Study Guide

Dead Poets Society Hero's Journey

Hero's Journey

Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.

About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)

Ordinary World

Most of the students at Welton know the drill: this is a place of tradition…and you'd better do your best to follow it. Their ordinary Welton world is one of rules, homework, and trying not to get caught goofing off.

When we meet the members of the DPS, they're either carrying the school banners reading "Tradition, Honor, Discipline, and Excellence" or sitting quietly, listening to Headmaster Nolan speak.

Even new students, like Todd, quickly catch on to the way things work at Welton. The future members of the DPS initiate him, though he already seems pretty comfortable with quietly following tradition. He doesn't join the guys in their quiet shenanigans of bed-jumping and smoking…though they don't get up to too much mischief. While the guys might goof off and puff a cigarette or two in Neil's room, they do so covertly: it's definitely best not to get caught. Their world is one of obedience and secrecy.

But get caught they do: by Neil's father, a man who imposes many rules on his son. He informs Neil that he has to drop out of the school paper and yearbook, and Neil voices his disappointment only briefly before giving in like he always does.

After this busy day, the first day of class proceeds like every other first day of class; we are shown a montage of boring lectures and slowly-ticking clocks. It's all dreary and serious; that's the life the Welton students know.

Call to Adventure

Mr. Keating, the new English teacher in town, causes quite a stir at Welton. During the first class meeting, he admonishes the boys to make the most of life before it's over. He encourages them to break the rules and live authentically, and demonstrates this principle by having them tear out the front pages of their textbook.

This shakes the boys up, to put it lightly. It shakes them up enough to cause them to investigate their new and exciting (if kinda strange) teacher.

And what do they find? His yearbook entry, which mentions a mysterious-sounding "Dead Poets Society." When they find out the details—that this was a society of students who met to read poetry and "suck the marrow out of life"—they begin to feel their calling. It's time to re-form the DPS, says Neil.

Refusal of the Call

Not all the guys agree about re-forming the DPS. Cameron and Meeks aren't too sure that this is entirely a good idea. What if they get caught?

Something like the DPS is definitely against the rules of Welton, rules that the guys know by heart. After all, they've been to Headmaster Nolan's lectures. Starting a secret society would shake things up for all of them and break the status quo. It's no wonder most of the guys balk initially.

It's not only to preserve the status quo that some of the guys balk; Todd refuses to join the DPS for entirely different reasons. He's scared to speak in front of other people, and he knows the DPS relies on poetry readings. It's just too scary for him.

Meeting the Mentor

Mr. Keating continues to emphasize nonconformity and the importance of poetry to his students. He challenges them in every class and does his best to encourage their spirits. This—and Neil's enthusiasm for the DPS—eventually ushers in a new, wilder era at Welton.

And the DPS is even more solidified when Neil finds the unofficial "guidebook" for DPS meetings: the "Five Centuries of Verse." In it is instructions to read the inscription at the start of each DPS meeting. This object of great importance gives Neil the impetus to really put things into motion.

Crossing the Threshold

And with that, the DPS calls its first meeting to order. The boys sneak out of their rooms at night, which is no small endeavor. If they got caught, they'd certainly be in deep doo-doo.

They leave the familiar world of Welton for a snowy, dark forest. It is there, in a cave, that the DPS becomes more than just a dream. They are now members of a highly secret society, one that could get them in big trouble.

Tests, Allies, Enemies

Despite having each other within the secret society, each member of the DPS still faces the challenges involved in balancing their new poetic world with the world of Welton. Neil's involvement in the DPS leads him to try out for the school play, an action strongly opposed by his father, who is (unknowingly) an enemy to everything the DPS stands for.

He finds an ally in Mr. Keating, though. Mr. Keating encourages Neil to talk to his father about his dreams, and to pursue them. Todd also finds an ally in Mr. Keating; Todd's shyness is slowly evaporating under his guidance.

Knox is also inspired by the values of the DPS. He decides to pursue Chris, the girl he's recently fallen in love with, despite the fact that she has a boyfriend.

Despite having a mentor and ally in their teacher, the members of the DPS still face the ultimate opposition: Welton's administration and values, which don't allow for the free expression and wildness that poetry encourages in them. Mr. Keating also faces this foe, as members of the faculty look on disapprovingly at his teaching methods.

Approach to the Inmost Cave

The boys sit, side by side, in their secret cave during each DPS meeting. Sometimes, they read poetry aloud—poetry that makes them feel alive. Sometimes one of them will play an instrument or paint his face. They might share a photo from a nudie magazine or smoke cigarettes. They even sneak in a few girls.

Whatever they do in the cave during their meetings, they do it in order to seize the day fully.

This serves as a great contrast between their daily lives at Welton. Students like Cameron and Meeks would never, under ordinary circumstances, break the rules. Even Neil, who founded the newest incarnation of the DPS, is ordinarily a rule-follower. But in the cave, they all take a break from their ordinary restrictions. They find a secret place to live fully.

Their meetings allow them to foster the true spirit of the DPS within themselves.

Ordeal

Inspired by the urge to live fully, Neil accepts a part in the school play. This infuriates his father, who tells him he'll have to drop out on opening night. (Yeah. Not happening.)

Knox has also been inspired by "carpe diem" and has been pursing Chris with some serious lovesick vigor. It doesn't go so well, though—when he's had a few drinks he gets punched out by Chet Danbury, and Chris is mortified. She doesn't want anything to do with him.

Meanwhile, Charles arrives at a meeting with some news. He's written a letter to the school paper demanding that girls be admitted into Welton, and he's signed it "Dead Poets Society." This causes an uproar, and Headmaster Nolan demands to know who's behind the DPS.

The biggest threat to the DPS is Headmaster Nolan's authority; he could have all the boys expelled. And he is on Mr. Keating's case, too. He still doesn't approve of Mr. Keating's teaching methods, and suspects that they might have something to do with the DPS.

Reward (Seizing the Sword)

Neil performs triumphantly in the school play, despite his father's wishes, as the boys watch. He's finally broken free of his father's influence, it seems, and he's discovered his true talent. In the crowd, Knox has found success with Chris. She's gone to the play with him, and even holds his hand. His wooing has worked.

Todd has also "seized the day" and learned to speak up. He even recites an original poem in front of the entire class, something that would have been unthinkable for him before. The members of the DPS have thwarted the restrictions of Welton and have begun to find their own voices.

The Road Back

As the curtain falls, so does Neil's face. He's seen his father enter the theater, and he suspects that means trouble.

It was one thing to live the values of the DPS in his own life at Welton, but now he has to face the harsh reality of what those values might mean for his home life. Neil has always struggled with standing up to his father, and now he's directly disobeyed his wishes.

The road back home is going to be a bumpy one.

Resurrection

Neil's father sees him in the play and, instead of appreciating the triumphant performance Neil gives, instead tells him he's sending him to military school. This crushing disappointment leads Neil to commit suicide.

Headmaster Nolan blames the DPS and Mr. Keating, and has the boys sign statements blaming him for their secret meetings and rule-breaking. It seems that the DPS will never recover.

Not all the boys sign the statement, however. Charles gets expelled for his refusal to cave in, and Todd speaks out against the unfairness of the situation. For Todd, speaking out in front of his parents and headmaster Nolan is a major triumph.

Return With the Elixir

Even the students who sign the statement retain some of the DPS spirit, though. When Mr. Keating, newly fired, comes to class to collect his things, they stand on their desks and salute him as their "captain." Headmaster Nolan furiously demands that they sit down and becomes enraged when they ignore his commands.

And who leads this rebellion? Todd, who used to be afraid to even speak aloud in front of others. The ability to stand up for himself is one that he'll take with him long past his days at Welton. In him, and the others who are brave enough to stand, the spirit of the DPS lives on.

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