Dead Poets Society is a film that leaves viewers thinking, “I don’t know how to feel about this.” Our hero dies a horrific death, his mentor fired, the other Dead Poets revert back to lost boys with nothing to hold on to, and no repercussions for the school or the parents. It leaves the viewer hopeless enough before those in the English field incite debates about how the film depicts English professors; some in the field hate it, others credit it as their reason for entering the field. The only way to describe Dead Poets Society is tragic. Neil is the tragic hero; Professor Keating the tragic mentor, Neil’s friends (specifically Todd) are left to face the reality of their friend’s suicide. On top of that we have Neil’s father who is so self-absorbed he does not even think of the possibility that he was the one who pushed his son over the edge. Finally, a headmaster who will blame anyone and anything to save the reputation of his school while keeping the idea that, in relation to Neil’s father, could have nothing to do with his students being depressed and anxious.
In Poetics Aristotle writes, “tragedy is the imitation of an action….on actions all success or failure depends” (11). Without action tragedy cannot occur; Dead Poets Society does a brilliant job at following this model of a tragic hero (12). We start with the action of Neil’s father telling him that he needs to drop his passions for chemistry. The film then moves to the introduction of the mentor with his guidance and understanding of the hero and the hero’s circle of friends. The Dead Poets Society is then formed and speeds up the transformation process of the hero. Then the viewers are taken to the final four actions, the most defining actions that push forth the tragedy. Neil’s father humiliates him in public and refuses to acknowledge that his son is a person, not a prop. Neil commits suicide -> Mr. Keating is blamed for the faults of others -> Neil’s circle of friends remember the lessons of the hero and the mentor but are still trapped in the cycle of outside actions.
The viewer leaves the film understanding that Dead Poets Society is a tragedy, but many also take with them the feeling of inspiration. The overall nature of a tragedy, especially a hero’s tragedy, is to inspire those around them to push themselves to do better. In this case, the words carpe diem are stuck in the viewer’s mind. Regardless of whether or not one likes the film it is undeniable that Dead Poets Society is a prime example of Aristotle’s model of tragedy. It then is left up to the viewer to either agree with the criticism or be inspired by Neil and Professor Keating to say “screw you, I can like the film without your permission.”