Aww, Neil. The fate of this guy is so tragic that only a little Shakespeare can do it justice:
Lord, what fools these mortals be!
That lil' monologue comes courtesy of Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream—who, incidentally, is the character that Neil plays so totally masterfully in his school play.
And by throwing a little Puck at you, we're not suggesting that Neil is the foolish one (although he proves himself to be all too mortal, sadly). We're suggesting that a bunch of the powers-that-be around him are being foolish.
But let's begin at the beginning.
When we first meet Neil, Headmaster Nolan's reminding him just how high his hopes are for Neil's future…and Neil's father is promising that Neil won't let Welton down.
Gulp. That's a lot of pressure.
And it's no coincidence that we meet both Neil and Todd while they are standing with their parents in front of Headmaster Nolan. Both characters—who become fast friends—are products of familial and academic pressure. But what they do with these pressures couldn't be more different.
Just take a look at how Neil changes in the presence of his parents. Neil is a stellar student and he's all-around popular; immediately after entering his room, all the guys stop by just to see him and chat. He's surrounded by energy and laughter wherever he goes.
At least, when his father isn't around. Mr. Perry's presence turns Neil from a dynamic, carefree young man into a quiet, obedient and often listless student. When his father informs him that it's time to give up the yearbook and other extracurriculars in order to focus on his studies, Neil only briefly puts up a fight.
What's the point, he figures. It's clear that he listens to whatever his father thinks is best. But why?
When questioned by the guys, he explains:
KNOX: Why don't you just tell him off? It couldn't get any worse.
NEIL: Oh, that's rich. Like you guys tell your parents off, "Mr. Future Lawyer" and "Mr. Future Banker"?
CHARLES: Okay, so I don't like it any more than you do.
NEIL: Just don't tell me how to talk to my father. You guys are the same way.
KNOX: All right, all right. Jesus. So what are you going to do?
NEIL: What I have to do. Drop the annual.
Seems like Neil feels pretty miserable about his whole situation. But not enough to speak up.
When he talks to Mr. Keating, he explains why it's so hard for him to stand up to his father:
NEIL: I just talked to my father. He's making me quit the play at Henley Hall. Acting's everything to me. But he doesn't know! I can see his point; we're not a rich family, like Charlie's. But he's planning the rest of my life for me and he's never asked me what I want.
MR. KEATING: Have you ever told your father what you just told me? About your passion for acting? You ever show him that?
NEIL: I can't.
MR. KEATING: Why not?
NEIL: I can't talk to him this way.
He wants to talk to his father…but he just doesn't know how.
The Sometime Leader
Despite his tendency to defer to his father's wishes, Neil's the first to address Mr. Keating as "Captain." He's also the first to express his enjoyment at the class and with Mr. Keating's style. He gleefully rips the introduction from his textbook and encourages Cameron and the other students to follow suit.
Because Neil loves a chance to take the lead.
Neil also founds the Dead Poets Society after seeing Mr. Keating's page in the yearbook. He leads the meetings with the quote:
NEIL: (quoting the inscription) "I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."
The quote, from Thoreau's Walden, is all about living fully. And that's just what Neil wants to do.
That—and act. Neil gets the lead part in the play, and he does so despite knowing that this father would forbid it. Why does he begin to disobey his father? Because Mr. Keating's emphasis on forging one's own path has given him confidence.
NEIL: For the first time in my whole life, I know what I want to do…and for the first time, I'm going to do it! Whether my father wants me to or not. Carpe diem!
Despite a triumphant performance, Neil can't sustain this confidence in his own dreams. When Mr. Perry tells Neil that he cannot act any longer and that he'll be enrolling in military school, Neil doesn't even put up a fight, despite knowing that he could succeed at his dream.
NEIL: I was good. I was really good.
Neither does he tell his father what he really wants and dreams, despite Mr. Keating's insistence that he do so. Dejected, and unwilling to stifle the dreams he's so recently realized, he gives up and takes his own life. Maybe that's the only form of argument he feels he has left.
Neil's death devastates his friends, family, and classmates. His parents are dumbstruck with grief. When Todd finds out, he's inconsolable, and the rest of the guys aren't much better off. And, alone in his empty classroom, Mr. Keating weeps for his lost student.
The loss of Neil is quite a scandal at the small school, and it leads Headmaster Nolan to fire Mr. Keating and disband the DPS. It's return to status quo at Welton: no more secret poetry societies or classes that involve tearing the pages out of books. No more standing on desks. Students aren't encouraged to follow their dreams as much as they are encouraged to uphold the pillars of the academy.
It's just safer that way…according to Headmaster Nolan, anyway.
But that doesn't mean Neil is forgotten. When Todd gives Mr. Keating his final salute, the audience is left to wonder if he's taking up where Neil—who was the first to live by Mr. Keating's teaching and the first to re-form the DPS—left off. It may be the loss of his friend that finally inspires Todd, and the others, to take a stand.
After all, they're DPS members for life.