Character Analysis of Neil Perry from 'Dead Poets Society'
Disobedience often deems an individual as an aggressive revolutionist, an independent leader, or a rebellious outsider. The context of one’s obedience—or lack thereof—determines how the majority will see them. Whether acting out and defying expectations can be defined as audacious and reckless behavior or valiant and courageous, is in the eye of the beholder. Impulsively disobeying and blindly obeying are equally destructive in society. Mankind has always endeavored to understand the complexities of the human mind. For centuries psychologists and philosophers have sought to understand the brain’s decision-making process and what influences individuals to obey or not. The tragic film ‘Dead Poets Society’, directed by Peter Weir, shows the concept of obedience evolving in adolescents. The story centers around a group of boys attending a stern boarding school. After John Keating takes on his new career as an English teacher at Welton Academy, the boys are urged to create their own path and question the status quo. The boys find their voice after breaking free from their expectations and rules to become independent members of society.
Neil Perry is perhaps the boldest character the film has to offer. He represents the intricate mosaic of conflicting feelings and desires that the majority of society feels when faced with an authority figure’s demands. Neil dreams of becoming an actor however he feels restrained by his overbearing father from doing so. Although he fears his father’s perception of him, He finds the strength to go against his father with encouragement from his teacher, Mr. Keating, and his friends. Without the company of others defending him, he ultimately loses his confidence to contest his father’s wishes. Without a companion to validate an individual’s argument, it is a natural, human instinct to assume the authority figure is right. He begins to doubt his dreams. Ultimately, he believes he lacks the strength to go against his father and quit acting altogether but dreads the future he will be forced to follow. This leads to his suicide, a moment showing the evil nature of both obedience and disobedience. His suicide represents his own personal catch-22, he does not want to disobey and disappoint his father, but he does not want to follow the path he has been written for him.
There are two sides to Neil. He transforms his personality when he is with his father or with his friends. In the beginning, shortly after a stroke of inspiration he burst into his room filled with joy and tells his roommate Todd, “So, I’m gonna act. Yes, yes! I’m gonna be an actor! Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to try this. I even tried to go to summer stock auditions last year, but, of course, my father wouldn’t let me. For the first time in my whole life, I know what I wanna do, and for the first time, I’m gonna do it whether my father wants me to or not! Carpe diem!”. For a short period, Neil forgets his fear of his father and lets his dreams run wild. When he gets the part, he hides it and inevitably his father finds out. When Neil faced with his father, his greatest authority figure in the film, he does not stand up for himself, losing all confidence when isolated. In an experiment conducted by Solomon Asch, it was revealed that people tend to adapt to their surroundings. Even when knowing the majority is wrong, most side with the majority because they fear to be alone.
Solomon Asch published his studies in a journal called ‘Opinions and Pressure’, detailing a series of experiments that showed the power of having a partner when faced with the pressures of conformity. He gave his test subjects multiple lines and asked each of them to pick out the one that matched his original line. Unknown to the test subject, the other subjects were instructed to at first pick the right responses and then as a majority begin giving incorrect answers. Asch noticed the test subject often conforming, even knowing the answer was wrong, with the majority. He later gave them a partner who was instructed to be against the majority as well. The test subjects were significantly more likely to stand for their belief and give the correct answer when given a partner (Asch). Neil’s behavior mirrors the results of Asch’s experiments. He only stands up for what he believes in when he is not alone.
Asch’s work is reflected in how Neil experiences doubt, submission, hopelessness, and the desire to obey the majority. Neil represents more than just a boy who dreams of acting, he also shows the reality of most people in society. Neil shows the reality of disobedience and it can be seen daily. For example, I talked to numerous people in my class about including a paragraph where I refer to myself in the first person. Several classmates invigorated my daring choice to disobey the formal writing style that I was instructed to follow. The mere thought of the consequences of including first-person pronouns serves as an example of the reality of disobedience. Although the majority supported this small act of disobedience, few will go through with it. I found myself doubting this decision once I was alone. The idea of getting a lower score discouraged me and I could feel my confidence dwindling when I was reviewing my paper alone.
Similarly, without Keating or his friends, Neil immediately shuts down his desires and assumes he must be wrong for not wanting what his father wanted. In Theodore Dalrymple’s article ‘Just Do What the Pilot Tells You’, Dalrymple shares his experiences as a junior doctor operating under his mentor. He felt wrong for what he was doing but didn’t question it because he figured the more experienced doctor was correct (Dalrymple). When Neil talks to Keating about confronting his father, he goes back once more, and his father agrees to let him finish the show. After the show, he gets into an argument and for a moment he begins to stand up for himself proclaiming, “I’ve got to tell you what I feel” (‘Dead Poet Society’). Mrs. Perry stands up next to his father as he urges him to say what he wants to say. He tells him if it’s about acting, he can forget about it. Neil doubts his decisions and mumbles ‘nothing’. When his mother stands behind his father, he feels outnumbered and immediately changes his personality from strong-willed to submissive, as he feels outnumbered. Dalrymple would explain this by the status of his father, his authority, being perceived as more experienced and therefore, in the eyes of Neil, right.
The more time Neil spends in his surrounding the more likely he is to adapt. In a classroom, being told to break free he feels like he has the power to do anything. However, in a home where he is told to be nothing but obedient, he becomes more submissive. Neil relies, like many, on the majority. He never stands his ground. His anxiety to disobey and the consequences that follow tore into his self-image and lead to his tragic suicide. Asch and Dalrymple would agree that his environment determines his actions. If he feels outnumbered and believes his authority figures are being condescending and belittling him, he will shift from confident to cowardly.
Neil’s behavior is much more than a catalyst into an entertaining story line. His internal conflicts epitomize the social response and views of obedience. Everybody loves the idea of standing up for their beliefs but most of society actually follows through with this and Neil Perry is no exception.
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