Study Guide

Dead Poets Society Tradition and Customs

Tradition and Customs

FACULTY MEMBER: (Instructing another man) You're going to follow along the procession until you get to the headmaster. At that point, he will indicate to you to light the candles of the boys.

Doing the ceremonial candle-lighting correctly is of great importance to Welton's administration. Does ritual always play an important part of tradition? In the film, it does. Students wear the same uniforms they've always worn, and light the candles in the same way they've always lit them. They take it all very seriously.

HEADMASTER NOLAN: (Sermonizing) One hundred years ago, in 1859, forty-one boys sat in this room and were asked the same question that now greets you at the start of each semester. Gentlemen: what are the four pillars?

STUDENTS: Tradition, Honor, Discipline, Excellence.

Ah, the "four pillars." These represent the values that Welton holds dearest. Notice which comes first? Tradition. There's another thing to notice: the way Headmaster Nolan phrases the question. He makes sure students know that even the asking of the question is part of the tradition of Welton. These guys have traditions upon traditions.

HEADMASTER NOLAN: Last year we graduated fifty-one. And more than 75% of those went on to the Ivy League. This kind of accomplishment is the result of fervent dedication to the principles taught here. This is why you parents have been sending us your sons. This is why we are the best preparatory school in the United States.

It's observance of the traditions of Welton, the headmaster says, that results in such high Ivy League placement. And Ivy League placement usually indicates success, at least in the world of the film. At Welton, you can be practically guaranteed that success if you participate in the way things work, and have always worked.

MR. KEATING: Let me dispel a few rumors so they don't fester into facts. Yes, I too attended "Hellton", and I survived. And no, at that time I wasn't the mental giant you see before you. I was the intellectual equivalent of a 98-pound weakling. I would go to the beach and people would kick copies of Byron in my face.

With his opening statement to his new students, Mr. Keating employs an entirely different approach than Headmaster Nolan. He emphasizes how uninformed and mentally puny he was when he attended Welton, rather than lauding Welton's virtues and excellence. He even makes fun of Welton (imagine Nolan's shock) by calling it "Hellton."

He further bucks tradition by addressing the students in the hallway, while they're standing, rather than at their desks. This jarring first day of class helps him shake up their preconceived notions about what Welton has to offer them. It's definitely an untraditional approach.

NEIL: What was the Dead Poets Society?

MR. KEATING: I doubt the present administration would look too favorably on that.

Neil: Why? What is it?

MR. KEATING: Gentlemen, can you keep a secret? The Dead Poets were dedicated to sucking the marrow out of life. That's the phrase from Thoreau we'd invoke at the beginning of every meeting.

Even secret societies have rituals and traditions. In the DPS, the meetings begin with some Thoreau and follow a certain pattern. Why? It's anyone's guess. That's just the way traditions work. People observe them and keep them alive. That's why Neil decides to conduct the newest incarnation of the DPS' meetings the same way. It connects them to Mr. Keating's group, and keeps the traditions alive.

KNOX: I can't take it anymore. If I don't have Chris, I'm gonna kill myself. […] I'm gonna call her.

(He calls her, and hangs up when she answers.)

KNOX: She's gonna hate me. The Danburys will hate me. My parents will kill me. (Pause) All right, god damn it. Carpe diem. (He dials)

It's not customary to pursue someone who's spoken for (or, in the very least, it's not polite). Knox isn't the type to buck tradition in order to get what he wants. But, love seems to have a way of making him act outside of what is societally acceptable. He risks social scorn and trouble with his parents, but he can't resist eschewing custom in order to seize the day. Is "<em>carpe diem</em>" the enemy of tradition?

HEADMASTER NOLAN: John, the curriculum here is set. It's proven it works. If you question it, what's to prevent them from doing the same?

MR. KEATING: I always thought the idea of education was to learn to think for yourself.

HEADMASTER NOLAN:At these boys' age? Not on your life. Tradition, John. Discipline. Prepare them for college and the rest will take care of itself.

In an exchange that speaks for itself, Headmaster Nolan chastises Mr. Keating for teaching the boys about the dangers of conformity. Tradition works, he argues, and Welton's tradition is proven to get them into college. It's the first warning John receives, and a hint at what is to come. Eschewing tradition does not go over well at Welton.

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