A few days after the events of the last chapter, the investigation into Neil’s death is almost complete. One by one, Dr. Hager marches the students into Headmaster Nolan’s office. Meeks comes back from his meeting with Nolan, crying. Outside Nolan’s office, he explains to Todd that Charlie has been expelled. Todd asks what Meeks told Nolan, and Meeks replies, “Nothing they didn’t already know.”
In the end, almost all the students agree to blame Keating for Neil’s death. While the Welton students adore Keating, they value their places at Welton more highly. This would suggest that Keating hasn’t really taught all his students to break free from conformity—or else the rather pessimistic outlook that conformity always wins in the end.
A few minutes later, Dr. Hager comes outside to bring Todd in to meet with Nolan. Inside the office, Todd finds Nolan waiting with Todd’s own parents. Nolan asks Todd, “You do admit to being a part of this Dead Poets Society?” Reluctantly, 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, self-indulgent behavior” and encouraged Neil to disobey his father, resulting in Neil’s death. Nolan explains that, thanks to the students signing the contract, Keating will never teach again.
Headmaster Nolan seems to know that Keating isn’t really morally responsible for Neil’s suicide—to blame anyone for that tragedy would be repugnant. Nevertheless, Nolan knows that he has to fire somebody in order to keep his wealthy donors pleased, so he chooses to fire Keating, the nonconformist. While Keating’s students were reckless at times, it’s simply untrue to say that he inspired them to be self-indulgent—on the contrary, Keating encouraged his students to pursue their passions and remain true to themselves.
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 him suffer the consequences.” Nolan warns Todd that if he doesn’t sign, Keating will still be fired, and Todd will be placed on strict probation for the rest of the year. Todd walks out of the room without saying anything. Alone with Nolan, Mr. Anderson and Mrs. Anderson apologize to Nolan on behalf of their “stubborn” son. Nolan replies, “Nonsense. Boys his age are highly impressionable. We’ll bring him around.”
Todd faces the same moral challenge as the other Welton students: he can either fall in line and go along with Nolan, or he can stand up for the truth: Keating is not to blame for Neil’s suicide. It would be easy for Todd to rationalize going along with his Welton peers and signing the contract, particularly since Keating will be fired either way. But instead, Todd stands up for what he knows to be right—he refuses to sign. His bravery and self-reliance prove that Keating has made a lasting impact at Welton after all: he’s inspired at least one student to be true to himself. (The passage marks a notable difference between the book and the film version—in the film, Todd signs the document.)
The next day, Mr. 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.
The other Welton teachers seem to disagree with Keating for his “radical” methods. The fact that McAllister continues with his old Latin drills might suggest that Keating has done little to change the educational system at Welton—none of the other teachers will follow his example.
Keating sits in his office, packing up his books of poetry. He walks into his old classroom to retrieve the last of his things, only to realize that his students are in the middle of class. The Dead Poets turn nervously and see their former teacher. Headmaster Nolan is teaching the English class.
The symbolism of this image is clear: Keating and his method of teaching students to think for themselves have been kicked out of Welton—in his place, Headmaster Nolan teaches the class, using dull, old-fashioned methods designed to foster blind obedience.
Nolan nods curtly to Keating, then asks his students what authors they’ve been studying all year. Cameron eagerly reports that they’ve done the Romantics—but not, Nolan points out, the realists. Nolan instructs the students to read the introductory essay by Dr. Pritchard (the essay Keating told his students to rip out). Cameron tries to explain that the essay has been ripped out. Nolan, angry, gives Cameron his own copy of the textbook and orders him, “Read!”
Notice that Nolan expected junior students to study the realists (a literary school) rather than the Romantics, perhaps suggesting that Nolan wants practicality rather than passion in his students. The passage is somewhat comic because it alludes to the earlier chapter in which Keating urged his students to rip out the introduction to the textbook—despite Nolan’s best efforts, Keating has made a small but lasting contribution to education at Welton; the textbook is a little lighter.
Keating packs up his things, listening to Cameron read the essay. Suddenly, Todd jumps up and says, “They made everybody sign it!” As Nolan shouts for Todd to sit down, Keating replies, “I believe you, Todd.” Nolan orders Keating to get out of the class immediately. Tearfully, Todd stands on his desk and calls, “O Captain! My Captain!” As Nolan shouts for Todd to step down, most of the other Dead Poets, including Meeks, Knox, and Pitts (but not Cameron), stand on their own desks.
By standing on his desk and addressing Keating as “O! Captain! My Captain!”, Todd demonstrates that Keating has taught him to be a nonconformist and think for himself. Instead of obeying Nolan, the other Dead Poets stand up with Todd, proving that Keating’s impact on his students has been immense: in less than a year, he’s passed along some of his enthusiasm and passion, training his students to love him, but also to be free thinkers on their own.
Keating stares back at his students, overcome with emotion. “Thank you, boys,” he says. He nods, and walks out of the room.
Keating is visibly touched by the boys’ show of solidarity: the students have proven that Keating made their lives extraordinary after all. Keating will never teach another class, but at least he can take pride in the fact that he changed the Dead Poets’ lives.