Faced with the crushing conformity of boarding school life, John Keating inspires many of his students to rebel against the repressive, sometimes tyrannical culture at Welton Academy. The students’ rebellion takes many different forms, some internal (“freeing their minds” from conformity) and some external (drinking, sneaking off campus, playing pranks, etc.). At the end of the novel, we see an extreme form of rebellion against conformity and repressiveness: Neil Perry’s tragic suicide. In general, the novel draws an important distinction between rebellion for the sake of rebellion and rebellion grounded in sincerity and passion.
In his earliest lessons at Welton, Keating underlines a concept that lies at the core of any fruitful rebellion against conformity: passion. A good life, he argues, is a passionate life, lived according to the individual’s unique talents and interests. Discovering one’s own unique talents, he implies, can take a lifetime—but doing so is inherently worthwhile because it yields true, fulfilling happiness. By the same token, Keating suggests that the lives of many adults are unsatisfying because they lack any true passion: people go through life without feeling love, whether for art, work, or other people. Keating’s lessons suggest that true rebellion must be personal before it becomes external: for example, an adult who gives up an unsatisfying job to pursue his passion is “rebelling” against society, without using violence or interfering with other people’s lives. Put another way, rebellion against the status quo has to be the result of passion, not the other way around.
As Keating’s students learn more and more from him, they’re inspired to rebel against their parents and against the Welton administration. But many of the students also misinterpret Keating’s ideas, celebrating rebellion for its own sake. Keating’s students seem more interested in rebelling against their parents and teachers than in standing up for what they’re truly passionate about. For instance, Charlie Dalton pulls an elaborate prank on Headmaster Nolan, seemingly for no other reason than that he wants to embarrass Nolan in front of the entire student body (Charlie claims to be standing up for women, but his claim is not very convincing—see “Men, Women, and Love” theme.) Keating later reprimands Charlie for his actions, suggesting that pranks and similar kinds of rebellion can be harmful when motivated by childish destructiveness, rather than sincere conviction. In general, many of Keating’s students mistake the thrill of disobedience for genuine passion.
Keating’s lessons in non-conformity and “seizing the day” could be interpreted as inciting rebellion, but ultimately, Keating is really a moderate figure. He wants his students to stand up for what is right, but also get along with their parents and teachers by communicating openly and honestly. Most of all, Keating wants his students to “rebel” against society in a personal, individual way: by altering their thinking, pursuing their sincere passions, and sharing these passions with other people. Keating encourages his students to get along with their teachers and parents: he encourages Charlie to exercise caution at Welton, and urges Neil Perry to talk to his father about his love for acting instead of going behind his father’s back. Though the novel ends in a tragedy of passion (Neil’s suicide, which is based in his love of acting and rebellion against his father), it seems that many of the other students ultimately take Keating’s real lessons to heart, rebelling against Nolan by standing on their desks, but only as a sincere show of solidarity with Keating himself.
Rebellion and Passion ThemeTracker
Rebellion and Passion Quotes in Dead Poets Society
He jumped dramatically onto his desk and turned to face the class. “O Captain! My Captain!” he recited energetically, then looked around the room.
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!
Keating grabbed onto his own throat and screamed horribly. “AHHHHGGGGG!!” he shouted. “Refuse! Garbage! Pus! Rip it out of your books. Go on, rip out the entire page! I want this rubbish in the trash where it belongs!”
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!”
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!
“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.
“God, I can't take it anymore! If I don't have Chris, I'll kill myself!”
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.”
"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!”
“What is wrong with old habits, Mr. Overstreet?”
“They perpetuate mechanical living, sir,” Knox maintained. “They limit your mind.”
“Talk to him, Neil,” Keating urged.
“Isn't there an easier way?” Neil begged.
“Not if you're going to stay true to yourself.”
“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.”
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.