Is Mr. Keating the Devil or Angel on their shoulder?
April 13, 2017 at 5:44 pm #1009
Before this week I had seen The Dead Poets Society (1989) in no less (and possibly more) than four times. Through out middle and high school it was a faculty favorite for those days my teachers threw their hands up and said “I think I’ll show a film”. It had always been a favorite of mine. Because who doesn’t love a good story encouraging us to seize the day. Of course, that was before it was pointed out in class just what the film was actually saying. The film encourages rich, white boys to break the rules and embrace their freedom; boys who already have the privilege of sneaking out to share poems about domestic violence and the “barbaric” Congo. Do these boys really need emboldening? Is Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) doing them any favors?
I always thought so. I seemed inspirational to have students rip the pages out of their tedious textbooks and allowing them to feel the poetry se. Of course—I thought—it was the right thing to do to encourage Neil to stand up to his father. I never questioned this, it seemed undeniably good. And besides, Robin Williams couldn’t possibly be the bad guy, right?
But the boys are attending a college preparatory school and Mr. Keating is doing anything but preparing them for their exams. Sure, Dr. J. Evans Pritchard’s fictitious essay “Understanding Poetry” and it’s attempt to quantify the value of a poem might sound dull, but if this is what the boys are supposed to be learning who is Mr. Keating to stop them? By examining Neil’s love of theater as a metaphor for homosexuality (which the homoerotic tension of the film seems to suggest) only makes Mr. Keating’s encouraging Neil to tell his father seem better, nobody should be forced to live their life in the closet. Except, coming out is not always safe and by inspiring Neil to speak to his father about his ‘love of theater’ he contributed to the boy’s eventual death. Also, let’s not forget what came from encouraging Knox to seize the day. I know the film wants me to think that Chris had all the power—that Knox was simply incapable of resisting her feminine wiles. But I’m sorry, kissing an unconscious person is sexual assault, and no, it’s never ok.
So is Mr. Keating the inspirational mentor or the pied piper leading the boys astray? The film seems to think the former. As the viewer, I am clearly supposed to be appalled that the parents and school dare to think Mr. Keating had anything to do with Neil’s death. They are the real villains of the story, Mr. Keating is simply their poor scapegoat so that their reputation my escape untarnished. This clear from the film’s final moments. The boys have grown from his tutelage and they support him. As the boys stand on their desks and solute their English teacher with a final “O’ Captain! My Captain!” I’m supposed to be moved. And I was. Despite all my misgivings about the film and Mr. Keating my eyes still teared up in those final moments.
April 17, 2017 at 11:20 am #1014
- This topic was modified 11 months, 1 week ago by Sami Stern.
Sami, I completely agree with your quandary over what to think of Mr. Keating. When watching the movie on your own, it is easy to look over the underlying aspects of white privilege that permeate the film. When analyzing the movie in class, though, it is easy to notice how Mr. Keating seems to foster a sense of white privilege in the boys. They are encouraged to forgo their studies in pursuit of pleasure, which anyone with lower economic standing would never have the choice to do. It is interesting to me how you point out how Mr. Keating indirectly contributed to Neil’s suicide by opening his eyes to a new view of life that was not previously recognized by him. However, this is difficult for me to condemn mostly due to the contrast of Keating and the rest of the boarding school. While both the boarding school and Keating neglected to realize their innate privilege of their viewpoints, the boarding school encouraged rigid conformity and mandatory success, while Keating encouraged individuality and happiness, which is almost a universal goal of humanity. I think we find ourselves in tears at the end of this movie, despite the recognition of the privileged viewpoint due to this innate, unifying quality of humanity to evade, as Keating quoted in the movie, having to live “lives of quiet desperation” and instead embrace “carpe diem” fully and the character of Mr. Keating allows us to get a glimpse of this.April 17, 2017 at 1:12 pm #1015
Sami, I definitely agree with a lot of the points you made. I have also seen this movie more than once, and when I watched it when I was younger, some of these points you made now I wasn’t able to make sense of. At first, Mr. Keating does seem like the cool teacher: ripping pages out of books, having them kick kickballs as they read lines of poetry, standing on desks etc. But I feel as though these boys took Mr. Keating’s influences, took them too literally, and got themselves in trouble. He must not have intentionally thought the boys would take his advice and get themselves into trouble, but to not realize how influential you can be on young boys is a reckless lack in judgment. Mr. Keating is meant to be a character we love, and that is why I still think you teared up at the end of the film. We are supposed to wish we had a teacher like him, but also ignore his shortcomings.April 17, 2017 at 1:12 pm #1016
Sami, I definitely agree with a lot of the points you made. I have also seen this movie more than once, and when I watched it when I was younger, some of these points you made now I wasn’t able to make sense of. At first, Mr. Keating does seem like the cool teacher: ripping pages out of books, having them kick kickballs as they read lines of poetry, standing on desks etc. But I feel as though these boys took Mr. Keating’s influences, took them too literally, and got themselves in trouble. He must not have intentionally thought the boys would take his advice and get themselves into trouble, but to not realize how influential you can be on young boys is a reckless lack in judgment. Mr. Keating is meant to be a character we love, and that is why I still think you teared up at the end of the film. We are supposed to wish we had a teacher like him, but also ignore his shortcomings.April 17, 2017 at 9:35 pm #1017
I agree with most of what has been said. This was my first time seeing the film, and I really didn’t enjoy it much. I felt it was cliche and just too cheesy for me, with most of what was happening making me roll my eyes as we were watching it. I felt Mr. Keating was trying too hard to be the cool teacher, to the point where everything he did was too unrealistic for me. I think the film would have been more powerful if Mr. Keating had been a more realistic teacher, with less cliche moments. I also like the point mentioned earlier about Mr. Keating feeding into their privilege by telling them to forego traditional educational standards in pursuit of pleasure. That was something I had not thought of while watching the film, and I think is a really interesting and valid point. Had the boys been of lower income families, that is something that would never have been able to happen.
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