Dead Poets Society

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Life, Death, and “Carpe Diem” Theme Analysis

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Life, Death, and “Carpe Diem” Theme Icon
Education Theme Icon
Conformity and Success Theme Icon
Rebellion and Passion Theme Icon
Men, Women, and Love Theme Icon
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Life, Death, and “Carpe Diem” Theme Icon

The most famous quote in Dead Poets Society is “carpe diem,” which means “seize the day” in Latin. Professor John Keating delivers these words to his students on the first day of school at Welton Academy, symbolizing his unorthodox approach to education and his desire to inspire his students to “make their lives extraordinary.” It’s important to understand what Keating means by “seize the day,” what kinds of lives Keating wants his students to live, and how Keating’s philosophy of life is different from that celebrated at Welton Academy.

Right away, Keating’s words ring true to his students because they represent an alternative to the ideas they’re used to hearing from their teachers and parents. At the prestigious Welton Academy, the students are indoctrinated to believe in a simple, straightforward model of how to live their lives. Students are expected to work hard, follow the rules, go to good colleges, find lucrative jobs, marry and have children, and eventually raise these children in the same manner that they were raised themselves. Essentially, all Welton boys are supposed to obey the same rules and live more or less the same life, just as their fathers did before them, and their fathers’ fathers before them.

In stark contrast to the cyclical, “one size fits all” philosophy of life that Welton offers its students, Keating’s philosophy of life is grounded in one simple fact: we are all going to die. On the first day of class, Keating tells his students that one day, no matter what kinds of people they become as adults, they’re going to be “food for worms.” In other words, where Welton Academy sees sameness as the basic condition for a good life (that is, obeying the same rules and desiring the same things as everyone else), Keating sees sameness as the basic condition of death—i.e., something to fight against. Therefore, he argues, a good life should resist sameness and blind conformity. Because life is all-too short, students should make the most of their time on the earth. The best way to make the most of life is to be creative and original—to seize the day—and not simply to repeat one’s parents’ and grandparents’ lives. In short, Keating’s goal as an educator is to teach his students to think for themselves (see Education theme): to explore their passions and live accordingly.

The tragedy of Dead Poets Society is that some of Keating’s students misinterpret his celebration of life, originality, and the “carpe diem” mindset to mean that a life without creativity and originality is worthless and not worth living. Neil Perry, one of Keating’s most eager disciples, begins a career as an actor, inspired by his teacher’s encouragement to “seize the day.” But when his father, Mr. Perry, finds out that Neil has been neglecting his studies for theater, he forbids Neil from performing, and Neil is so distraught that he kills himself. Neil’s tragic mistake is to twist Keating’s idea, “because we’re going to die, let’s live life to the fullest,” into a far grimmer idea: “because we can’t live life to the fullest, we should die.”

Keating’s “carpe diem” philosophy is, above all, a celebration of life over death. While Neil’s misinterpretation of “carpe diem” leads to his death, Keating inspires many of his other students to lead lives structured around their own unique passions, ignoring the dictums of their parents and other Welton teachers.

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Life, Death, and “Carpe Diem” ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Life, Death, and “Carpe Diem” appears in each Chapter of Dead Poets Society. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Life, Death, and “Carpe Diem” Quotes in Dead Poets Society

Below you will find the important quotes in Dead Poets Society related to the theme of Life, Death, and “Carpe Diem”.
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

He stood silent at the back of the room, then slowly walked to the front. All eyes were riveted on his impassioned face. Keating looked around the room. “What will your verse be?” he asked intently.
The teacher waited a long moment, then softly broke the mood. “Let's open our texts to page 60 and learn about Wordsworth's notion of romanticism.”

Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the chapter, John Keating comes to his central point: the purpose of the students’ lives is to “contribute a verse” to the grand poem of life—in other words, to making a lasting, meaningful, and, above all, original contribution to the world. While other teachers (to say nothing of the students’ parents) try to ensure that the students’ contributions are essentially the same (becoming, for example, doctors and lawyers), Keating doesn’t try to tell his students what to do at all; all he asks is that his students choose their path in life freely, rather than simply doing what their parents order them to do.

The passage is a good example of some of the contradictions in Keating’s role as a teacher (some of which the book explores, some of which it doesn’t). Keating is a charismatic professor, but by and large, his most memorable actions are either 1) not directly related to literature at all (standing on a desk, for example) or 2) reactions to how other people interpret literature (as in the previous quote). How, exactly, would somebody like Keating go about actually teaching poetry—how would he talk about specific lines of poetry, and what level of academic rigor would he bring to these analyses? It’s very telling that the chapter ends at the exact instant when Keating is about to start lecturing about a specific poet, Wordsworth—we’re left to imagine what form the lesson will take. Critics of Dead Poets Society, both the book and the movie, have argued that Keating isn’t really teaching his students to love poetry at all—he’s just teaching them to love him.

Chapter 6 Quotes

“Ah,” McAllister laughed, “free thinkers at seventeen!”
“I hardly pegged you as a cynic,” Keating said, sipping a cup of tea.
“Not a cynic, my boy,” McAllister said knowingly. “A realist! Show me the heart unfettered by foolish dreams, and I'll show you a happy man!”

Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the only passages in the novel when two teachers stop and chat about teaching. George McAllister, the strict Latin teacher, has witnessed one of Keating’s lessons, and he’s bemusedly skeptical of Keating’s wild, free approach to teaching. When Keating claims that his goal is to get his students to think for themselves, McAllister scoffs: the goal of a teacher of teenagers should be to impart information, not to inspire impulsiveness.

The passage establishes the basic tension between Keating’s teaching methods and those used by most of the other teachers. Welton Academy is designed to prepare students for “success” in life, albeit a narrowly defined version of success that includes, basically, going to an Ivy League school, becoming a doctor or lawyer, and, eventually becoming a Welton alumni donor. While McAllister sincerely believes that he’s doing his students a favor by forcing them to be realistic and grounded, Keating seems to think that training students in this way just makes them soulless and fundamentally unhappy. Instead, he opts for a riskier but perhaps ultimately more fulfilling strategy: teaching his students how to discover their own values and passions—in short, their own versions of “success.” Keating believes that this strategy—dismissed by McAllister as “foolish dreams”—is the surest way to lead young minds to happiness.

Chapter 7 Quotes

The point is that for the first time in my whole life I know what I want, and for the first time I'm gonna do it whether my father wants me to or not! Carpe diem, Todd!

Page Number: 63-64
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Neil thinks he’s stumbled upon his passion: acting. Although his father, Mr. Perry, wants him to become a doctor, Neil wants to be an actor. Thus, he’s signed up for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Neil has clearly been inspired by John Keating’s lectures: just as his teacher urged him to do, Neil has tried to find his true passion in life and “seize it” as soon as he can.

It’s definitely worth noting that Neil thinks he’s discovered his “passion” before he actually performs on a stage, making us wonder whether Neil can really know that he wants to act for the rest of his life. Considering how much pent-up resentment Neil has for his father, it seems entirely possible that Keating has just supplied the sparks necessary to prompt Neil to rebel in whatever way feels most meaningful to him.

Chapter 8 Quotes

“I feel like I've never been alive,” Charlie said sadly, as he watched Neil go. “For years, I've been risking nothing. I have no idea what I am or what I want to do. Neil knows he wants to act. Knox knows he wants Chris.”

Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Dead Poets—a group of impressionable Welton students who’ve been inspired by John Keating to read poetry together in secret—talk about their problems in life. The passage is highly illuminating, for a few different reasons.

Charlie Dalton, the wealthy, repressed student who’s speaking here, notes that he’s never felt alive because he’s never risked anything. Charlie’s observations could apply to any number of other Welton students. At Welton, the students are trained for the same kind of success: a good education, a respectable job, a nice family, etc. This kind of success can certainly be rewarding, but it’s not much of a risk—on the contrary, it’s “tried and true” (Welton has been churning out Ivy Leaguers for 100 years, after all). Because the “Welton model” is so predictable and traditional, it leaves many unsatisfied. Charlie wants to find his own path in life—a path that risks failure and humiliation, but which may ultimately lead to greater happiness.

The passage also alludes to two other students’ passions, as if these passions are the “answers” to those two students’ problems: Knox Overstreet thinks that because he loves Chris Noel, he has a reason to live; Neil Perry thinks that acting is his reason for living (before he’s ever appeared in a play). It’s never entirely clear if the book takes Neil and Knox’s beliefs at face value, or if it questions them a little (Knox and Neil’s “reasons for living” seem a little shallow, particularly since neither one of them knows much about what they’re striving for). So even if Keating is right to inspire his students to strive for their dreams, perhaps one danger of his “carpe diem” philosophy is that it encourages his repressed, unsatisfied students to gravitate to the first halfway-rebellious pursuit they encounter. In short, the Dead Poets might be more interested in rebellion than in their passions.

Todd stood still for a long time. Keating walked to his side. “There is magic, Mr. Anderson. Don't you forget this.”
Neil started applauding. Others joined in. Todd took a deep breath and for the first time he smiled with an air of confidence.

Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, we see Keating at his most inspiring. He’s asked his students to compose a poem—when it’s Todd’s turn to read his poem, he admits that he didn’t write one. He’s so shy and insecure that he believes anything he writes will be bad. So Keating pushes Todd to improvise a poem. To everyone’s surprise, including Todd himself, Todd composes a brilliant poem about Walt Whitman. After he’s finished, Todd smiles confidently—he’s discovered that he’s brighter and more talented than he thought.

Keating’s methods are interesting because, unlike most of the other teachers at Welton, he isn’t forcing Todd to learn any specific lessons—there’s no information that Keating expects Todd to recite back to him. Instead, Keating is trying to get Todd to access his own innate talent—the talent that Todd already has within himself, but that his parents and other teachers have suppressed. In all, Keating doesn’t think of himself as passing on knowledge to his students, but he does think of himself as a teacher. A teacher’s job, as he sees it, is to help students harness their own creativity and talent—and in this scene, Keating succeeds in doing so.

Chapter 9 Quotes

I'd like to announce that I've published an article in the school paper, in the name of the Dead Poets Society, demanding girls be admitted to Welton, so we can all stop beating off.

Page Number: 94-95
Explanation and Analysis:

In this (somewhat unpleasant) passage, Charlie Dalton tells the Dead Poets that he’s taken matters into his own hands, publishing an article in the school paper in which he (in the name of the Dead Poets) argues that women should be admitted to Welton Academy. Charlie’s position isn’t unreasonable at all—indeed, it fits with the novel’s historical period, since in the late 50s and especially the 1960s, many of the basic institutions of American life, not just schools, were beginning to admit women for the first time. Nevertheless, the terms of Charlie’s argument seem immature and offensive—the way he puts it, women should be admitted to Welton for male students’ sexual pleasure, not because women deserve good educations (if there’s anything more to Charlie’s argument, we’re not informed of it).

As with other quotes from Dead Poets Society, it’s not entirely unclear to what degree the novel sympathizes with Charlie’s behavior—whether he’s heroically seizing the day or just being an immature teenaged boy. Rebellion is important, but perhaps Charlie is too blindly enthusiastic in his rebellion, and too willing to sacrifice respect and maturity for rebellion’s sake. Keating says that responsible adults need to learn how to balance freedom and responsibility, and here, Charlie seems to upset that balance.

Chapter 10 Quotes

Suddenly, he turned toward Chris again. He melted as his emotions took over. “Carpe breastum,” he said to himself, closing his eyes. “Seize the breast!”

Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Knox Overstreet is attending a party at the Danburry house. He gets very drunk and winds up sitting on the couch next to Chris Noel, his crush, and Chet Danburry, Chris’s boyfriend. As he sits on the couch, Knox tries to pluck up the courage to “express” his love to Chris. But he does so in the most vulgar, offensive way—grabbing Chris’s breast while she’s kissing Chet.

Chapter 10 is full of examples of Keating’s students “crossing the line”—becoming so enamored with the idea of rebellion that they sacrifice their maturity and dignity, and make fools of themselves. Knox barely knows Chris (he’s met her once before) and seemingly has no real romantic experience with women at all. Here, he perverts Keating’s lessons into the horrible idea that he should be able to “seize” whatever, and whoever, he wants.

While the novel clearly doesn’t support Knox’s actions, it arguably presents these actions as amusing “gaffs,” not the offensive, objectifying behaviors they are (the fact that Chris eventually begins dating the drunk teenager who groped her at a party is especially disturbing).

Chapter 11 Quotes

"Yes, and acting!” Neil bubbled. “It's got to be one of the most wonderful things in the world. Most people, if they’re lucky, live about half an unexciting life. If I could get the parts, I could live dozens of great lives!”

Page Number: 116-117
Explanation and Analysis:

As Neil spends more and more time rehearsing for his part in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his passion for acting deepens. Neil’s reasons for loving acting are very interesting—by performing, he argues, one can live many different lives simultaneously; one can impersonate different people and “sample” their lives without committing to any one of them. Neil’s remarks seem indicative of the passion Keating has been trying to pass on to him and the other students: more than anything else, Neil loves acting because it allows him to enjoy life to the fullest—arguably the most basic lesson Keating tries to teach.

It’s worth wondering why, if Neil is only discovering his true passion for acting now, what motivated him to sign up for the play in the first place. A likely answer would be that Neil had always wanted to act, but also wanted a way of rebelling against his strict, tyrannical father. Neil’s acting career began as an instance of rebellion, but it has now evolved into a sincere love for the craft of acting—a passion that Neil feels gives his life meaning.

“What is wrong with old habits, Mr. Overstreet?”
“They perpetuate mechanical living, sir,” Knox maintained. “They limit your mind.”

Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is perhaps the most concise example of how Keating’s lessons can be misinterpreted to the harm of the student body. Knox Overstreet has taken to eating his dinner with his non-dominant hand; when pressed to explain himself, he insists that he’s eating with his left hand because habits are limiting and mechanical.

It’s certainly possible to praise Knox for his original thinking—one could argue that he’s trying to “shake things up” and inspire himself to see the world in new, exciting ways. But the way Knox explains himself to Dr. Hager in this passage suggests that he takes a somewhat immature pleasure in contradicting his superiors. Knox, along with some of his classmates, seem to be gravitating toward the idea that originality and rebellion are inherently good (when in fact, there are good, solid reasons why people eat with their dominant hands!). Keating’s point was never that students should be “against it, whatever it is,” Groucho Marx style—on the contrary, students should weigh both old and new, tradition and rebellion, and decide for themselves what to do. In a way, rebelling against all traditions is just as blind and narrow-minded as dogmatically accepting all traditions.

“Talk to him, Neil,” Keating urged.
“Isn't there an easier way?” Neil begged.
“Not if you're going to stay true to yourself.”

Page Number: 124
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Neil Perry goes to Keating for advice. Mr. Perry has discovered that his son is going to perform in a play—something he doesn’t approve of. He forbids Neil from performing, even though opening night is tomorrow. Neil is furious with his father, and asks Keating for help thinking through the situation. Keating’s advice is for Neil to try to communicate some of his passion to his father—he’s sure that if Neil can make his father see what acting means to him, his father will give in and allow Neil to perform (particularly because Neil’s grades haven’t suffered because of the play). In the end, though, Neil doesn’t talk to his father, and instead just performs in the play against his father’s wishes—a rash decision that tragically leads to his suicide.

Keating encourages his students—not just Neil—to be bold and original, but ultimately he also wants them to be happy and to get along with others (especially their families). The reason Keating encourages Neil to talk to his father is that Keating wants Neil to be honest about his passions, instead of hiding them from his family forever.

Chapter 14 Quotes

“Damn it, even if the bastard didn't pull the trigger, he …” Todd’s sobs drowned his words until, finally, he controlled himself. “Even if Mr. Perry didn't shoot him,” Todd said calmly, “he killed him. They have to know that!”

Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Todd has just discovered that his friend and roommate, Neil Perry, shot himself with his father’s revolver. Todd is distraught at the news, and not just because his friend is now dead. Todd is so upset that he immediately begins to blame Mr. Perry for the accident. Todd doesn’t know all the details of the matter, but he does know that Neil quarreled with his father about his love of acting—a love that Mr. Perry was unwilling to accept. He’s sure that Mr. Perry’s refusal to accept his son’s choice of a profession was what drove Neil to suicide.

Todd’s reaction to Neil’s death is notable because he’s so desperate to blame someone for the accident. In this way, his reaction foreshadows the final chapter of the novel, in which the Welton administration will, sure enough, blame someone else for the suicide—Keating. Even if blaming Mr. Perry isn’t an entirely fair reaction to the suicide (it’s not like Todd has all the information, though he’s making a very serious accusation indeed), it gets at the heart of what was the matter with Neil. Neil was a sad, repressed young man—highly intelligent, desperate to be independent, but still very much under the control of his family. Keating inspired Neil to find an avenue for expressing himself—performance—and then Mr. Perry took away that avenue. In essence, Keating made Neil happier than he’d ever been, and then Mr. Perry made Neil more miserable than he’d ever been.

“Cameron's a fink! He's in Nolan's office right now, finking!”
“About what?” Pitts asked.
“The club, Pitts. Think about it.” Pitts and the others looked bewildered. “They need a scapegoat,” Charlie said. “Schools go under because of things like this.”

Page Number: 154
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel comes to a close, the Welton administration begins to investigate the matter of Neil’s suicide. Headmaster Nolan is eager to make Keating the “fall guy” for Neil’s suicide, for a number of reasons: Keating is a new teacher, meaning that it’s easier to fire him; there’s evidence suggesting that Keating inspired his students to act out and be independent, meaning that blaming him for Neil’s suicide is halfway credible (though ultimately untrue); and finally, Mr. Perry already despises Keating.

Notice that Nolan is willing to place the blame on Keating for many different reasons—but not because doing so is the “right” thing to do. For all Nolan’s talk of the importance of values and grand traditions at Welton, he’s motivated by a far simpler and crasser motive: keeping the money flowing. As Charlie points out, Nolan wants to keep Welton from “going under”—he wants to ensure that parents keep sending their children to his school (and paying full tuition!). So ultimately, the passage shows the celebration of “tradition” at Welton for what it truly is: a smokescreen for the constant process of tuition payment and alumni donation that keeps those supposedly noble but ultimately meaningless traditions from “going under.”

Chapter 15 Quotes

It is Mr. Keating's blatant abuse of his position as a teacher that led directly to Neil Perry's death.

Page Number: 160
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Headmaster Nolan tries to get Todd Anderson to sign a document stating that John Keating is responsible for the death of Neil Perry. According to the document, it was Keating’s unconventional teaching style that drove Neil to be reckless and disobedient to his family—therefore, Keating “killed” Neil.

Morally, Nolan’s document is a sham. In no sense could Keating be considered responsible for a student’s suicide. He inspired Neil and his other students, giving them tremendous happiness, and a sense of independence they’d never felt before. Keating also encouraged Neil to communicate openly with his father—and if Neil had only followed Keating’s advice and talked to his father about his love of acting, it’s suggested, he wouldn’t have been driven to suicide.

Instead of conclusively proving that Keating is to blame for Neil’s death, the document reflects the guilty conscience of the entire Welton administration. Welton produces repressed, tightly wound students who seem successful but are secretly miserable. Nolan doesn’t have the honesty to admit the truth about his own school; in his view, any teacher who tries to lead his students away from Welton’s rules and traditions must by definition be a bad teacher. It’s likely that Nolan doesn’t believe in his own document—he’s just trying to avoid a full-scale scandal by scapegoating Keating, the most unique teacher at Welton, and therefore the easiest target.

As Nolan started down the aisle toward him, Knox, on the other side of the room, called out Mr. Keating's name and stood up on his desk too. Nolan turned toward Knox. Meeks mustered up his courage and stood up on his desk. Pitts did the same. One by one, and then in groups, others in the class followed their lead, standing on their desks in silent salute to Mr. Keating.

Related Symbols: Standing on the Desk
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final scene of the novel, Keating’s former students—now being taught by Headmaster Nolan—see Keating one final time. Keating has come back to his classroom to collect his personal things, and sees his students in the middle of a long, dull lesson—exactly the kind of lesson he tried to avoid. Then, one by one, Keating’s former students stand on their desk in a show of loyalty and solidarity with Keating.

The scene shows the novel coming full circle from Keating’s first appearance in the book. Keating began his school year by standing on his desk in order to inspire his students to think differently. Now, it is Keating who stands on the ground and his students who stand on their desks. The message is clear: despite being fired, Keating has successfully inspired his students to be free thinkers.

The passage is also interesting to think about in the context of the 1960s (the novel begins in 1959, and the final scene of the book takes place at the first months of the 1960s). The 1960s are still regarded as an era of radical social changes that challenged much of the racism, sexism, and corruption of American society. Some of the most notable events of the 1960s involved young students practicing civil disobedience—i.e., refusing to comply with rules they considered unjust—in order to protest society’s corruption. Students were instrumental in protesting the Vietnam War, fighting for civil rights for African Americans, and lobbying for gender equality. So it’s not a coincidence that the novel ends with a group of young, free-thinking students refusing to obey their headmaster at the dawn of the 60s: Keating has inspired them to stand up for what they know to be right, and they’ll perhaps continue to do so for years to come.