What's the only thing worse than being a younger sibling?
Being a younger sibling of a massively beloved sis or bro.
Because not only do you have to grapple with the normal trials and tribulations of younger siblinghood—the noogies, the earlier bedtimes, the constant mockery and hand-me-down onesies—you have to deal with living in the shadow of a legend.
And that's exactly what Todd Anderson has to do.
When we meet Todd, he's also meeting someone: Headmaster Nolan, who holds his entire academic career in his hands. We learn pretty quickly that Todd is part of a legacy—his older brother, now a Yale lawyer, was a breakout star at Welton.
And this is his warm welcome:
HEADMASTER NOLAN: (shaking Todd's hand) Mr. Anderson…you have some big shoes to fill, young man. Your brother was one of our finest.
TODD: (looking terrified) Uh…thank you.
Great: "Welcome to Welton. You'll either be as good as your brother or you'll be a failure." We'd be nervous too—although, to be fair, nervousness is a feeling Todd seems to have most of the time. When we next see Todd, he's meeting the gregarious and easygoing Neil (more on him later) who informs him that they're roommates. The two contrast each other throughout the film: Todd is hesitant, shy, and nervous, and Neil is energetic and spirited (at least, most of the time).
When Neil introduces Todd to the other guys, it's obvious that Todd isn't particularly great at socializing. He stammers, stutters, and blushes so hard he practically turns purple. Not an outgoing guy, that Todd.
In a classic protagonist move, shy-guy-turned-poet Todd shows the most growth throughout the film, and it's his journey that we spend the most time following…in large part because Todd benefits more than anyone else from Mr. Keating's inspirational Lit class.
MR. KEATING: (to the class) Now, in addition to your essays, I would like you to compose a poem of your own. An original work.
MR. KEATING: That's right; you have to deliver it, aloud, in front of the class on Monday. Bonne chance, gentleman. Mr. Anderson, don't think I don't know that this assignment scares the hell out of you, you mole.
Todd: (looks like he wants to die)
Despite his shy nature, Todd joins the Dead Poets Society with the others… but only under the condition that he not be forced to read aloud. (Speaking out in general seems to be a phobia of Todd's.) Living with the (high) expectation of his parents and Headmaster Nolan has left him so nervous and afraid that he's practically a ghost—a ghost that's afraid to say "boo."
Todd doesn't even really know who he is yet, or what his own inner voice even sounds like. So when Mr. Keating creates this assignment, Todd practically goes into a tailspin. In fact, he completely chickens out and throws away the poem just before class.
Mr. Keating isn't one to be deterred, though, and he makes Todd (who stutters with nervousness) compose a poem in front of everyone. The result is pretty revealing:
TODD: (on the spot) […] it's like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold. …You push it, stretch it, it'll never be enough. You kick at it, beat it, it'll never cover any of us. From the moment we enter crying to the moment we leave dying, it'll just cover your face as you wail and cry and scream.
Todd's poem is all about being "not good enough" and unable to fully express emotions. Life is like a blanket that doesn't actually provide any warmth or comfort: instead, it stifles his voice as he tries to scream. Hmm: you think this poem is in any way autobiographical?
Move over, shadow of Todd's older brother. It's Todd's time to shine—he's a poet and he knows it. By the end of the film, Todd can even defy authority in order to make himself heard.
But it's not all sonnets and limericks for our man Todd. His friendship with Neil also brings him out of his shell.
When Todd's parents send him the same birthday gift they sent the year before (nice move, Mom and Dad) Todd seems crestfallen. But Neil's sense of humor about it lets him finally see that his parents' opinion of him isn't the only valid one. And because of this, Todd learns to laugh about his family, and about the pressures he faces.
It's the loss of Neil that really throws Todd off, at least for a while. When he finds out that Neil committed suicide, Todd grieves the hardest of all the boys—he literally runs out into the snow and throws up. And when Headmaster Nolan questions him, he reverts to the old, meek Todd; he can barely put together a sentence.
He returns to himself, though, at the end. Mr. Keating comes to collect his personal items and Todd can no longer stay silent. He stands on his desk, in front of everyone, and shows his love and appreciation for his teacher. The other guys follow suit. Todd, once the shy and meek follower, becomes a leader, sounding his "barbaric yawp" for all to hear.