What the Dead Poets Society Gets Wrong About Suicide
Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
“You must strive to find your own voice because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are going to find it all.” – Dead Poets Society (1989)
To some it’s a classic, but most of us probably have a passing-knowledge of the 1989 teen comedy-drama film Dead Poets Society starring Robin Williams. You might have watched the movie at school, at home, or you’ve come across screencaps of the characters in aesthetic “dark academia” edits on TikTok or Instagram. The film centers around a group of young men attending an elite boarding school – Welton Academy – and the English teacher that inspires them through his teaching of poetry. Mr. John Keating, played by Robin Williams, encourages his students to “make your lives extraordinary.” Even the central theme of Dead Poets Society is the Latin expression carpe diem, which means “seize the day.”
While the film continues to resonate with and inspire many people to this day, parts of it paint the wrong idea about suicide and betrays its main message of “seizing the day.” Mr. Keating has a somewhat strange style of teaching: having students stand on desks to see the world from a different perspective, inviting them to create their own style of walking, telling them to tear out the introduction on the mathematical formula for rating poems in their books… all of this aims to encourage them to be individuals and free-thinkers.
“Just when you think you know something, you have to look at it in another way. Even though it may seem silly or wrong, you must try.” – Dead Poets Society (1989)
These young men live in a world where reputation and how much money you have matters a lot, but Mr. Keating challenges them to live their lives on their own terms. One of these young men is Neil Perry, who discovers that he has a passion for acting and lands the role of Puck in a local production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. However, Neil’s strict father wants him to attend Harvard to become a doctor. After learning of Neil’s participation in the play, his father demands that he quit on the night of the opening performance.
Upset over this development, Neil tells Mr. Keating – a trusted adult – about how much acting means to him. Keating advises Neil to stand his ground and be honest with his father and to prove to him that his love of acting is something he takes seriously. Neil lies to Mr. Keating, saying that his dad let him stay in the play, and also lies to his father, telling him that he would quit. That evening Mr. Perry shows up unexpectedly to the opening performance, removes Neil from Welton Academy, and enrolls him into a military academy.
Feeling lost and trapped, Neil sees suicide as the only solution to his problems and takes his own life. Mr. and Mrs. Perry are devastated over the loss of their son in a moment that shows how they truly wanted what was best for him. In fact, his father reminds Neil throughout the film that he didn’t have the same opportunities as Neil does and doesn’t want his son to spoil the chances he’s been given at a fulfilling and successful life. The main disagreement between Neil and his father is how they define fulfillment and success.
One of the many memorable lines in the Dead Poets Society shows how the film missed an opportunity for “seizing the day” – Mr. Keating says, “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” Could Neil have used his words and ideas to explain what fulfillment and success means to him, maybe even change his father’s mind? Could they have come to a compromise? What if Neil had reached out to Mr. Keating again, instead of lying to him?
Mr. Keating wanted his students to tread their own paths in life, not just the ones that were laid out for them by others. Neil had just started the journey to develop his own walking style, but when the time came to apply what he learned to his own life, Neil forgot the core message of Keating’s teachings: life is too short to be anyone but yourself. You must seize the day, no matter what challenges may face you.