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).