The Harms of Self-Destructive Activity in "A Separate Peace" and "Dead Poets' Society"

 (2002)

G. Stolyarov II

See Mr. Stolyarov's Index of Selected Writings, Originally Published on Associated Content / Yahoo! Voices.
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Note from the Author: This essay was originally written in 2002 and published in four parts on Associated Content (subsequently, Yahoo! Voices) in 2007, where it received over 30,000 page views. To preserve a record of my writings following the shutdown of Yahoo! Voices in 2014, I have given this article a permanent presence on this page.

~ G. Stolyarov II, July 29, 2014

An Analysis of Destructive Clandestine Groups in "A Separate Peace" and "Dead Poets' Society"


Both John Knowles's A Separate Peace (1959) and the 1989 film Dead Poets' Society center their conflicts around the devastating harms that lack of emotional restraint and self-destructive leanings bring about. This is partially demonstrated in the purposes behind the clandestine societies in both works.

In both stories there exist clandestine organizations such as the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session and the Dead Poets' Society, which were means of escape for the participants from the regulations of their superiors, acting also in a manner which permitted and glorified self-destructive acts.

In A Separate Peace, the tree was branded as "off-limits" for the students at Devon, and jumping from the tree was ordinarily a severe breach of regulations (which only Finny could undergo unpunished). It was, even in Finny's case, neither encouraged nor looked kindly upon. Therefore the society would meet during twilight hours, away from the watchful eyes of the adults in the school.

The cave near Welton in Dead Poets' Society is also forbidden territory, and students were not even permitted to depart from school grounds during the night. Once the Dead Poets' Society's existence became known to the schoolmasters through Charlie Dalton's article, severe penalties were imposed on Dalton, and warnings given to the other participants. The society itself was effectively disabled as a result, capable of existing only clandestinely.

In A Separate Peace, the sole purpose of the SSSSS was to perform the self-endangering feat of leaping from the tree, which possessed no evident physical, material, or intellectual benefits for participants, and placed lives under an immense threat. Even the name of the society defined its purpose as purely self-sacrificial. Its consequences were catastrophic. Had the SSSSS not existed, Gene would have had no means of materializing his instinctive hatred of Finny into the latter's injury, since they would have possessed no reason to continue plummeting from the tree. Although this alone would not have altered Gene's emotions, it would have prevented Finny from coming into danger.

A favorite pastime of Dead Poets' Society members was the unrestrained consumption of tobacco and alcoholic beverages, especially on the parts of Neal Perry and Charlie Dalton. Bottles of whiskey were present along with cigarettes during every meeting, and more time was spent by the boys indulging in those killers than genuinely reciting poetry.

The boys neglect the genuine message presented by poets such as Thoreau, and lose any tact and moderation that they may have earlier possessed. Dalton, for example, secretly publishes an article requesting the admittance of girls to Welton that he would be able to compose love poetry and indulge himself in base pleasures! During the assembly held by the schoolmasters, he mocks the principal with "a phone call from God."

Mr. Keating remarks to Charlie after the latter's inconsiderate remarks that seizing the day does not mean wasting it and ruining oneself in the process. Yet the teenagers of the Dead Poets' Society misinterpret Mr. Keating's message and continue on the quest of self-destruction, as evident in Knox's self-endangering kiss of Chris, which resulted in physical pain inflicted upon him by her boyfriend, as well as the beginnings of Neil's suicidal tendencies (the path of self-destruction eventually renders him incompatible with traditional Western academic culture).

An Analysis of the Destructive Delusions of Gene in "A Separate Peace" and Neal in "Dead Poets' Society"

Neal in the 1989 film Dead Poets' Society and Gene in John Knowles's 1959 book A Separate Peace both suffer horrific consequences as a result of illogical and unreal emotional misconceptions within them.

Gene believed that Phineas was attempting to undermine his academic prowess and compete with him in unclean ways, such as diverting him from his studies through the SSSSS. This was an emotional impulse within him (Gene himself admitted that he was guided "by a level of feeling, higher than thought, which contains the truth.") that in no manner provided logical justification for Gene's deliberate infliction of injury upon Finny. Gene's mistake was clearly demonstrated slightly prior to the incident, when Finny advised him to remain and study if he required the said action in order to succeed academically.

Neal believed that his father's destruction of his acting opportunities implied the end of his hopes, where in reality he was permitted to pursue acting after obtaining financial independence. Contrary to Neal's illusion, his father was not his enemy and did not seek to limit his striving, but rather to establish a prosperity of a secure profession and monetary security (obtained from becoming a doctor) in Neal's life, after which he would be in a more fitting position to pursue his dreams. This he had confessed to Neal twice, once during the first day of the new school session, a second time following Neal's participation in the play. Instead of rationally selecting to wait and place his studies before anything else, Neal was overwhelmed by an emotional resentment. This culminated in his suicide, a demonstration of his perception that his father's limitations had ruined his life. They did not; Neal had.

Gene's emotional resentment results in numerous other incidents which bring about harm to his friends. When Leper refers to him as a savage underneath and reveals his knowledge of Gene's deliberate injury of Phineas, Gene, out of pure feeling, kicks him repeatedly. Quackenbush's provoked reference to Gene as a "maimed son of a *****", following Gene's reference to him as an utter imbecile, resulted in a violent attack by Gene.

Even during the Winter Carnival, supposedly an occasion of separation from the perils of the outside world, Gene wantonly inserts a barrel of cider into Brinker's mouth until "his veins pulsated and his eyes bulged." These are a few examples of his primitive impulses floating to the surface.

Yet the greatest harm which Gene brings about is also eventually a harm to himself, the death of Finny as a result of his second injury, caused by Finny's despair at his knowledge that Gene had willfully injured his best friend. Gene spoke of Finny's funeral as if he himself had been buried, and admitted to losing a part of himself during the passing of Finny. Gene's impulses catastrophically affected his life and deprived him of the person closest to him.

Mr. Keating reminisced upon the Dead Poets' Society near the end of the film and read the opening verses, by Thoreau, which had been spoken during every meeting, but which had apparently passed into one of Neal's ears and out the other. A passage falls into the foreground, "...and not discover, when I had come to die, that I had not lived." This passage inspires readers to nourish their lives and render them as profound, active, and satisfying as possible. Yet Neal, by terminating his own life atop the apex of his youth, lost all opportunities, demonstrating his delusional emotions and inability to understand Thoreau. He will, as a result, never act again.

An Analysis of Gene's Struggle Against Emotional Instability in "A Separate Peace"

In John Knowles's book A Separate Peace (1959), the protagonist Gene struggled against tremendous emotional instability and overcame it near the conclusion.

Gene's insecurity was a result of a constant paranoia about Finny's "attempts to even the odds" with him. His mind performed numerous warped calculations regarding his adequacy in sports and excellence in academics, while Finny is outstanding in sports and lagging behind in academics. Gene's conviction that, overall, he possessed superior attributes, increased the possibility within his mind of Phineas's jealousy. At a later stage, however, Gene realized in his relation to Finny that the latter was of a different breed, that he possessed no animosity toward Gene and attained his skills naturally rather than through lengthy efforts. This strengthened Gene's insecurity, for this was an emotional, not a logical conviction.

Gene is also unstable concerning the war. When Leper mentions the horrors of army discipline and the madness it had sparked within him, Gene becomes infuriated to the point of shouting, "Do you think I want to hear every gory detail! Shut up! I don't care! I don't care what happened to you, Leper. I don't give a damn! Do you understand that? This has nothing to do with me! Nothing at all! I don't care!"

Gene truly wished to conceal himself from the war and create a separate peace within his life, yet images of the war continued to return to him, and he found it difficult to accept even Finny's outlandish theories on the matter. It was due to the fear, envy, and anger which had accumulated within him that Gene assaulted Finny, Quackenbush, Leper, and Brinker.

Following Finny's injury, Gene initiated the slow transition into consciousness about his horrific internal flaw. When Phineas recovered partially, Gene learned from his nobility and self-determination during his "Olympic Training". Even as he was brutally mauling Leper for "knowing too much" about the incident, he began to recognize his internal savagery, stating that "Leper was close to the truth."

Following Finny's second injury, Gene constantly sought to visit his friend and apologize for his evil deed, admitting that it was a blind impulse and convincing Finny that he nevertheless valued their friendship and wished to maintain it. Finny, unfortunately, passed away, but not before his reconciliation with Gene and their final revelations of their true intentions to each other (i.e. Gene's impulsive flaws and Finny's desire to join the war during the past months).

Gene no longer feared the draft nor the war, since he did not view it as a struggle. He confessed that he had never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy, because he had already defeated his foe, the emotional evil within him. Although the cost of such a transition was infinitely high, Gene managed to rid himself of instinctive savagery.

An Analysis of the Transformation of Todd Anderson in the Film "Dead Poets' Society"

The 1989 film Dead Poets' Society contains the inspiring story of Todd Anderson, who became transformed from a timid and self-doubting child into a confident, free-thinking individual and leader through the influence of his teacher, Mr. Keating.

Todd Anderson initiated his presence at Welton as a quiet, timid, hesitant child of little self-esteem. He was overshadowed by the reputation of his elder sibling, a National Merit Scholar and valedictorian, which heightened his fears of failing to equal his brother's accomplishments when placed up to such a task.

Todd observed his fellow students, such as Neal and Knox, who were extroverted and open to a far greater extent, and convinced himself that he was unable to match their prowess. He therefore slowly developed a conception of his own worthlessness. In Mr. Keating's class, when assigned to create an original poem, Todd pretended not to have written one (although in the previous scene one sees him composing it) due to his hesitancy in displaying it to the class.

During the formation of the Dead Poets' Society, Todd was reluctant in joining, since he did not wish to recite poetry aloud. Although Todd possessed creativity and poetic capacity, as Mr. Keating had demonstrated by his guidance of Todd through an improvised poem, his fear prevented him from sharing his gifts with the world.

Todd Anderson was able to overcome the final hurdle of his instability only following a tragic event, the suicide of Neal. The schoolmasters required a scapegoat for such an atrocious act, and neither the genuine criminal nor his father could be blamed by the overly presumptuous authorities. Therefore they sought to place the accusation upon the Dead Poets' Society, and its supposed instigator, Mr. Keating.

Students signed documents concurring that Keating instilled subversive ideas in them; they did so for the mere purpose of preserving themselves from punishment. Although Todd reluctantly signed this notice, he demonstrated the transformation which Mr. Keating had inspired in him by presenting his teacher with a final farewell, standing atop his desk to represent a new view of the world.

Todd's example was shortly thereafter replicated by other students, and Todd was transformed into precisely the leader and outstanding achiever he possessed the capacity to be. Due to Mr. Keating's profound philosophies of free thought and individualism, Todd's fear and insecurity had been dispelled at last. The conclusion of the film suggests Mr. Keating's inspiration enabled Todd to go on to what will be a successful, fulfilling life.

Gennady Stolyarov II (G. Stolyarov II) is an actuary, science-fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. 

In December 2013, Mr. Stolyarov published Death is Wrong, an ambitious children’s book on life extension illustrated by his wife Wendy. Death is Wrong can be found on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.

Mr. Stolyarov has contributed articles to the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies (IEET), The Wave Chronicle, Le Quebecois Libre, Brighter Brains Institute, Immortal Life, Enter Stage RightRebirth of Reason, The Liberal Institute, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

In an effort to assist the spread of rational ideas, Mr. Stolyarov published his articles on Associated Content (subsequently the Yahoo! Contributor Network and Yahoo! Voices) from 2007 until Yahoo! closed this venue in 2014. Mr. Stolyarov held the highest Clout Level (10) possible on the Yahoo! Contributor Network and was one of its Page View Millionaires, with over 3,175,000 views. Mr. Stolyarov’s selected writings from that era have been preserved on this page.

Mr. Stolyarov holds the professional insurance designations of Associate of the Society of Actuaries (ASA), Associate of the Casualty Actuarial Society (ACAS), Member of the American Academy of Actuaries (MAAA), Chartered Property Casualty Underwriter (CPCU), Associate in Reinsurance (ARe), Associate in Regulation and Compliance (ARC), Associate in Personal Insurance (API), Associate in Insurance Services (AIS), Accredited Insurance Examiner (AIE), and Associate in Insurance Accounting and Finance (AIAF).

Mr. Stolyarov has written a science fiction novel, Eden against the Colossus, a philosophical treatise, A Rational Cosmology,  a play, Implied Consent, and a free self-help treatise, The Best Self-Help is Free. You can watch his YouTube Videos.Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at gennadystolyarovii@gmail.com.

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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's new comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's new four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.