Study Guide

Dead Poets Society Family

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MOTHER: Now remember, keep your shoulders back. (She adjusts his tie.)

The son in question seems no more than a grade-schooler, and he looks pretty nervous. The film opens on this quote for good reason: it deals pretty heavily with themes of familial pressure and expectation. No one at Welton is exempt from these pressures, even the youngest among them.

MR. PERRY: Hello, Mr. Nolan. This is our youngest, Todd.

HEADMASTER NOLAN: Mr. Anderson, you have some big shoes to fill, young man. Your brother was one of our finest.

Poor Todd. He can't even get a word out before someone compares him to his older brother, who was apparently quite the star at Welton. Even his new roommate seems impressed by the family pedigree. At a place like Welton, some families are legacies, i.e. deeply established alumni. By reminding viewers that Welton is old and full of these legacies, the film is giving us a sense of just how deeply family is part of the students' daily lives.

HEADMASTER NOLAN: Neil, we expect great things from you this year.

NEIL: Thank you, sir.

MR. PERRY: Well, he won't disappoint, right, Neil?

NEIL: I'll do my best, sir.

Mr. Perry wastes no time reminding Neil that he will not be a disappointment. Unlike Todd, Neil isn't a legacy. He instead deals with familial pressure because of his parents' hope that he will succeed where they did not. While he doesn't have a brother to live up to, he has something even trickier: his father's dreams. And those are clearly pretty big dreams.

KNOX: Tell him off. It couldn't get any worse.

NEIL: Oh, that's rich. Like you guys tell your parents off?

Knox and Charles confront Neil about why he won't stand up to his father, and Neil's response is pretty revealing: because nobody at Welton does. They might not look like it, but they are in a similar boat. They have to live up to certain expectations in order to win familial approval, and Neil knows it (and doesn't hesitate to remind them).

NEIL: Hey.

TODD: Hey.

NEIL: What's going on?

TODD: (Dejectedly) Today's my birthday. […] My parents just gave me this.

NEIL: Isn't that the same desk set…

TODD: Yeah, they gave me the same thing as last year.

Todd's parents can't even remember what gift they gave him the year before. He's an afterthought, as the youngest of several less-shy siblings, and is easily forgotten. Even at Welton, he's often referred to as "that Anderson" as if his last name is more memorable than his first. It's no wonder he feels dejected and maybe even a little unloved.

NEIL: I can see his point. We aren't a rich family. 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? Have you ever showed him that?

NEIL: I can't.

MR. KEATING: Why not?

NEIL: I can't talk to him this way.

MR. KEATING: Then you're acting for him, too. You're playing the part of dutiful son.

It seems like Todd's main issue with his father is a lack of communication. In earlier scenes, the normally confident and outgoing Neil struggles to even get a word out when disagreeing with his father. He stammers and stops before he can express himself. But is it because he has trouble standing up to his father, or because it won't matter anyway that Neil can't speak? Would communication really solve the issues between them?

MR. PERRY: You don't understand, Neil .You have opportunities that I never even dreamt of...and I am not going to let you waste them.

Here, Mr. Perry reveals his true motivations for being hard on Neil and insisting that Neil listen to him. He wants Neil to have more opportunities than he himself did. The family doesn't come from money, and Mr. Perry knows that Neil might struggle if he doesn't get a good career. He wants Neil to live with ease, and that's why he's putting so much pressure on his son to follow a certain path.

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