching methods, much to the consternation of the head teacher as well as other teachers in the school who think that he is going too far. So interested in Mr. Keatings teachings are the students that they revive the secretive Dead Poets Society after learning from an old Yearbook of the school that Mr. Keating was a member (Weir). By the end of the film, Neil commits suicide to escape from the pressure his father gives him. This leads to the sacking of Mr. Keating who is viewed as having contributed to the death of Neil through his unorthodox teachings (Weir, Peter). This paper analyzes the theme of conformity. The theme of conformity is so explicitly brought out by the films makers that it becomes the overriding issue in the film.

In the society, each person is expected to behave in a certain way. Things are not different in a school setting. All students are expected to conduct themselves according to a set of rules and regulations, and in some cases, expulsion is the ultimate consequence of failing to follow the school rules (Serey, Timothy 378). At Welton Academy, where the film is set, all students are expected to not only adhere to the school rules but also be true to the school motto which goes Tradition! Honor! Discipline! Excellence! (Weir). This motto ensures conformity as it has to be the guiding principle in everything that a student does as long as they are at school. In the film, the camera is zoomed into a group of seemingly disciplined boys who faithfully recite the four pillars of the school motto till the faces of these students fill the screen. The camera is zoomed again into a statement that the students are forced to sign by the headmaster. The scene portrays that all the boys are equal and must be obedient to the rules and regulations of the school. Appending their signatures to the statement is prove that they are ready to conform even if they are not willing. The signing is the headmasters way of ensuring that these students commit themselves to the conformity that forms the foundation of the school. The way the boys look the same is an indication that no one should be different as long as they are at the Welton Academy. The theme of conformity is therefore brought out very clearly in this scene. It is a major thematic concern in the film.

Secondly, parents expect their children to conduct themselves in a certain way so as to achieve certain dreams. Some parents go to the extent of forcing their children to do what they feel is good for them despite the child's wish to pursue an entirely different path Smaldino & Epstein 140437). In some cases, the parent becomes so keen at ensuring the child follows a certain path that they end up destroying the future of that child. Nevertheless, what these parents are looking for is conformity for their children. In the film, Neils father has already set a goal for his son. He wants him to become a doctor. He therefore constantly reminds him that he must concentrate on his studies so that he qualifies to join the medical school. He even warns him against participating in the school annual so that he can dedicate more time to his studies. This is in a bid to promote conformity. Neil has always maintained good grades and his parents do not want anything different. They want him to conform to their expectations although Neils interest is in the performing arts, not medicine. Similarly, his friend Todd is unhappy with his parents demands. They want him to become a lawyer. Todds elder brother was in this same school, then proceeded to Yale Law School after graduation and became a lawyer (Weir). His parents, therefore, expect the same thing from Todd although he does not wish to become a lawyer, but a writer. Since he is too shy to tell his parents about his wish and interest, he chooses to conform. Todds parents seem to have forgotten that children are different. It is unreasonable for a parent to expect all their children to be similar in all aspects (Smaldino & Epstein 140437). Some children are better than other in particular aspects of life. The search for conformity only seeks to distract a child from being exactly who they are. Parents should, therefore, exercise moderation when making certain demands from their children. In the film, it is clear that the two boys, just like many in the school, are not happy with the demands that are placed on them by their parents. The only problem is that they are not courageous enough to give their point of view. They are therefore forced to conform for fear of going against the wishes of their parents.

In a school setting, teachers are expected to behave in a certain way. The administration, in most cases, expects teachers to conform to the traditions of that institution so as to ensure the smooth running of all activities in the school (Zablocka, Kaja 87). In the film, the teachers at Welton have stuck to the traditional teaching methods acceptable in the school. They teach the students to rely on them and conform to whatever the school wishes. However, when Mr. Keating lands in the school, he seeks to change this conformity and make the students free to think for themselves. He urges them not to conform but to become liberal thinkers. The shooting of the film demonstrates the difference between Mr. Keatings teaching methods and those of other teachers. While the other teachers stand in front of the students, Mr. Keating watches them from behind. In his first lesson, Mr. Keating tries to use the traditional method to teach poetry but finds it annoying and archaic. He, therefore, asks the students to rip off the introductory page of their poetry textbook, which provides a mathematical description of poetry rating (Weir). He views the page-ripping as one of the roads to liberal thinking. Mr. Keating also asks each student to stand on his desk so that they can view the world from a diversity of perspectives. Later, Mr. Keating has the boys yell out poetry lines while kicking soccer balls. The other teachers are uncomfortable with these unorthodox teaching methods since they expect Mr. Keating to conform to the schools traditional teaching methods as they all have been. The Latin teacher even warns him against teaching teenagers how to be liberal thinkers. He calls it a very big risk. Nevertheless, Mr. Keating is not willing to give up since he believes this is the best teaching method. In his view, the school is simply oppressing the students and teachers when it forces them to conform.

The aspect of conformity is also explored through the lens of the consequences of non-conformity in the film. If the society forces its members to conform, rebellion is likely to be witnessed, and this rebellion has various consequences (Anundson, Abigail 93). Mr. Keating constantly reminds his students to view the world in a new way by urging them not to conform. As a result, one of his students named Neil, for instance, decides not to conform to his father's wishes. Neil's father wants him to fully concentrate on his studies so that he can post good grades that will enable him to join the medical school and later become a doctor. However, Neil decides to join the art group in performing the play A Midsummer Nights Dream and acts as Puck (Weir). His father had already warned him against this. Despite putting up a great performance at the theater, his father who is in attendance is so angry with him that he orders him out and drives him home immediately. He tells him that he is going to force him into Braden Military School where he can be prepared to pursue a career in the medical field. Neil cannot take his fathers irritable demands anymore. Therefore he commits suicide. Although he is innocent, Mr. Keating is blamed for Neils death. Consequently, he is fired. The students are also forced to denounce the Dead Poets Society since it is viewed to have been having a negative influence on the boys. The film portrays these as some of the consequences of non-conformity. Therefore, the film seems to advocate for conformity.

The theme of conformity seems to be a very powerful aspect of the film. The writer of the film, directors, and actors have worked together very well to bring out the idea of conformity as well as the consequences of non-conformity. While the Welton school community and parents expect total cooperation and conformity, a new teacher, Mr. Keating, is of a different opinion. It is through him that the aspect of conformity is portrayed in a new way in the film. The consequences of non-conformity seem to emphasize that change comes with a price. The makers of this film have carefully selected the relevant costuming, dialogue and angles to clearly convey the idea of conformity. Therefore, they have effectively applied the relevant film-making techniques to communicate the theme of conformity effectively.


Anundson, Abigail. "Carpe diem and coming-of-age in Dead Poets Society". Film Matters 6.3 (2015) 92-94. doi:10.1386/fm.6.3.92_1.

Serey, Timothy. T. "Carpe diem: lessons about life and management from Dead Poets Society". Journal of Management Education 16.3 (1992): 374-381. doi:10.1177/105256299201600309.

Smaldino, Paul. E., and Joshua. M. Epstein. "Social conformity despite individual preferences for distinctiveness". Royal Society Open Science 2.3 (2015): 140437. doi:10.1098/rsos.140437.

Weir, Peter. "Dead Poets Society, film." Touchstone Pictures, California (1989).

Zablocka, Kaja. "Two cinematic portrayals of teachers: john keating in Dead Poets Society and Terence fletcher in Whiplash". New Horizons in English Studies 1 (2017): 87. doi:10.17951/nh.2016.1.87.

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