The novel begins at Welton Academy, a Vermont private school. It is the beginning of the school year, and Welton’s 300 students, all boys, walk into the great hall, many of them accompanied by their parents, as the headmaster, Gale Nolan, prepares to speak. Four of the boys carry banners into the hall, labeled “Tradition,” “Honor,” “Discipline,” and “Excellence.” Behind them, one elderly man carries a candle.
The novel begins with an image of conformity, formality, and tradition. The students of Welton Academy, we’re informed, are about to begin their school year. The banners they’re carrying hint at the importance of values and rules at Welton: by celebrating the four concepts listed here (“tradition, honor, discipline, and excellence), the students are submitting to Welton’s “code” of right and wrong—essentially, Welton’s definition of what a good human being is. The scene also has a religious tone, with Nolan playing the part of a priest presiding over his “congregation” of students. In a way, going to Welton is its own religion; a religion grounded in order, obedience, and academic rigor.
Once the students have taken their seats, Headmaster Nolan announces the beginning of the ceremony. It is 1959, Nolan proclaims—the 100th anniversary of Welton. As Nolan speaks, the elderly man walks across the room to where Welton’s new students sit carrying unlit candles. He lights each candle with his own—this ritual, Nolan says, symbolizes the light of knowledge passing from old to young.
There’s a lot to notice here. First, the year is 1959—in other words, the end of the 50s (an era of American history often considered to have been overly conformist and “square”) and the beginning of the 60s (an era famous for its radicalism and energetic refusal of traditional values). So there’s an irony in the fact that, at the dawn of this new era in American history, Welton isn’t looking ahead to the future—in fact, it’s turning back to celebrate the past (its own centennial). Furthermore, the students’ candles are explicitly meant to symbolize knowledge being passed from elder to younger generations. But they also symbolize the students’ lack of freedom—as far as Welton is concerned, they’re just ignorant youths whose only job is passively accepting Welton’s values and ideas, like an unlit candle “accepting” flame.
Nolan asks the students in the hall to name the four pillars of Welton. Most of the students immediately stand up and recite, “Tradition, Honor, Discipline, Excellence!” One student, the 16-year-old Todd Anderson, rises more slowly, and doesn’t join in the recitation. Todd is one of the only students not wearing his school’s blazer.
We immediately notice Todd’s outsider status at Welton because he’s not wearing the Welton jacket or chanting along. He’s new to the school, meaning that he hasn’t been fully indoctrinated in Welton’s code of behavior and emphasis on conformity.
Nolan proceeds to list Welton’s accomplishments—last year, more than three quarters of graduating students went on to the Ivy League. Two students, 16-year-olds Charlie Dalton and Knox Overstreet, smile at this information—they both exemplify the classic, “preppy” Ivy League image.
Welton offers its students a very clear bargain: students must study hard and obey all the rules, and in return, they’ll be offered admission into an impressive Ivy League school, followed by (presumably) a good job. Many of the Welton students seem perfectly willingly to take this deal—Knox and Charlie, in this case.
Nolan calls on some of Welton’s students to define the four pillars of success. He calls on Richard Cameron, the student carrying the “tradition” banner, to define tradition, and Cameron immediately shouts out, “the love of school, country, and family. Our tradition at Welton is to be the best!” Next, Nolan calls on George Hopkins, carrying the “honor” banner, to define honor—honor, Hopkins replies, is “dignity and fulfillment of duty.” Nolan calls on Knox Overstreet, carrying the “discipline” banner, ands Knox explains that discipline is “respect for parents, teachers, and headmaster.” Finally, Neil Perry, carrying “excellence,” explains, monotonously, “excellence is the result of hard work.”
In this passage, we begin to see the limitations of Welton’s values. Duty, tradition, etc. are important, but only when practiced in moderation. Too much duty or tradition results in students who are overly passive and blindly obedient; it is important to learn to question authority, as well. The students at Welton seem either slavishly loyal to the four pillars—like Cameron, who immediately shouts out his answer—or deeply skeptical and even weary of them—like Neil, who answers monotonously.
Headmaster Nolan goes on to announce that an English teacher, Mr. Portius, has retired. His replacement, John Keating, will begin teaching English this year. Mr. Keating stands and nods—he’s an “average-looking” man, in his early 30s. Neil’s father looks at Mr. Keating suspiciously, since Mr. Keating is a new teacher.
John Keating is one of the key characters of the novel. Although he is average-looking, he’s distinguished from most of his colleagues at Welton by his youth—as we’ll see, most of the Welton teachers have been teaching there for decades. The fact that Neil’s father, Mr. Perry, immediately distrusts Keating suggests that Mr. Perry respects routine and distrusts newness of any kind. Mr. Perry’s distrust also foreshadows the novel’s closing action, in which Perry helps to get Keating fired.
Finally, Nolan calls to the podium “Welton’s oldest living graduate,” Mr. Alexander Carmichael. Carmichael, a feeble-looking elderly man, makes a mumbling, incomprehensible speech, and afterwards, the students file out of the hall.
Carmichael’s speech symbolizes the impotence and pointlessness of the Welton educational system. Welton prides itself on producing impressive, wise graduates—yet the only graduate of Welton we see here is dull and forgettable.
It is time for the students’ parents to say goodbye to them. Charlie Dalton and Knox Overstreet’s parents hug their children affectionately, while Neil Perry’s father just stands stiffly by his son. Todd Anderson, whose parents aren’t in attendance, stands alone until, unexpectedly, Nolan approaches him. Nolan tells Todd, “Your brother was one of our best.” Nolan moves on to Neil Perry and tells him, “We’re expecting great things of you.”
Most of the students of Welton seem to come from severe, cold families—they’re expected to be the best. Similarly, Todd, who’s new at Welton, lives in his older brother’s shadow, meaning that he’s expected to live up to his brother’s success. In general, then, the students of Welton are under a tremendous amount of pressure to succeed academically.
The younger students cry as they say goodbye to their parents, and many say they don’t want to go to boarding school. Their parents snap at them and tell them not to be babies. The boys’ parents leave, and the school year begins at Welton.
Life at Welton is cold and austere—from an early age, students are trained not to reveal their emotions, even if they’re sad and lonely.