Dead Poets Society

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Men, Women, and Love Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Dead Poets Society, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Men, Women, and Love Theme Icon

Dead Poets Society is set at Welton Academy, an all-boys school. Furthermore, it takes place from 1959 to 1960—an era when the feminist movement was causing big changes in American society. So it’s no surprise that the novel has a lot to say about the relationships between men and women—in particular, between young men and young women.

Almost without exception, the relationships between men and women that Dead Poets Society depicts are romantic in nature. The male students of Welton Academy, especially Knox Overstreet, talk frequently about their desire for women. Because Welton is an all-boys school, women take on a near-mythic status in the students’ eyes: Welton students (at least the ones we’re introduced to in the novel) have so little experience interacting with young women that they think of women as mysterious, sublime, foreign creatures. John Keating’s lessons then appeal to his students’ conceptions of women, without challenging these conceptions in any way. He claims that one of the key uses of poetry is to “woo women,” and even suggests that in college, the women his students will meet will be “delectable” (not intelligent, independent, articulate, etc.). Unsurprisingly, the novel shows Keating’s disciples, especially Charlie Dalton and Knox Overstreet, using poetry to seduce the women to whom they’re most attracted.

The problem with such a view of women and poetry—and, one could argue, a major problem with the novel itself—is that it depicts women as objects whose only purpose is to be “won” by any means necessary: a viewpoint that is arguably quite sexist. Inspired by Keating’s talk of “wooing women,” the Welton students give in to their immature, clumsy desires, disrespecting women in the process. Most offensively, the novel shows Knox Overstreet using Keating’s “carpe diem” ideas to justify groping his crush, Chris, at a party—a scene that’s played for laughs of the “boys will be boys” variety (as Knox gropes Chris, he tells himself, “carpe diem” and “carpe breastum,” a clear example of how Keating’s lessons shape his thinking). Indeed, Knox later succeeds in “wooing” Chris with poetry and literature, and his molestation is hardly condemned. Knox’s fault, the novel strongly implies, isn’t that he takes advantage of a young woman’s body—it’s that he romances the young woman sloppily. In general, the novel seems to agree with the basic premise of Knox, Charlie, and the other Welton students’ view of women: women are passive muses, with limited subjectivity or independence, meant to be seduced (or at times, conned) into love. As another example, Charlie Dalton pens an op-ed about how women should be admitted to Welton—seemingly an assertion based in a desire for gender equality—but instead he simply argues that women are necessary for male students’ sexual gratification.

The overt sexism of the Welton students is more than just a moral problem for the book—it arguably represents a problem with Keating’s teaching methods, as the novel glorifies them. Keating wants his students to “seize the day,” and thinks his job is to teach them how to think for themselves and trust their own innate genius. But of course, the problem with telling a group of sexually frustrated teenage boys (all of whom, it’s assumed, are heterosexual and just trying to act like “real men”) to “trust in themselves” is that they might treat women disrespectfully.

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Men, Women, and Love ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Men, Women, and Love appears in each Chapter of Dead Poets Society. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Men, Women, and Love Quotes in Dead Poets Society

Below you will find the important quotes in Dead Poets Society related to the theme of Men, Women, and Love.
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.

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“God, I can't take it anymore! If I don't have Chris, I'll kill myself!”

Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Knox, another Welton student, dramatically acknowledges the depths of his love for Chris Noel, the beautiful young woman whom he’s met only once before. Knox claims that if he doesn’t “have” Chris, he’ll kill himself. This quote contains the first mention of suicide—albeit only half-serious—in the book. Knox isn’t genuinely suicidal; he’s just using hyperbolic language to describe his feelings. But his words foreshadow Neil Perry’s suicide later in the novel. And perhaps there’s a serious point here: the boys’ passions (whether for Chris Noel or for acting) cause them a lot of misery, because they seem so difficult to achieve, even if those passions are ultimately worth striving for.

Knox’s word choice also seems important: Knox speaks of “having Chris,” perhaps betraying the not-too-subtle sexism of his desires. Knox barely knows Chris, and he certainly doesn’t understand her personality. Transfixed by her beauty, he thinks he’s entitled to “have” her—suggesting that he thinks of her as a prize to be won, not a three-dimensional human being. Knox’s words don’t make him sound like a mature, passionate adult who knows what to strive for in life; they make him sound like an immature, repressed teenager who thinks he’s found his purpose in life because he’s never tried to find his own purpose before.

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).

Charlie held the receiver out to Nolan. “It's God. He said we should have girls at Welton,” Charlie said into the phone as a blast of laughter from the students filled the old stone chapel.

Page Number: 105-106
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Chris Dalton practices something like “civil disobedience” in the middle of a meeting in the Welton chapel. Gale Nolan, the headmaster, has gathered all Welton students there to investigate the source of the newspaper article arguing for admitting women to Welton. Charlie tops his earlier prank with an even bigger prank, claiming that “God” wants to admit women, too.

Charlie’s prank is designed to disrespect as many Welton fixtures as possible—organized religion, all-boys admission, and even Headmaster Nolan himself. His actions seem admirable to the extent that they’re motivated by the sincere desire to admit women to Welton, though based on earlier quotations, it seems likely that Charlie wants women to attend his school for the worst possible reasons. Furthermore, we see Charlie “seizing the day” not because of a sincere conviction or personal passion, but just to be rebellious and show off in front of his peers.