Due to their complex nature, human relationships present many challenges thus making them integral in the shaping of an individual’s experiences. These complexities are often caused by the power dynamic, where one parties assumes dominance over the other. Peter Weir’s 1989 film, Dead Poets Society explores the overpowering relationship between Neil and his father where Neil’s true self is stifled in his role as the compliant son. Similarly in Roger Dean Kiser’s short story Elvis Died at Florida Barber College (referred to as Elvis), the oppressive relationship between the orphan and his matron negatively affects his experiences, resulting in a suppression of individuality.
Complexities also arise from the lack of power in relationships as shown through Neil and Mr Keating where the authoritative figure of the mentor is undermined by his student.
However, this is not always the case as in 48 Shades of Brown by Nick Earl where a relationship between Dan and his Aunt allows for the discovery of independence and development of self. The complexity of power dynamics within relationships may suppress an individual’s identity in order to conform to the expectations of the other. In Dead Poets society, the relationship that Neil has with his father is atypical of a father-son relationship in the fact that the authority lies with the father. However, what differentiates this relationship from other father-son relationships is the extreme power dynamic between the two where Neil’s father is overly controlling to the point where he dictates his son’s life.
The nature of the relationship is portrayed the beginning of the film when Neil’s father pins him up against a wall upon discovering Neil had chosen to undertake additional extracurricular activities. This action, accompanied with a high angle short of Neil’s father, communicates his extreme dominance in their relationship. Neil’s overt passion for performance is suppressed as he is subdued by the expectations of his father, forcing him to maintain a front as “the academic student”.
This entrapment is expressed through the recurring theme of inside-outside where Neil constantly gazes out the windows of the pragmatic institute at the romantic natural world which seems far out of reach, embodying his longing to escape from his father. Thus it is Neil’s relationship with his father governs his decision making, hindering the development of his true identity. Similarly to DPS, Roger Dean Kiser explores the abuse of authority in relationship in his short story Elvis.
The plot follows the first person point of view of an orphan boy who anticipates getting an Elvis haircut only to have his head shaved when his matron does not allow for it. The complex nature of the relationship between the orphan and his matron is conveyed in his first person narration where he addresses her as “the matron” rather than “my matron” thus creating a sense of disconnection between the two. The use of the word “the” also evokes a sense of sovereignty reflecting her overbearing dominance on the orphan boy.
As a result, the Orphan’s attempt to create his own identity is denied when he does not receive his “Elvis haircut” but rather has it all his hair shaven off in the same manner that his sense of individuality is stripped from him. This harsh dictatorship on the matron’s part denies the growth of the orphan’s sense of self as his hopes of becoming like Elvis are metaphorically killed as reflected by the name of the short story. Hence, it can be seen in Dead Poets and Elvis that those complexities which arise from the exploitation of power in relationships can have a negative impact upon an individual, impeding the development of self-identity.
Although the abuse of power in relationships may have negative impacts on an individual, a lack of authority in a relationship may have equally bad consequences. The relationship that Mr Keating has with the boys in particular Neil in Dead Poets juxtaposes that of Neil and his father; the power play distributed evenly between student and mentor. This can be seen through the eye-level shots in the film representing them as equals in the mentor-student relationships thus allowing Neil to be comfortable and himself around his mentor.
The colloquial language which Neil employs around Mr Keating juxtaposes the formal and distant language and tone such as “yes sir” of which he expresses around his father. However, as Mr Keating brings himself down to the same level as Neil, his authority is undermined as seen when he tells the boys that “There’s a time for daring and there’s a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for” and when he advises Neil to express to his father how he feels.
On both occasions, his advice is ignored resulting in Neil’s suicide and the demise of the Dead Poet’s Society emphasising consequence of the complexities which arose from the lack of a dominant role in his student-mentor relationship with Neil and the boys. On the contrary, the lack of authority in the relationship can also have positive effects on the experience of an individual as seen in Nick Earl’s novel 48 Shades of Brown. The novel delves into the journey of protagonist Dan’s self-discovery as he moves away from his mother Madge in Geneva and in with his young aunt Jacq in Brisbane.
The two prevalent relationships within this book are Dan’s relationship with his mother and his aunt; of which contrast greatly. Alike to Dead Poets Society, Madge possesses a controlling relationship with Dan however unlike Neil and his father; the terms of this power dynamic stems from Madge’s imposed perception of Dan’s fragility which has driven her to “coddle” him in order to shield him from the world. This has resulted in Dan lacking independence and identity as his decisions are often governed by his mother. The quote “There’s still the concern, though, that it’s all up to me now.
As though, in the past, if I’d forgotten something really important my mother would have remembered and things would have been okay” convey Dan’s anxiety when suddenly removed from the confines of this relationship. Due to the close age gap, and the “coolness” of his aunt, the relationship between Dan and Jacq is more or less a friendship. The absence of a dominant figure which controls him allows, and instead aided by the support and encouragement from his Aunt; Dan becomes more independent and in the process develops a stronger sense-of-self.
This is seen through the exchange of post cards between Dan and his mother which decreases as he becomes less dependent upon her. Thus the egalitarian relationship between Dan and his aunt has a positive impact on his experiences. Whether positive or negative, the complexities in relationships shape our experiences in the world. More often than not, these complexities present challenges to individuals however when overcome; one can then define themselves and take control over their life.