Why Didn’t Poetry Save Neil from Suicide?

Robert Leonard as Neil in Dead Poets Society

Yesterday I wrote about how Dead Poets Society, despite its support for poetry, still doesn’t give poetry enough credit and that Keating is the coin side of J. Evans Pritchard.  Whereas Pritchard wants to graph literary excellence on a Cartesian plane, Keating (at least in the scenes we see, which are all we have to go on) teaches poetry as though it’s just an immersion in sensation. 

Okay, that’s not entirely fair.  He also tries to get the boys to think for themselves and his efforts are rewarded when Todd stands up on his desk at the end of the film.  But we don’t really see him teaching the boys how to reflect upon literature.

Am I quibbling with the movie?  After all, how cinematic would it be to show students trying to understand, let alone interpret, a Shakespeare passage?  It takes work to comprehend old texts.  It’s more fun to watch Robin Williams performing Macbeth with John Wayne gestures and accent. “Is this a dagger I see before me?”

But when, in a movie about literature’s life-changing abilities, our favorite character commits suicide, we have to ask what goes wrong and whether there’s anything more the teacher could have done.  And whether literature can come through at crunch time.  Here’s the situation.

Neil has a father who is so authoritarian, so bent on seeing Neil become a lawyer or a doctor, that he won’t let him do anything that smacks of the humanities.  He won’t let him edit the yearbook and he certainly won’t allow him to act in a play.  Neil does so anyway, landing the role of Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream, at which point his father prepares to withdraw him from the school and enroll him in a military academy.  Neil responds by committing suicide.

Reflecting on Midsummer Night’s Dream might have caused Neil to realize he had other options.

Think about it.  The play has a character, Hermia, whose father, Egeus, is just as tyrannical as Neil’s.  If she doesn’t follow his orders and marry Demetrius, Egeus will have her put to death  (King Theseus gives her a third option: she can also be imprisoned in a convent for the rest of her life.)  So she and Lysander run away.

Running away isn’t the only solution offered by the play.  In response to tyrannical laws, the play offers the anarchy of nature and the imagination.  People that try to impose their will on others discover that life responds in crazy ways.  Oberon orders Puck to bring order to the passions of the lovers and Puck botches it wonderfully.  Neil, who is playing Puck, has before him a vivid image of how authority can be subverted.

And then there is the image of hope that the play provides.  In the play’s comic ending, the rule of law is superseded by the rule of love and conflict gives way to reconciliation.  While Neil can’t see, in his own life, anyone who will overrule his father the way that Theseus overrules Egeus, it is an image that he could hold on to.  The world of the imagination has helped many endure oppressive conditions. 

Instead, the most resourceful and sane student in the film acts like someone who has no resources against tyranny and who melodramatically takes his own life.  Peter Weir presents this to us as a higher vision—Neil is depicted as a combination of Dionysus and Christ—but the death just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

What if, in addition to teaching his students to respond passionately to poetry, Keating had also coached them to be thoughtful about it?  What if, knowing that most boys have major issues with their fathers, he had led a class discussion in which, say, they had talked about Hermia’s situation and her responses?  What if they had talked about the healing power of comedy?

For that matter, what if they had read, say, Antigone, in which Haemon quarrels bitterly with his intransigent father Creon and then commits suicide–and then talked about what it means to be a young man that feels stretched to the max?  It’s not just that, in Creon and Haemon, Neil could see a father softening up towards his son (albeit too late).  It’s that Neil, through literature, would feel less alone in his suffering, would realize there are authors out there who understand him.  They might have answers and, even if they don’t, they have made the world appear a richer and more complex place.  A good reflective discussion about these issues would help Neil see beyond his situation.  It might even lead to a powerful private conversation with his teacher where they would talk about options.  Instead he folds in on himself.

Literature, even when it’s about suicide, is antithetical to the narcissistic tunnel vision of the suicide.  How can a film about the healing power of literature have the character who loves literature the most kill himself?  Do the filmmakers believe what they’re preaching?

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  • Barbara

    Obviously, I don’t know what the filmmakers were thinking, probably that Neil’s death was some kind of “shocking dramatic twist” but I think, Robin, you’re pointing to why children and adolescents can get so caught up in, and benefit so much from, great literature. Young people are immersed in sensation. The cliches of raging hormones and not being “caught up” with growing bodies are often true. And many things are new and overwhelming, so you can be living on sensory overload without knowing that THAT is happening or even what it is and that it will pass. Literature offers both the comfort (it’s happened before, I’m not nuts) and hope (so that’s one way of coping – responding). It offers perspective (high school will, indeed, end) and space for reflection. What if Juliet (or Ophelia) hadn’t killed herself? When I was young, I almost instinctively escaped into books. If I had one, my mantra would have been “When the going gets tough, the confused start reading!” and I think it served me pretty well. Initially, I was very angry with my high school English teachers for, as I experienced it, trying to kill that through over-analysis. I soon decided they were misguided and tuned them out. I especially objected to their seeming unerring ability to find the most depressing tales available and make them more so. My response was to disengage as much as possible (“I’m depressed enough!”) while still getting good grades (to defer probing into why I was depressed). FYI, not clinically depressed; just miserable in a school that was a bad fit.

  • Robin Bates

    I like this reminder of how adolescents are immersed in sensation. They can’t help it, what with major changes going on (all at the same time) in their changing bodies, growing brains, developing cognitive abilities, and new social situations. A good teacher, then, both acknowledges this reality and builds upon it. Romeo and Juliet are two adolescents caught in their own raging hormones, which is why the play gets taught as much as it does in high school. A good discussion about the play, then, is about what they should do at each stage of the play, why the action unfolds as it does, and so forth. How does one deal with a tyrannical father? What does it say about Romeo’s love for Juliet that he was passionately in love with Rosalind the day before? What could Romeo have done other than kill himself when he saw Juliet (as he thought) dead? This will lead to much more fruitful discussion than telling your students that every tragic Shakespeare hero has a fatal flaw. Because this kind of discussion lets students (1) realize that there is a way about talking about their own dramas and (2) they have options in how to respond. And it’s done in a safe way–through literature–rather than asking them directly about their lives. Teenagers often feel alone in their traumas (and they almost always feel that the school is a bad fit). Literature signals to them that there are others who understand them. Literature taught well, that is.

  • I wish I had seen this posting earlier but I just learned about your blog this week! Thanks for a great discussion.

    I teach English — American Literature, mostly — to high schoolers in suburban Philly, and I always include DPS at the end of my unit on Transcendentalism. The suicide is, of course, an enormous topic to prepare them for but also to address (we discuss, among other things, whether Neil, or Keating, or another character, is a tragic hero).

    One of our key conclusions always ends up being something about context, about how the launching of Keating’s views on poetry into a preternaturally conservative environment (the very first banner focused on in the opening procession proclaims “TRADITION”) is bound to precipitate an especially violent reaction. Keating’s efforts to modulate the material — after Charlie receives his corporal punishment, and when Neil comes to him after Mr. Perry demands that he quit the play — come off as naive. His belief in his subject, heartfelt and intense as it is, seems incompatible with pragmatism…all the more notable but also dangerous for it.

    Cameron/”fink” makes a statement about Neil being the victim of Keating that has a second level of ironic truth to it: although the film clearly intends us to see that as ironic (it is) that Keating is being blamed for the boys’ expression of their true selves, what you say about Keating’s teaching (as depicted, arguably unintentionally, in this good but not flawless film) is also true.

    The film is great for its thought-provoking nature, for considering the extremity of youth, for addressing issues in education and literature, and, perhaps most of all, for depicting a variety of perspectives on both conformity and non-conformity.

  • Robin Bates

    I very much value hearing high school English teachers weigh in on this film. They know full well how passionate and idealistic students are at this age. I like the idea of seeing literature as so explosive, something like a loaded gun, that it has to be handled carefully at this age. That makes it something far more vibrant than dull stuff by dead guys.

    In my opinion, Todd is the hero of the film. He proves stronger than Neil, whose sensitivities can’t handle the world. Whereas Todd, despite his pathological shyness, is able to draw on his two mentors, Neil and Keating, and stand up the world—a previously unimaginable act for him.

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