Dead Poets Society The Boys Coping With Neil’s Death - The Ending: “O Captain, my Captain.” Summary and Analysis | GradeSaver (2023)

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Charlie wakes Todd in his bed and tells him that Neil is dead. Pitts, Meeks, and Knox are at the door. The next snowy morning, Todd heads down to the lake with the boys in tow. He observes how beautiful the snow is and then immediately vomits. The boys comfort him and put snow in his mouth. Todd shrieks repeatedly that Neil’s father must have shot him, that Neil would never leave them. The others protest, but Todd escapes from their grasp and runs toward the lake, screaming as he goes. Charlie says to leave him be. The camera zooms out on the snowy lake as Todd walks out onto the dock, appearing miniscule.

Keating sits at his desk in his empty classroom. He goes to Neil’s desk and finds “Five Centuries of Verse” in it. He reads the Thoreau quote written in his own hand on the first page and begins to sob. The voices of Welton boys singing transition to a shot of a service for Neil held in the school’s sanctuary. Headmaster Nolan delivers a mournful tribute to Neil and announces that he’ll conduct a full inquiry into his death at the request of his family.

Neil’s friends gather together in secret, waiting for Cameron, suspecting him of having betrayed them. Charlie says the administration will be looking for a scapegoat. Cameron arrives and admits that he told Nolan everything. The boys hold Charlie back from attacking him. Cameron insists the boys cooperate, believing that they’re victims and that Neil’s suicide is Keating’s fault. Charlie punches him in the face. With a bloody nose, Cameron vehemently maintains that Keating should be fired and that the boys should save themselves.

In the next scene, Nolan walks Meeks back to his room as Todd waits in his. Nolan calls Knox into his office, who gives Todd a thumbs up as he walks by his room. Todd asks Meeks what happened through his door. Meeks says that Charlie was expelled and that he didn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know. Nolan calls for Todd to come in next. His parents are waiting in his office. Nolan asks if Todd was a part of the Dead Poets Society, and Todd admits he was. Nolan reviews the details of the Society’s meetings, and says that Mr. Keating’s abuse of influence as a teacher is what led to Neil’s death. He hands Todd a piece of paper summarizing this and asks Todd to sign it as confirmation that it’s true. The signatures of his friends are already on it. Todd asks what’ll happen to Mr. Keating, but his father insists he sign it.

Mr. McAllister walks with students in the snowy courtyard, reciting verse to them. He sees Mr. Keating in a window and gives a quick wave. Mr. Keating returns the wave from his office full of suitcases. Next, the boys stand beside their desks as Nolan comes in to Keating’s old classroom, acting as the English teacher until Mr. Keating can be replaced. He asks the students where they left off in the textbook. Cameron says that they skipped around a lot, so Nolan decides to start from the beginning. Mr. Keating knocks and enters to retrieve his personals. Nolan asks Cameron to read from the book’s introduction, but Cameron admits that they all ripped it out. Nolan hands him his own copy to read. Todd makes eye contact with Mr. Keating from his office. As Keating leaves the classroom, Todd stands and yells to him that the boys were forced to confess. Keating says he believes him. Nolan silences Todd and demands that Keating leave. As Keating makes for the door, Todd stands on his desk and yells “O captain, my captain!” Nolan tells him to sit, but he doesn’t. Knox stands as well and repeats the phrase. Pitts follows with the same gesture, as does Meeks, followed by many other boys. Cameron noticeably remains seated. Mr. Nolan screams for them all to sit down, but they ignore him. The boys stare at Mr. Keating, who thanks them earnestly and leaves the room. The film ends on a shot of Todd’s face, appearing heartbroken but proud.


The film’s final scenes take a morbid tone as the various characters cope with Neil’s suicide. Todd demonstrates complete denial, even accusing Neil’s father of being the one who killed his son. This statement, while not literally accurate, holds some weight, as it was the trapped position that Neil’s father put him in that drove him to end his life. One could argue that, in this way, his father did figuratively kill him. Meanwhile, Keating sobs openly, deeply distraught at the loss of his student. Displaying the warm and carefree Keating in this heartbroken light casts an immovable shadow over the entire rest of the movie.

Neil’s death allows Welton to rear its ugly head in full: the institution’s brutal conformism only increases as the administration promises to conduct a full inquiry into what happened to Neil. Of course, having already had difficult with Keating, it's perhaps unsurprising that they would use him as a scapegoat for what happened. After all, they believe their strict practices to be what’s best for the students, despite the fact that Neil would’ve cited those very practices as a key component in his decision to end his life. Keating’s contrasting ideologies are therefore the odd piece out in the equation, and the obvious branch to prune to ensure that things return to normal at Welton.

Cameron’s willingness to give Keating up when the boys meet in secret demonstrates the powerful, lasting influence of the academy’s ideologies. While Keating managed to inspire and encourage many of the Dead Poets Society members into believing in his ideas about independence and non-conformity, Cameron represents the other side of the equation: those who still believe that Welton is in the right and that Mr. Keating’s teachings were rightfully to blame for Neil’s death. He is concrete proof that Keating's impact was not so easily made on everyone.

The administration's decision to pressure the implicated members of the Dead Poets Society into signing a paper blaming Mr. Keating's influence for Neil's death is an unfortunate parallel to the hold that Neil's parents had over him: straight to the end, much of the movie's misfortune comes from forcing the hand of adolescent boys who either aren't mature enough to make these difficult decisions themselves or who are not of legal age to act independently without threat of serious backlash from their parents and superiors. This is exemplified particularly when Todd tries to ask questions and put off signing the paper until his father interjects and forces him to sign it. The film's themes of discipline and tradition are driven home, with the administration's old-school ideologies appearing to win out, at least for the moment.

The famous final scene in which members of Keating’s class stand and salute him with the declaration “O Captain! My Captain!” is a stirring testament to the impact that Keating will leave on his students after he’s gone. That they are defiant enough to carry out this gesture in plain viewing of Mr. Nolan, and despite his protests, speaks immediately to the rebellious influence Keating had on them. The use of the phrase, “O Captain! My Captain!” is also a reference to Walt Whitman mourning the loss of President Abraham Lincoln, whom Whitman admired very much, following his assassination. In a direct parallel, the boys mourn the loss of a great teacher taken from them under circumstances that they consider unjust, in a moving gesture that has become cinematically iconic over the years.

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