What are the main conflicts of the story of Dead Poet's Society?

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jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the main conflicts of Dead Poet's Society is that between fathers and sons. For example, Neil Perry's father wants him to give up his literary and dramatic ambitions and dedicate himself to studying medicine. Neil's stern father continually orders his son to drop out of the play, and when Neil refuses and performs anyway, his father tells him that he will force him to withdraw from his school, Welton, to dedicate himself to medicine. Neil commits suicide as a result.

Todd Anderson's father also has goals for his son that contradict what Todd wants to do. His father wants him to attend Yale and become a lawyer, as Todd's older brother did, and Todd largely lives in his older brother's shadow (as his older brother also attended Welton and was popular and academically successful). Todd, however, dreams of becoming a writer.

Both boys face conflicts created by the difference between their dreams (which their English teacher, Mr. Keating, understands) and the hopes their insensitive fathers hold for them. Mr. Keating comes to represent the ideal kind of father that both boys wish they had. This conflict also involves the difference between what the boys' conservative society wants for them, as young men of privilege, and what they want for themselves. While they are supposed to become lawyers and doctors, they dream of more artistic and creative pursuits.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The most basic conflict that is evident in the narrative is the collision between individual will and social conformity.  Mr. Keating presents this very idea to the boys in a variety of ways.  Through both his methodology and his content instruction, he is seeking to bring out this conflict within the boys, something that he hopes they will be able to resolve themselves.  The idea of "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may" is an example of how there is a fundamental conflict presented between the will of the individual and the social reality that governs all of them.  In this, the conflicts grow to envelop the students.  Charlie faces a conflict between his writing and ideas and the administration at Welton that are not receptive to what he is suggesting.  Knox endures the conflict between the rules that forbid him dating and his apparent love for Chris.  Neil's conflict exists between his desire for acting and his father's wishes for him that lie outside this realm.  Todd struggles with his own internal conflict of seeking to be his own person, apart from the expectations placed on him by his parents, and the idea of how he needs to assert his own identity in support of Mr. Keating at the end of the film.  In these settings, the main conflict of individual versus society is evident in different forms.