Dead Poets Society

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John Keating Character Analysis

John Keating is the charismatic, energetic English teacher who inspires the students of Welton Academy to rebel against their families and other teachers. His name echoes that of John Keats, the famous English Romantic poet whose celebration of life and originality may have inspired Keating’s own. A former student of Welton, as well as a brilliant Rhodes scholar, Keating begins teaching at Welton in 1959 and immediately makes an impression on his students, who aren’t used to such exciting, fascinating lessons. Keating urges his students to “seize the day”—that is, do extraordinary, original things instead of merely imitating their teachers and parents. His example inspires the students to revive a secret society of which Keating was once a member—the Dead Poets Society. Keating’s emphasis on freedom and originality raise many eyebrows at Welton, a school that celebrates tradition above everything else. When his students begin to fight back against the Welton administration more and more overtly, Keating tries to convince his students to be more reserved and cautious in their behavior—significantly, he urges Neil Perry to talk to his father about his love for acting. After Neil’s tragic suicide—brought about in part because Neil did not talk to his father—Keating is blamed for “corrupting” his students, and fired from Welton.

John Keating Quotes in Dead Poets Society

The Dead Poets Society quotes below are all either spoken by John Keating or refer to John Keating. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Life, Death, and “Carpe Diem” Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Hyperion edition of Dead Poets Society published in 2006.
Chapter 4 Quotes

He jumped dramatically onto his desk and turned to face the class. “O Captain! My Captain!” he recited energetically, then looked around the room.

Related Characters: John Keating (speaker)
Related Symbols: Standing on the Desk
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, we’re introduced to John Keating, the charismatic English teacher who inspires the students of Welton to “seize the day.” Keating immediately makes an impression on the students by standing on his desk—a vivid contrast with the stiff, reserved way most of the other Welton teachers conduct their lessons (not to mention the dull, incomprehensible speech that Alexander Carmichael, Welton’s oldest living graduate, gave at the beginning of the year).

From the very beginning, then, Keating aims to disrupt his students’ expectations and force them to think for themselves. This certainly doesn’t mean that Keating is an anarchist—from the passage, it’s very clear that Keating still wants his students to listen to him, obey him, and respect him as their educator. In essence, Keating still wants to be the students’ teacher—he just wants to be a different kind of teacher, hence his desire to be called “O Captain! My Captain!”, an allusion to the poetry of Walt Whitman, rather than the usual “Mr.” It’s also worth noting that Whitman’s poem is about Abraham Lincoln, the American President who, Whitman claims, was cruelly murdered in spite of working tirelessly to help his people—perhaps foreshadowing the way that Welton will cruelly fire Keating, in spite of everything he’s done for his students.

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Did most of them not wait until it was too late before making their lives into even one iota of what they were capable? In chasing the almighty deity of success, did they not squander their boyhood dreams? Most of those gentlemen are fertilizing daffodils now!

Related Characters: John Keating (speaker)
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

John Keating begins his lesson by urging his students to “seize the day”—that is, to make the most of their lives. Keating’s point, as articulated here, is that the students simply don’t have that much life to live. Though they’re young, and feel as if they’re going to live forever, they’re all going to die someday. Keating reinforces his point by showing his students old photographs of former Welton graduating classes—just about everyone in the photographs is “fertilizing daffodils” now, he says.

Because life is short, Keating argues, it is a huge mistake to accept other people’s definitions of success. Most of the students at Welton have been told—both by their families and their teachers—to believe in the same narrow definition of success, tied to a high salary, a family, and a good job (for example, Neil Perry’s parents tell him again and again that he’s going to be a doctor). Keating wants his students to think for themselves and discover their own definitions of success—because, as we’ve already seen from Neil and his peers, the traditional definition of success isn’t particularly fulfilling or satisfying for many people.

Chapter 5 Quotes

Keating grabbed onto his own throat and screamed horribly. “AHHHHGGGGG!!” he shouted. “Refuse! Garbage! Pus! Rip it out of your books. Go on, rip out the entire page! I want this rubbish in the trash where it belongs!”

Related Characters: John Keating (speaker)
Page Number: 39
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Keating teaches a class in which he asks his students to read the introduction from their English textbook. In the essay, an academic writes about how to “measure” the greatness of a poem mathematically. In the middle of the essay, Keating begins to cry theatrically, showing that he despises the essay for its narrow, dull understanding of poetry. He makes a show of telling his students to rip the essay out of their textbook. The point seems to be that poetry can’t be analyzed scientifically, as the essay would have its readers believe. Instead, poetry must be experienced on a visceral, emotional level—it must be read with passion. Keating wants his students to rebel against tradition, conformity, and the stiff, scientific approach to education, epitomized in the essay—and this is why the Welton administration ultimately considers him a danger.

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John Keating Character Timeline in Dead Poets Society

The timeline below shows where the character John Keating appears in Dead Poets Society. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
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Conformity and Success Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Chapter 4
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The next class is English. Mr. Keating walks into class without a jacket. Without wasting a moment, he jumps onto his desk... (full context)
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Confused, the students follow Mr. Keating to the Honor Room, where they had previously waited to see Headmaster Nolan. In the... (full context)
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Mr. Keating points his students to the walls of the Honor Room, which are lined with old... (full context)
Chapter 5
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The next day, Mr. Keating begins the English class by asking Neil to read the introduction to the textbook, “Understanding... (full context)
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As Neil reads, Mr. Keating scrawls a graph of “artfulness vs. objectives” on the blackboard. When Neil falls silent, Keating... (full context)
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Mr. Keating returns to his lesson. He insists that his students have to “triumph as individuals.” Humans... (full context)
Chapter 6
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During lunch, Mr. McAllister joins Mr. Keating at the teacher’s dining table. Keating cheerfully apologizes for “shocking” McAllister with his lesson that... (full context)
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...shows his friends an old Welton “annual” (i.e., yearbook), in which there are pictures of Keating from his student days. He was accepted to Cambridge University, voted “most likely to do... (full context)
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After classes, Neil and his friends see Mr. Keating leaving school. Neil, addressing his teacher as “O Captain! My Captain!” and asks about the... (full context)
Chapter 7
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The next day, Neil and his Dead Poet friends sit in Mr. Keating’s class, exhausted from their activities. Mr. Keating tells the students, “language was invented for one... (full context)
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...Neil replies, “Whose side are you on, anyway?” Neil accuses Todd of not understanding Mr. Keating’s ideas. Todd tries to convince Neil to leave him alone, but Neil, still excited about... (full context)
Chapter 8
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...Welton just in time for soccer practice—which, to their surprise, will be coached by Mr. Keating. Mr. Keating begins to call roll, but then tears up the attendance sheet and tells... (full context)
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In his next class, Mr. Keating invites the students to present their poems. Knox reads a romantic poem about Chris, but... (full context)
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...Todd sadly admits that he hasn’t written a poem—he couldn’t bring himself to write anything. Keating nods and brings Todd to the front of the class. There, he instructs Todd to... (full context)
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Keating points Todd to the photograph of Walt Whitman that hangs over the door, urging Todd... (full context)
Chapter 9
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The next day, in class, the students see that Mr. Keating has left them a note—meet in the courtyard. Outside, Keating warns that there is a... (full context)
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Keating urges his students to remember the poet Robert Frost, who wrote, “Two roads diverged in... (full context)
Chapter 10
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Knox notices Chris’s breasts, and, remembering Keating’s command to “seize the day,” shyly touches them. Because Chet and Chris are making out... (full context)
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Later that day, Nolan visits Mr. Keating in his classroom and asks him about how his classes have been going. Nolan insists... (full context)
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Mr. McAllister then sticks his head into Mr. Keating’s classroom—he’s obviously overheard the argument. He tells Mr. Keating not to worry about the boys... (full context)
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Later that night, Keating visits the boys in their dorm. He tells Charlie that his stunt was ridiculous and... (full context)
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The next day of class, Keating begins his class by talking about college—something that will “probably destroy” the students’ love for... (full context)
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Keating proceeds to talk about how to take exams in college. College, he explains, is full... (full context)
Chapter 11
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...are going to quit this ridiculous play immediately.” He demands to know if “that Mr. Keating” put him up to performing. Neil tries to protest—he’s gotten excellent grades, and was going... (full context)
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...father is forcing him to quit the play. Charlie suggests that Neil talk to Mr. Keating about the matter. Charlie, followed reluctantly by Neil and the other Dead Poets, walks over... (full context)
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Inside Mr. Keating’s room, the students find a framed picture of a beautiful woman in her late twenties.... (full context)
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Once Neil and Mr. Keating are alone, Neil explains that his father is making him quit the play. Neil can... (full context)
Chapter 12
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Knox returns to Welton. Mr. Keating’s class has just ended. Keating calls Neil aside and asks him how his talk with... (full context)
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...the Dead Poets are preparing to leave for Henley Hall. As the students join Mr. Keating, who’s attending the play as well, Knox notices Chris walking through the dorm. Knox is... (full context)
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The play is beginning, with Keating, Chris, Knox, and the other Dead Poets in attendance. Neil immediately gets the audience’s attention... (full context)
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...the theater, and he looks furious. In the lobby, Neil finds Mr. Perry and Mr. Keating. When Keating praises Neil’s performance, Mr. Perry orders him, “Keep away from him!” He drags... (full context)
Chapter 13
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...though they notice that Cameron has left at some point. As they sit down, Mr. Keating appears. The boys ask Mr. Keating to lead the meeting. At first he protests, but... (full context)
Chapter 14
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Late at night, Mr. Keating walks from the cave back to Welton, followed by his students, Virginia, and Chris—all of... (full context)
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Back at Welton, Keating and his Dead Poets run through the forest, chanting joyously. Knox and Chris kiss. (full context)
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Keating and his students return to Welton very late. Early the next morning, Charlie wakes Todd... (full context)
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Meanwhile, Mr. Keating sits in his classroom—he’s heard the news, too. He picks up his poetry anthology, which... (full context)
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...Dead Poets carry his coffin at the funeral. The teachers of Welton attend the funeral, Keating included. Later, at the Welton chapel, Headmaster Nolan makes a speech for the boys, in... (full context)
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...expelled, to which Charlie replies, “I’m out anyway.” Cameron agrees, and explains that, since Mr. Keating roused the boys’ interest in the Dead Poets Society, he’ll be blamed for the tragedy... (full context)
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...The students walk out of the room, except for Cameron, who yells, “You can’t save Keating, but you can save yourselves!” (full context)
Chapter 15
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...Todd says, “Yes.” Nolan presents Todd with a long piece of paper, describing how Mr. Keating inspired Todd and the other members of the Dead Poets Society to engage in “reckless,... (full context)
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Todd hesitates. His parents shout at him to sign the contract. But Todd refuses. Keating loves teaching, Todd insists—Todd won’t destroy Keating’s life. Nolan turns away, telling Todd’s parents, “Let... (full context)
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...McAllister walks his Latin students across the campus, making them recite Latin verbs. He glimpses Keating, watching from a window, but then turns away and resumes walking. (full context)
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Keating sits in his office, packing up his books of poetry. He walks into his old... (full context)
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Nolan nods curtly to Keating, then asks his students what authors they’ve been studying all year. Cameron eagerly reports that... (full context)
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Keating packs up his things, listening to Cameron read the essay. Suddenly, Todd jumps up and... (full context)
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Keating stares back at his students, overcome with emotion. “Thank you, boys,” he says. He nods,... (full context)