Dead Poets Society | Study Guide

Nancy H. Kleinbaum

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Dead Poets Society | Plot Summary

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Summary

School Begins at Welton Prep

Students and families arrive for the opening ceremony at the start of classes at Welton Academy, a private boys' preparatory school in Vermont. The year is 1959, and the school is marking its 100th anniversary. Headmaster Dean Nolan proudly calls Welton the best preparatory school in the country. The students stand and hear the "four pillars"—tradition, honor, discipline, and excellence—recited. He introduces the new English teacher, John Keating, who is a former honors student at Welton. Afterward, the parents say goodbye to their sons. New student Todd Anderson, ignored by his parents, is told by the headmaster that he has "big shoes to fill." Todd meets his roommate, Neil Perry.

A small group of Neil's friends congregates in Neil and Todd's room. Neil, Steven Meeks, Charlie Dalton, Knox Overstreet, and Richard Cameron will form a study group and help each other with work. Neil urges Todd to join their group. Neil's unsmiling father, Mr. Perry, enters, breaking the happy mood. He begins lecturing Neil about concentrating even more on his science studies and not doing any of his own writing for pleasure. Neil tries to reason with him, but Mr. Perry takes him into the hall and browbeats him into agreeing.

Mr. Keating as Teacher and Influence

On the first day of classes the teachers load the students with heavy assignments and textbooks. However, John Keating gives a different impression. Playful, he stands on a desk and tells them that they may refer to him as "O' Captain! My Captain!" He then asks the boys to follow him into the Honor Room. He shows them photos of past alumni, all deceased, that line the walls of the room. He tells the boys that will be their fate too and urges them to make the most of all their time now. He emphasizes the philosophy of "Carpe Diem" from the Latin poet Horace: to seize the day and make their lives extraordinary before they become "food for worms."

Later that evening, Knox Overstreet goes to dinner at the Danburrys' home; they are friends with his parents. There he meets Chris Noel, forming an instant crush on her.

In class the next day, Keating tells the students to rip out the introductory pages of their old-fashioned poetry textbook because the editor writes "garbage" about literature. He says the book reduces the beauty of the poems to useless formulas and kills all joy in the words.

Neil Perry finds out that Keating founded a club called Dead Poets Society when he went to Welton. That night the boys rekindle the Dead Poets Society, sneaking away from campus and meeting in a cave to read poetry. The next morning they are yawning in class. Keating stands on the desk to have a different view and encourages them all to be outspoken.

The Legacy of Mr. Keating

Neil feels free enough to fulfill his dream and wants to act in a Shakespearean play, but his father has forbidden it as a waste of time. Todd gains enough confidence to recite a poem he has written. The boys continue to meet in the cave. Charlie brings two local girls to a meeting at the cave. Knox tries to get Chris away from her boyfriend, and the boyfriend beats Knox up at a party. Eventually, he will win her over with a poem. Neil performs in the play and reveals real talent, but his father is furious and disciplines him at home. Mr. Perry tells Neil that he will make him leave Welton altogether.

The headmaster suspects Keating of being a bad influence on the boys. After Neil shoots himself out of despair using his father's gun, Dean Nolan interrogates the boys and has them sign a paper implicating Keating in Neil's death. Cameron has given details about Keating and the Dead Poets Society to Dean Nolan, so he fires the teacher. Only Charlie Dalton will not cooperate and is expelled. Dean Nolan himself takes over the English class and returns to using the textbook Keating hated. Keating comes to take his belongings, but the boys, led by Todd, leap up onto their desks to show their support for him and their defiance of the school's rules. Keating thanks them sincerely and leaves.

Dead Poets Society Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction

Introduction

1 Students arrive at school.

Rising Action

2 Todd and Neil meet as roommates.

3 Todd's father lectures him on working hard.

4 Mr. Keating tells them about living for the moment.

5 Neil leads his friends to revive the Dead Poets Society.

6 Neil decides to act in a Shakespearean play.

7 Mr. Perry forces Neil to leave right after the play.

8 Mr. Perry tells Neil he will leave Welton as punishment.

Climax

9 Neil commits suicide with his father's gun.

Falling Action

10 Dean Nolan interrogates all the boys about Keating.

11 Cameron informs on them to Nolan.

Resolution

12 The boys stand on their desks to salute their teacher.

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