My question is, should Mr. Keating be viewed as the movie's hero or its villain?
If you need a quick review of the plot, the movie stars Robin Williams as Mr. Keating, an English teacher at a boys' prep school in the 1950's who labors to inspire his students to seize the day, eschewing societal conformity to make their lives extraordinary. In line with this, they organize a club called the Dead Poets Society, whose activities include sneaking out to read poetry together and encouraging each other to "suck the marrow out of life". Personally, I think that "seize the day" would be a tiresome slogan if it didn't reflect such an important truth. The fact is, it's easy to miss out on what we really want because we're too complacent to take a risk or work hard at something.
So Neil, one of the students, decides he wants to be an actor, even though his unyielding father forbids him to do anything that distracts from getting into Harvard so he can get into medical school. Mr. Keating says otherwise: Neil must convince his father to let him pursue his passion for the stage.
Defying his father instead of reasoning with him, Neil performs in the community theatre anyway, after which his father decides to send him to military school. Neil shoots himself that night.
THE MORAL QUESTION
The final act of the movie is the part where blame gets apportioned. The school's headmaster (Mr. Nolan), at the request of Neil's father, conducts a "thorough inquiry" which, not surpisingly, blames Mr. Keating for Neil's death and gets him dismissed from the school. For director Peter Weir, this is a gross injustice, as Mr. Nolan forces Neil's fellow students to sign a statement blaming Mr. Keating. In the film's final scene, several of the students show their gratitude and respect to Mr. Keating though one last defiant, and fairly moving, gesture.
Now, there are four possible culprits for Neil's suicide: Neil himself, Mr. Keating, Neil's father, and Mr. Nolan the headmaster.
The movie addresses each in turn:
- Neil is portrayed not as guilty but rather as heroic, for killing himself lest his passion for life be stifled.
- Mr. Keating cannot be guilty because he is the movie's voice of truth; surely seizing the day must be the right thing to do, so the man who embodies that mantra must be exonerated.
- Neil's father probably comes off as most at fault for the suicide; his treatment of Neil is stifling throughout the movie, and just before the suicide he goes so far as to mock Neil's passion with a deep scorn that is difficult to watch.
- And finally, Mr. Nolan receives some implicit blame as the representative of an establishment that demands conformity and affirms people like Neil's father; mostly though, we hate him for how he treats Mr. Keating after the suicide.
As much as we want Neil to be in the play, I think most grown-ups would agree that it's irresponsible for a teacher to stand aside and let a 17-year-old defy his father like that, especially when Mr. Keating knows Neil tried out for the play largely as a result of his own influence. That doesn't make Mr. Keating the one who shot Neil, but it does make him negligent and irresponsible in using his position as teacher. Neil was a minor, and his father's opinion really did mean more than Mr. Keating's.
So, to return to my question: granting that all four parties bear some guilt, should Mr. Keating be viewed as the hero or the villain of the movie?
More specifically, I'll quote the charges that the two villians of the movie level against him. The first is Cameron, the student who rats out Mr. Keating to the administration. One of the other students asks him who the administration is holding responsible for Neil's death:
Well, Mr. Keating, of course! The "captain" himself! You guys didn't really think he could avoid responsibility, did you? . . . Mr. Keating put us up to all this crap, didn't he? If it wasn't for Mr. Keating, Neil would be cozied up in his room right now, studying his chemistry and dreaming of being called "doctor".The second quote is from Mr. Nolan, describing to one of the boys the contents of the statement he is expected to sign incriminating Mr. Keating:
I have here a detailed description of what occured at your meetings. It describes how your teacher, Mr. Keating, encouraged you boys to organize this club, and he used it as a source of inspiration for reckless and self-indulgent behavior. It describes how Mr. Keating, from both in and out of the classroom, encouraged Neil Perry to follow his obsession with acting, when he knew all along it was against the explicit orders of Neil's parents. It was Mr. Keating's blatant abuse of his position as teacher that led directly to Neil Perry's death.So, even though as moviegoers we hate to admit it, aren't they basically right?