Neil bikes to Henley Hall to rehearse A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He acts, opposite Virginia Danburry (who’s playing Hermia), and the theater director compliments Neil on his confident, delightful performance. The rehearsal goes on for two hours—afterwards, Neil bikes back to Welton, proud of himself.
Neil seems like a natural actor, despite his relatively little theater experience. Much as Keating helped Todd harness his innate literary talent, Keating has inspired Neil to get in touch with his own innate theatrical talent.
When Neil gets back to school, he finds Todd, sitting by himself outside the gates, holding a box. Neil greets Todd, who explains that today is his birthday and his parents have given him a desk set (i.e., pens, ink, a ruler, etc.) as a gift—the exact gift they sent him last year. Todd’s brother’s birthday, Todd explains, is always much more important than Todd’s—his parents favor Todd’s brother constantly.
Todd’s family expects a lot from him: because he’s Jeffrey’s younger brother, Todd is expected to be academically successful. But Todd’s parents appear to be so emphatic about Todd’s academics that they neglect to show Todd any love or warmth, even sending him the same dull birthday present two years in a row.
Todd remembers that when he was a kid, his father would call him “five ninety-eight”—the value of all the chemicals in the human body if they were added up and sold. Todd’s father would tell him that he’d only ever be worth $5.98 unless he tried to improve himself. “No wonder Todd is so screwed up,” Neil thinks. Todd concludes that his parents don’t love him.
Todd’s father’s talk of money and chemicals epitomizes the shallow materialism of the adult world as it’s depicted in the novel. Quite literally, Todd’s father measures a person’s worth in dollars and cents—even if the person in question is his own son. He seems to have no love at all for Todd, just a dispassionate awareness of his “worth.”
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 “dangerous element of conformity” in his students’ recent work. He urges his students to walk around the courtyard. As the exercise goes on, everyone begins walking in synchronized rhythms. Meanwhile, Headmaster Nolan and Mr. McAllister watch from their windows, amazed. The point of the exercise, Keating says, is that it’s all-too easy to fall into conformity.
As in his earlier lessons, Keating uses physical exercises to enourage his students to see their environment differently. In doing so, Keating hopes to push his students to think differently as well. Interestingly, the exercise seems to imply that rebellion and disobedience can sometimes degenerate into new forms of conformity—a possibility that the novel raises later on.
Keating urges his students to remember the poet Robert Frost, who wrote, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” People should be original and brave in their thinking, he concludes.
Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” is often interpreted as a poem about the importance of being bold and true to oneself. But, as critics have pointed out, Frost’s poem could also be interpreted as a parable about the dangers of rebelling for the sake of rebellion itself—going off the beaten path just because it’s “hip.” This interpretation of the poem—which neither Keating nor Kleinbaum seems to have in mind—is arguably very appropriate for the novel, since it describes how Keating’s students begin to rebel against Welton simply because rebellion is fun, and not because of their passion or originality.
That night, the Dead Poets meet in the cave (though Knox is going to Chris’s party). Charlie has brought two girls, Tina and Gloria, and carries a case of beer. Nobody has any idea where Charlie met the two girls, but they’re clearly older, maybe even in their twenties, and Gloria is clearly attracted to Charlie. Charlie announces that from now on, he wants to be called “Nuwunda.”
Charlie, the boldest of the Welton juniors, has brought beer and female guests to the meeting. Charlie could be considered the embodiment of Keating’s celebration of freedom and originality, or a good example of how originality can devolve into disobedience for the sake of disobedience.
Meanwhile, Knox bikes to the Danburry house, and finds a wild party in progress. Chris greets him and asks if he brought anyone—she also hints that Virginia Danburry is around. Disappointed, Knox sits down and watches the couples making out.
Chris’s greeting to Knox makes it fairly clear that she’s not interesting in him, at least not romantically—indeed, she seems to want to set Knox up with Virginia.
Back in the cave, Neil, Cameron, and Charlie are outside, gathering logs for a fire. Charlie / Nuwunda explains that he’s just trying to be spontaneous—the two girls are “townies” (i.e., not in school, living in the neighboring town). Cameron whispers that if anyone saw them with girls, they could all be expelled.
This chapter is a good example of the novel’s cinematic quality (it’s a novelization of a film, after all)—the chapter “cuts” back and forth between the party and the Dead Poets meeting. In this section, Cameron becomes increasingly uneasy with Charlie’s volatile behavior, hinting at his future betrayal.
Back at the party, Knox walks around, dejected. Knox sees Virginia Danburry and they smile at each other, embarrassed. A jock offers Knox—whom he mistakes for one his friend’s brothers—a bourbon, which Knox reluctantly drinks, coughing heavily. The jock walks away, and Knox, now a little intoxicated, turns to see Virginia, smiling.
In this comic scene, Knox gets drunk very quickly. It seems possible that Virginia is attracted to Knox, though Knox continues to feel infatuated with Chris and no one else.
Back by the cave, the boys, Gloria, and Tina sit around a fire. They drink whiskey, and each one of them tries to hide the fact that they find the drink disgusting. They talk about how Welton is an all-boys school, and Charlie announces that he’s already penned an article, in the name of the Dead Poets, about how Welton should start accepting female students, so that the boys don’t have to “beat off” as much. Neil is irritated with Charlie for behaving so recklessly and implicating the Dead Poets in his actions, but Charlie insists that there’s no point to the Dead Poets Society unless the members take the lessons they’ve learned and apply them to their own lives.
Charlie brags about being in favor of admitting women to Welton, but his reasons for doing are highly shallow—he claims that there should be girls at Welton for the sexual gratification of the boys. Unfortunately, Charlie’s rationale for admitting women fits with the way he’s treating Gloria and Tina—he seems to think of them as passive, sexual objects, to be “experimented” with as he pleases.
Charlie recites poetry for Gloria—famous poets’ work, which he passes off as his own. Gloria is extremely impressed.
Charlie’s view of women (and poetry) comes across as particularly shallow here—he arguably “cons” the presumably-less-educated Gloria into kissing him by passing off some famous poetry as his own.
Back at the party, Knox, now drunk, thinks jealously of Chris and Chet. He clumsily staggers over a couple making out, and a voice shouts, “Watch where you’re going!”
Knox is now highly intoxicated—losing any inhibitions that might keep him from “seizing the day.”