Come on Baby, Light My Candle
The 1950s were a simpler time. Girls wore poodle skirts. Boys sported crew cuts. Civil rights were way behind the times. And schools didn't just allow, but encouraged, their students to play with flammable materials.
Super symbolic flammable materials.
As Headmaster Nolan begins his speech welcoming students to Welton, he instructs the boys to light candles. These candles represent the "light of knowledge" that Welton will spark inside of them.
Candles and light are frequently used as symbols for enlightenment; they bring illumination to dark places.
Here, though, they also represent tradition; each year, more candles are lit to remind students of what they are undertaking: they're attempting to learn and shed light on things they didn't previously understand.
Even the first shot of the film uses the candle to symbolize this undertaking. A group of students huddle in the dark until the light springs into the shot, illuminating their faces. We get the sense that the film will be concerned with capital-K Knowledge.
But that's not all. Ready to get really deep here?
Once we have the first light, the boys light their candles, passing the flame down the pew. The light moves from person to person, just as the sharing of knowledge does. It's as if it symbolizes how they are expected to share this knowledge with each other.
But the best part? The knowledge they share with each other isn't what the school administrators and teachers were hoping for. Instead, the boys feed off each other and find strength in their group as they go through the process of embracing their individual passions and interests.
So in a way, the candle starts to represent the teacher who leads the boys to knowledge: Mr. Keating. He's their mentor and guide, and many of the students, like Todd, are illuminated by his teachings. He, in effect, brings light to the dark places in their minds, using his flame to pass the light of knowledge to their candles.
We told you this was some deep stuff.