Soldiers and Poets
Epic tales of boyhood friendships, with all the camaraderie, adventure, and wit that defines them would definitely depict A Separate Peace and Dead Poets Society.
These two works of art not only share there prestigious all boys boarding school setting, but the theme of nonconformity. However, differences between the two pieces do exist. A Separate Peace is a reminder of one of the minor themes in the novel, related to the danger of jealousy, while Dead Poets Society has Carpe Diem, written all over it.
Dead Poets Society is a film about conflict and passion. It is set in a Vermont school, Welton Academy and the scenes largely involve the teacher, Professor John Keating and his students. Robin Williams is well cast as the independent, passionate teacher. His portrayal of Keating is both convincing and moving. Keating is a man who teaches because he loves to teach. He gives more than just knowledge to his students. He inspires them. He urges them to “seize the day!”, to seek out their dreams and to believe in themselves. His teaching techniques are unconventional and appeal to the boys’ imaginations. He earns their respect and becomes their friend and mentor. The novel, A Separate Peace, tells a story about a young man’s struggle to achieve and maintain such a separate peace. And although the setting is in America in the midst of war, the focus of the novel is internal. For the majority of the plot, the distant war is an illusion for the students in Gene’s class, and for the reader, the war becomes the biggest metaphor of the novel: a metaphor for the internal conflict of a sixteen-year old boy. Gene’s soul becomes a battleground where jealousy, fear, love, and hatred combat for control of his actions. And amidst the turmoil of adolescence, it is the victory of the dark forces of human nature that make Gene realize that each person is alone with his enemy, that the only significant wars are not made by external causes, but “by something ignorant in the human heart” (pg. 193). Thus, Finny’s strong denial that World War II is an illusion maintains a certain truth in light the real war that occurs in the story.
Nonconformity plays a large role in both of these stories themes. In A Separate Peace, Gene and Finny are a great example of this theme in action; Gene is naturally a rule-abiding person, and Finny has an absolute disregard for rules. This difference is also represented in the differences between the summer session and the fall session. Finny himself embodies both of those, as he is able to fit in well enough at school, yet hold his own very eccentric opinions. Finny sees that those who conforms to the world will never change, improve, or transform it so Finny sees no problem with making statements with ties for belts, pink shirts, and coming and going as he pleases. (Ex- Beach trip) In Dead Poets Society nonconformity takes place in John Keating. Largely driven by a sense of tradition, Welton Academy imposes out-dated teaching techniques on both its teachers and students. The students are encouraged to mindlessly take in facts and regurgitate them on command. The teachers are expected to teach according to a rigid set of rules. Keating believes that education requires the student to think for himself. He must be free to question and to learn in the way he learns best. Few schools accept this basic premise and Welton Academy is no exception. This film handles this age-old conflict of traditional compulsion vs. freedom and flexibility very well. Keating rejects tradition and refuses to teach by the old methods. Welton refuses to accept change, so a battle begins. Like Finny, Keating also believes that those who conform to the world will never change, improve, or transform it. There both very similar characters in this respect.
However, Nonconformity is where the two pieces take different paths in there themes. Dead Poets Society is mostly based on the theme of seizing the day. Tis only in their dreams that men truly be free, twas always thus, and always thus will be,-Keating. This quote restates the theme of seizing each day and cherishing them dearly. Every day an opportunity can come into ones life and they must decide whether to take the chance or play it safe. A Separate Peace is mostly based on guilt, envy and jealousy. The Novels conflict arises out of Genes refusal to recognize his own feelings of jealously and insecurity as the real enemy. Instead his fears are projected onto his closest companion, Phineas, whom Gene suspects of possessing his own feelings of envy and self-loathing. With Finny as the enemy, Gene is plunged into a world of competition and hatred, where the only crucial elements worth preserving are his own survival and superiority. Ultimately, this act of self-deception drives Gene to malicious thoughts and behavior, destroying any feelings of affection and friendship he might have once had for Finny. Upon realizing his mistake and discovering that Phineas does not share Genes envy and hatred, Genes isolation and Self-loathing deepen and he intentionally cripples the one person who wants to be his friend. As Gene writes, World War II is not the real scene of battle, I was on active duty all my time at school: I killed my enemy there (page 196)
In Dead Poets Society, John Keating is questioned by an older, more experienced teacher, to weather or not 15-17 year old kids are really ready yet to handle Keatings brand of freedom. Gee, I never pegged you for a cynic, says Keating. Im not, says the other teacher. Im a realist. The only forces opposing Keatings philosophy are rigid and towering ones, headmaster, Mr. Nolan (Norman Lloyd), and a cruel stubborn parent, Mr. Perry. After youve finished medical school and youre on your own you can do as you damn well please! Mr. Perry lectures his son Neil, one of Keatings prized students. But until then, you do as I tell you to! In the end however, the movie indicates that maybe the cynic/realist teacher was right after all. Although theres a scene which Keating tries to make the distinction between unrestrained self-expression and self-destructive behavior, the principles behind the re-formation of the Dead Poets Society eventually lead to catastrophe. It becomes clear that at least some of the boys really arent emotionally equipped to incorporate into their own lives the kind of freedom and nonconformist Keating is trying to get across to them. The result is tragic. Mr. Perrys son Neil feels over pressured and commits the violent act of suicide. This could easily be compared with Genes internal emotional conflicts in A Separate Peace. Gene and Finny come up with the idea for a “Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session,” a group for exciting and dangerous things, and make a leap from the tree the entry requirement. Gene goes onto the diving limb with Finny, and loses his balance; Finny stops Gene from what could have been a very dangerous fall, and Gene soon realizes that his friend saved his life. However Gene has so much envy towards Finny, when they are joining a new member (Leper Lepellier) Gene juggles the branch which he and Finny are standing upon. Gene intentionally knew it would cause Finny to fall into the river. Gene did not have any idea of the extent of his actions. Finny had broken his leg from the fall and devastatingly would never be able to play sports again. Gene like Neil, in Dead Poets Society could not handle the pressures and emotions he faced so he took negative actions to solve them. It could be said that Neils actions where more severe then Genes but they both had consequences that later they would both probably regret.
So there are poets and there are soldiers. Each very defined yet similar, like Dead Poets Society and A Separate Peace. There is more to the plot then just two stories about 1950s boys boarding schools and the clubs they formed. The stories are epic tales of boyhood friendships, with all the camaraderie, adventure, and wit that defines them.