Individualism in Dead Poet’s Society
by Feross Aboukhadijeh, 11th grade
The movie Dead Poet’s Society explores the concept of individualism in great depth. The numerous conflicts that the characters face throughout the movie demonstrate the fundamental principles of existentialism and transcendentalism. Neil Perry’s suicide, for instance, illustrates the disturbing existential consequences that can transpire when an individual’s authority is allowed to prevail against tradition. On the other hand, however, the triumph of the individual spirit may sometimes have a positive outcome—as in the case of Knox Overstreet, an example of transcendentalism. When Knox becomes obsessed with a certain girl named “Chris”—without actually meeting her—he ends up risking his life to win her heart. In both cases, characters assume individual authority for their choices and stop obeying traditional authority figures; they embark on a trip of self-discovery and individual growth that will have a lasting impact on their futures.
One obvious example of existentialism is Neil Perry’s unfortunate suicide. When Neil Perry decides to pursue a career in the performing arts, rather than in medicine, his father, Mr. Perry, is furious. Unmoved by Neil’s extraordinary performance in the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mr. Perry continues to insist on controlling his son’s life and dictating his every move. But Mr. Perry’s efforts were in vain; Neil had already experienced freedom—a privilege not easily relinquished. Neil eventually stands up to his father, but is unable to communicate his opinions to the increasing tyrannical traditionalist figure that his father has become. Rather than continuing to live a dreary half-life, Neil decides that the only way to gain control is by taking his own life. Though he lost everything in the process, suicide was the only way for Neil to stand up to his father and live life to the fullest (ala “Carpe Diem”). Through the act of suicide, Neil is taking control of his life decisions—and must, as a result, accept the consequences. Neil’s clearly existential actions were a necessary step in his process of self-discovery and individual growth.
On the complete other side of the spectrum is Knox Overstreet, the poster child of transcendentalism—and romanticism, in general. Knox recognizes the vital importance of individualism when he becomes infatuated with “Chris”—a girl that he has never actually met before. Knox, like Neil, recognizes the importance of individual intuition in guiding him through life and helping him make decisions. Knox decides to risk his life by standing up to Chet, Chris’s boyfriend, in a romantic attempt to win Chris’ heart. His numerous attempts do prove to be somewhat effective; Chris does goes to the play with Knox and even holds his hand. In a sense, Knox has succeeded, he has triumphed, and he has prevailed over the authority figure, Chet.
This event serves as a reminder that authority should always act as a guide—never as an absolute power, as in Neil’s unfortunate situation. The only place where one can find out his true identity—their true character—is within himself.
Throughout the movie, there are several situations in which characters acted individually, deliberately disobeying conventional authority, in order to follow their dreams. In some cases, such conflicts had positive outcomes (transcendentalism); in other cases such outbursts of individualism had deadly consequences for reckless individuals, like Neil (existentialism). In either case, however, the process of self-discovery and free thinking was inevitable; after being granted freedom for the first time, both Neil and Knox were reluctant to surrender their new independence without a fight. Neil and Knox’s fearless nonconformity will forever demonstrate the importance and necessity of self-discovery and individual growth to new generations of teenagers to come.