The first scene of the novel conveys the preeminence of conformity at Welton Academy: Welton’s students dutifully file into the chapel, dressed in the same school blazers and reciting the same “four pillars” of success at Welton (tradition, honor, discipline, excellence). In a way, conformity—the blind emphasis on sameness and repetition—is the real villain of Dead Poets Society. It’s important to understand where conformity comes from and why it has the potential to be so dangerous.
The four pillars of Welton—tradition, honor, discipline, and excellence—are different aspects of the same conformist model of success, a model that by definition can’t work for everyone. Both in school and in life, Welton students are ordered to follow the same rules. Ultimately, the point of following the rules is to achieve “success,” but only in the narrow, material sense of getting good grades, going to a good school, and finding a high-paying job. In this way, the four pillars of Welton are designed to force students to aspire for the same kinds of success—and, essentially, to become the same people.
At times, the novel is sympathetic to the idea of conformity—there are, after all, times when it’s good to follow the rules and pursue the same kinds of success that other people have achieved. Mr. Perry, the father of Neil Perry, a Welton Academy student, seems to genuinely care about his son, even if he expresses his love through the language of conformity and discipline. Mr. Perry, it’s implied, comes from a poor family, and so wants his son to have the best life possible—and as he sees it, this means forcing Neil to do well in school, go to Harvard, and become a prosperous doctor. So one clear advantage of “success” as Welton defines it is that it produces students who can support themselves financially, find challenging, fulfilling work, and raise a family.
Nevertheless, the novel is mostly skeptical of Welton’s model of success, because it forces young people to conform to rules that don’t work for everyone, a state that often produces more misery than happiness. The ultimate goal of studying hard and following the rules, one would think, is that it produces lasting happiness. But, as the novel emphasizes again and again, many of the students of Welton, as well as their parents, are conspicuously unhappy. Students hate their parents for micromanaging their lives and forcing them to study hard. By the same token, the parents of Welton students have become so obsessed with the idea of making their children “successful” that it’s overshadowed their natural affection for their children. (In the novel, not a single parent of a Welton student is portrayed positively.) Ultimately, conformity has no psychological or spiritual “payoff”—it just produces more conformity. The same could be said of Welton’s understanding of success—students are trained to achieve “success for the sake of success,” not for their own happiness.
At the end of the novel, we see the moral bankruptcy of Welton’s celebration of success and conformity. After Neil Perry’s suicide, the Welton headmaster, Gale Nolan, scrambles to find a teacher to blame for the tragedy. In the end, he holds John Keating responsible for Neil’s suicide, and fires him from the school. As the students of Welton recognize right away, Nolan doesn’t really blame Keating for Neil’s death at all—he just wants to avoid a scandal that would jeopardize Welton’s alumni relations, and therefore its status as an elite, “successful” school. This suggests that Welton’s emphasis on “conformity for the sake of conformity” is even more sinister than it appears: Nolan is more concerned with his own professional success than with right and wrong or the welfare of his students. Ultimately, the novel shows that Welton’s overemphasis on conformity produces shallow, morally blind, deeply unhappy people.
Conformity and Success ThemeTracker
Conformity and Success Quotes in Dead Poets Society
Sixteen-year-old Todd Anderson, one of the few students not wearing the school blazer, hesitated as the boys around him rose to their feet. His mother nudged him up. His face was drawn and unhappy, his eyes dark with anger. He watched silently as the boys around him shouted in unison, “Tradition! Honor! Discipline! Excellence!”
The audience rose to a standing ovation as the octogenarian haughtily shunned offers of help from those beside him and made his way to the podium with painstaking slowness. He mumbled a few words that the audience could barely make out, and, with that, the convocation came to an end.
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!
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.”
“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!”
“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.”
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.
“You know what Dad called me when I was growing up? ‘Five ninety-eight.’ That's what all the chemicals in the human body would be worth if you bottled them raw and sold them. He told me that was all I'd ever be worth unless I worked every day to improve myself. Five ninety-eight.”
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.
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.
“There is a place for daring and a place for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.” Keating said.
“But I thought …” Charlie stammered.
“Getting expelled from this school is not an act of wisdom or daring. It's far from perfect but there are still opportunities to be had here.”
“What is wrong with old habits, Mr. Overstreet?”
“They perpetuate mechanical living, sir,” Knox maintained. “They limit your mind.”
“You have opportunities I never dreamed of!” Mr. Perry shouted. “I won't let you squander them.” He stalked out of the room.
“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!”
“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.”
It is Mr. Keating's blatant abuse of his position as a teacher that led directly to Neil Perry's death.
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.