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Search for Identity in Dead Poets Society

In: Novels

Submitted By shoelien
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A person defines and shapes a personal identity through appreciation of personal history. As a teenager, the search for self is an extremely crucial step in actualization of our unique attributes. Without an identity, a person is merely a shell; it is each person’s unique personality that makes every person different from the other. The film Dead Poets Society clearly traces the search for identity and how every individual has a unique identity. It is easy to see that each character represents a certain quality. Todd's individual traits, especially his newfound confidence, portray Emersonian attributes. Charlie's fearless character who leads the group represents Thoreau's qualities. However, Neil is a meld of both qualities through his desires to please himself and not conform to his father's ideals.
Todd, the initially reclusive member of the group, shows Emersonian ideals in that he eventually breaks out of the shell conforming him, preventing him from fully interacting with his peers; he finally shatters the barrier restricting him from freely being himself by reading his poem to the class, finally expressing the Emersonian ideal of nonconformity: “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist” (Emerson 279). At the beginning of the film, Todd is too shy to be comfortable with the people around him, thus already estranging him from society. However, as he spends more time in Mr. Keating’s class, he learns to open himself up to people and be comfortable with his own personality. Eventually, he reaches the breaking point where he must take a complete step out of his comfort zone (by reading his poem) in order to progress any further. Todd’s continuous demonstration of Emerson’s ideals is apparent in the situation when he refuses to support Neil’s decision to break the rules to be in the pay. Todd openly displays his disapproval, showing that he is not afraid to be a nonconformist and speak his mind, just as Emerson writes: “Else, if you would be a man, speak what you think today in words as hard as cannonballs, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again” (279). Through showing his approval for Neil’s plot, Todd is learning to stand for his ideals and remain steadfast in his beliefs. Todd is not afraid to disagree with anybody, including his closest friend, thus elevating his Emersonian status and establishing true courage. Todd’s last stand in the film also parallels the final way he represents Emerson. Todd resolutely defies Mr. Nolan by standing up on the desk and saluting Mr. Keating. Todd’s action is not just an impulsive movement, it is also symbolic of Todd’s metamorphosis from a shy conformist to a confident individual who strives to meet his own expectations rather than societies’ clearly exemplifying Emerson’s ideal of social disregard: “What I must do is all that concerns me, now what the people think… It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it” (279). Todd’s final instance of defiance is the pinnacle of Emersonian quality. Todd’s Emersonian transcendence visibly contrasts the shelled, isolated personality he bore at the beginning of the film. By standing up to Mr. Nolan Todd shows he has evolved throughout the film, and he actually his emerged from his cocoon of isolationism from society.
Charlie, the fearless leader of the group, clearly demonstrates Thoreauvian qualities throughout the film. From the beginning of the film, Todd establishes himself as the leader of his group. Charlie asserts his fearless leadership by reviving the Dead Poets Society. By doing so, Charlie establishes the belief that he will not let the consequences hinder him from living the way he wants to live. In essence, Charlie lives just as Thoreau writes, by making the most of life: “I wanted to live deep and suck the marrow out of life, to live so sturdily, and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms” (Thoreau 292). Charlie’s bold personality candidly embodies Thoreau’s ideals. His fearlessness and disregard for consequences enable him to live out life as he truly wishes to; it enables him to exhibit a truly Thoreauvian life. Charlie continues to show representation of Thoreau’s attributes when he publishes the articles requesting that girls be allowed to go to school at Dalton. What makes this decision so daring is the fact that Charlie makes it known to the whole school that it was his idea, even going so far as to challenge the headmaster when he is called up. Charlie nearly mirrors Thoreau’s writing in that he does whatever he wills to in order to live the way he desires “[…] that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will met with success unexpected in common hours” (294). Charlie’s blatant defiance of authority expresses his inner drive to do as he wills, regardless of any consequences he may face. This drive is a clear indication that Charlie will go to any length to get what he wants; in this case, he wants to get his point across to the rest of the school. Finally, Charlie Thoreauvianly remains steadfast in that he does not give the headmaster any information about his friends’ secret group, even if it means expulsion or physical punishment. By remaining firm, Charlie does not let the pressure get to him and affect his decisions, perfectly putting Thoreau’s words into action: “If a man does not keep peace with his companions, perhaps its is because he hears a different drummer” (294). Charlie resolutely stands up for his friends even at his own expense. This incident is the scene containing a critical Thoreauvian quality; it is this quality that shows that an individual is not afraid to put himself in jeopardy in order to stand up for a friend, the apex of selflessness. Neil, the ambitious though conflicted teen, both embodies and contradicts Emerson’s philosophies in that he maintains a double personality. In choosing to do the play and go against his dad’s will, Neil is demonstrating the Emersonian attribute of not letting society determine his path in life: “[…] the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness independence of solitude” (Emerson 279). In going behind his father’s back to be in the play, Neil essentially disregards his father’s (a symbol for societies’) opinion. Neil ends up finally living for himself rather than his father and attaining a true sense of self among society. However, this short-lived independence turns into a regression when his father finds out, directly contradicting Emerson’s values. Emerson describes those that live after the world as those who are not truly living in greatness: “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own”(279). In letting his newfound confidence crumble under his father’s oppression, Neil no longer lives to please himself, rather he ends up living to please society. This lapse of Emersonian living actually turns Neil into a complete introvert, dominated by his father’s absolute ruling. Neil’s extreme withdrawal eventually develops into a suicidal madness that causes him to contradict not only Emerson’s, but also Thoreau’s standards for living: “What is called resignation is confirmed desperation” (Thoreau 287). In choosing to kill himself, Neil is showing that he is giving up on life, resigning the idea of living out his dreams. This resignation of hope is a direct confirmation of Neil’s desperation to be free from his father, to experience liberty for one more moment, and to be done with life. As Dead Poets Society depicts, not one individual faces the same problems in the quest for self-validation. The film even depicts the boys as becoming total opposites of each other: Neil withdrawing into the shell that Todd used to hide in, and Todd finally becoming as confident with himself as Neil was when he was acting. This film only touches upon the surface of the search for identity. Throughout the journey of life, every person eventually has an experience that directly or indirectly changes him regardless of whether the person is aware of it or not. These experiences are tailored by fate to be unique to each individual, meaning that everybody is bound to have a different experience. If humans shared all the same experiences, two main questions would have to be asked: are these experiences genuine? Are humans even ‘human’ anymore?

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