S. E. Hinton broke new ground in young adult fiction with the publication of The Outsiders. The novel’s gritty, realist portrayal of teenage life was striking, as was the fact that it was written by a teenaged woman. Hinton has stated that she wrote The Outsiders because it was the kind of story that she wanted to read. Tired of books filled with clichés and obligatory happy endings, she longed to write stories about real people with real problems, hoping to earn the respect of her audience by giving them stories to which they could relate.
Hinton started a trend in young adult writing, which became a battleground for readers, parents, teachers, and librarians. Debate raged over whether The Outsiders and the books that followed in its footsteps were too realistic for their own good. Such books portrayed issues such as drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, death, and divorce. Parents, educators, and critics of realism worried that they could encourage bad behavior in their readers. These criticisms tended to be based on simplistic analyses of books’ content, so that The Outsiders was seen as a story about teenage violence, rather than a story about the characters and how they dealt with such violence. Instead of focusing on what Ponyboy learned as a result of being both a victim and an aggressor, some critics deemed the book to be without merit for glorifying violence, missing Hinton’s message entirely.
Hinton explores many themes over the course of the novel, such as bridging the gap between rich and poor, honor among the lawless, and the retention of innocence. In Ponyboy’s first meeting with Cherry Valance, she tells him “Things are rough all over.” Later in the story, Ponyboy asks her if she can see the sunset on the West Side of town. When she says yes, he tells her that he can see it on the East Side, too. When Ponyboy first meets Cherry, he thinks of her as just another Soc, wondering how a cheerleader who drives a Corvette could possibly have problems. By the end of the story, Ponyboy’s question about the sunset is an acknowledgment that, while the worlds they live in are very different, there are still things in each that are the same and that provide common ground.
The Greasers are honorable, even though society at large might not see them that way. They stick up for one another and will stand together to defeat enemies or authority figures. Hinton’s characters perform acts of honorable sacrifice. Dally takes the blame for a crime he did not commit instead of turning in his friend, Two-Bit. Johnny kills Bob in order to save Ponyboy. Ponyboy and Johnny go into a burning building to save children in peril. Dally goes in to save them. Their devotion and loyalty to one another is admirable.
Perhaps the most important of the themes Hinton explores is that of the retention of innocence. When Johnny explains to Ponyboy what Robert Frost’s poem means by “staying gold,” he is trying to tell Ponyboy not to give up his innocence and become jaded by the world, as Dally has. Johnny hopes that if Ponyboy passes this lesson on to Dally, it might help Dally recapture some of his lost innocence, too. The message comes too late for Dally, but it is not too late for readers.
Despite its critics, The Outsiders became a commercial success and won numerous awards. In 1967, it was named one of the best teen books by the New York Herald Tribune and was also a Chicago Tribune Book World Spring Book Festival Honor Book. In 1983, a film adaptation directed by Francis Ford Coppola was released. With more than fourteen million copies in print, The Outsiders is among the best-selling young adult novels of all time.
The conflict between Socs and Greasers is introduced in Chapter 1, and escalates throughout the book. The Greasers are "poorer than the Socs and the middle class... almost like hoods; we steal things and rive old souped-up cars and hold up gas stations and have a gang fight once in a while." In contrast, the Socs are "the jet set, the West-side rich kids," who "jump greasers and wreck houses and throw beer blasts for kicks, and get editorials in the paper for being a public disgrace one day and an asset to society the next."
In Chapter 3, a conversation between Ponyboy and Cherry defines a distinction between the two groups that goes beyond money. Cherry says, "You greasers have a different set of values. You're more emotional. We're sophisticated - cool to the point of not feeling anything. Nothing is real with us." And Ponyboy agrees that "It's not money, it's feeling - you don't feel anything and we feel too violently."
In Chapter 7, as he explains why he is leaving town instead of attending the rumble, Randy explains the lose-lose situation to Ponyboy:
"You can't win, even if you whip us. You'll still be where you were before - at the bottom. And we'll still be the lucky ones with all the breaks. So it doesn't do any good, the fighting and the killing. It doesn't prove a thing. We'll forget it if you win, or if you don't. Greasers will still be greasers and Socs will still be Socs."
The theme of appearances is linked to the conflict between the Socs and the Greasers, and its importance is underlined when the Socs arrive at the rumble in Chapter 9. Ponyboy realizes that the reason the Socs never get blamed for causing trouble is because "We look hoody and they look decent." Although most of the Greasers are "pretty decent guys underneath all that grease," and the Socs are "just cold-blooded mean," it doesn't matter because "people usually go by looks."
The Greasers' hairstyle is what distinguishes them as hoods, and part of the appearance that keeps them relegated to the margins of society. Ponyboy demonstrates his belief in hair's importance by including it in his character descriptions. In the first paragraph of Chapter 1, he says, "I have light-brown, almost-red hair... longer than a lot of boys wear theirs, squared off in back and long at the front and sides, but I am a greaser and most of my neighborhood rarely bothers to get a haircut."
His hair is his pride and joy, and it is a painful identity change for him to cut it off when he and Johnny try to disguise themselves. When Johnny reveals his plan to cut it, Ponyboy narrates, "It was my pride. It was long and silky, just like Soda's only a little redder. Our hair was tuff - we didn't have to use much grease on it. Our hair labeled us greasers, too - it was our trademark. The one thing we were proud of. Maybe we couldn't have Corvairs or madras shirts, but we could have hair."
In contrast to Ponyboy and Soda, Darry keeps his hair short. It is a demonstration of his resentment of his role as a Greaser -- as if he doesn't belong in that place in society.
Characters' eyes are used to demonstrate their emotions, and Ponyboy frequently draws attention to them. He himself has "greenish-gray eyes."
Ponyboy's view of other characters is often tied to his interpretation of their eyes; for example, he says that "Darry's eyes are his own. He's got eyes that are like two pieces of pale blue-green ice. They've got a determined set to them, like the rest of him... he would be real handsome if his eyes weren't so cold." Darry's eyes reflect Ponyboy's view of his oldest brother as "hardly human." In contrast, Sodapop's eyes are "dark brown - lively, dancing, recklessly laughing eyes that can be gentle and sympathetic one moment and blazing with anger the next."
Johnny's eyes in particular are used to reflect his emotions; for instance, when the Socs approach, his terror is always apparent in his eyes. The difference between his mother and him is clear to Ponyboy because of their eyes: "Johnnycake's eyes were fearful and sensitive; hers were cheap and hard."
Ponyboy is very conscious of the way he and others look. It is clear in his descriptions of people as a narrator, but also in his interactions with the world. For example, in Chapter 1, when the Socs start to surround him, he "automatically hitched my thumbs in my jeans and slouched" to appear tougher. In Chapter 3, when the Socs stop the boys with Cherry and Marcia, "Two-bit took a long drag on his cigarette, Johnny slouched and hooked his thumbs in his pockets, and I stiffened." Ponyboy notes that, "We can look meaner than anything when we want to - looking tough comes in handy."
In Chapter 4, when the boys are going to ask for directions to Jay Mountain, Ponyboy sees Johnny "as a stranger might see him," and realizes that they will never pass for farm boys. He thinks, "They'll know we're hoods the minute they see us." Even though he knows Johnny is kind and gentle, "he looked hard and tough, because of his black T-shirt and his blue jeans and jacket, and because his hair was heavily greased and so long." Johnny notices the same thing about Ponyboy and tells him to "quit slouching down like a thug."
This theme is closely tied to the theme of hair as a defining characteristic for the Greasers. In Chapter 7, Ponyboy confesses, "I'd die if I got my picture in the paper with my hair looking so lousy."
As the gang leaves the house to go to the rumble in Chapter 9, Soda begins the role playing game by shouting: "I am a greaser. I am a JD and a hood. I blacken the name of our fair city. I beat up people. I rob gas stations. I am a menace to society. Man, do I have fun!" The game allows the gang mebers to get excited about their rumble, but at the same time reveals how conscious they are of their appearance to the rest of society. Appearance is what defines them and what sets them apart; it is both boon and stumbling block.
Ponyboy and Cherry like to watch sunsets, and they discover they have this in common in their conversation in Chapter 3. Ponyboy thinks, "It seemed funny to me that the sunset she saw from her patio and the one I saw from the back steps was the same one. Maybe the two different worlds we lived in weren't so different. We saw the same sunset." In Chapter 8, after Cherry says she cannot go visit Johnny in the hospital because he is the one who killed her boyfriend, Bob, Ponyboy yells at her and tells her he doesn't want her charity. After she apologizes, he lets her know he still feels a connection to her that bridges their social statuses by asking, "can you see the sunset real good from the West Side?" She is surprised, but answers yes. He says, "You can see it good from the East Side, too."
Watching the sunset becomes a link between the world of the Greasers and that of the Socs, and also hints at the kind of personality that questions things, that is always searching, that is in a way poetic.
In Chapter 7, Randy joins the ranks of those who appreciate sunsets. Ponyboy realizes, "Cherry had said her friends were too cool to feel anything, and yet she could remember watching sunsets. Randy was supposed to be too cool to feel anything, and yet there was pain in his eyes."
In Chapter 3, while Ponyboy and Johnny lie in the vacant lot watching the stars, Ponyboy dreams of the country as a place where everything is right in the world. In his fantasy, his parents are alive again, and Darry no longer has that "cold, hard look;" he is "like he used to be, eight months ago, before Mom and Dad were killed." Johnny comes to live with Ponyboy's family in the county, and Ponyboy's mother even convinces Dally Winston that "there was some good in the world after all."
The reason the country appeals to Ponyboy so much is because, "I only wanted to lie on my back under a tree and read a book or draw a picture, and not worry about being jumped or carrying a blade or ending up married to some scatterbrained broad with no sense."
In Chapter 4, when the boys jump off the train in Windrixville, Ponyboy notices that "the clouds were pink and meadow larks were singing." He thinks to himself, "This is the country... My dream's come true and I'm in the country." But later, as he looks for someone to ask directions from, he thinks to himself, "I was in the country, but I knew I wasn't going to like it as much as I'd thought I would."
Ponyboy often creates alternate realities for himself to cope with situations that he feels are unbearable. For instance, while he and Johnny watch the starts in the vacant lot in Chapter 3, he thinks, "I felt the tension growing inside of me and I knew something had to happen or I would explode." In response, he dreams about a life in the country where his parents are still alive and Darry is kind again.
He is also good at pretending when it comes to lying, and lies easily to the farmer when he asks how to get to Jay Mountain. He thinks, "I can lie so easily that it spooks me sometimes." In this case, he is creating an alternate reality to cover the fact that he and Johnny are hiding away after having committed murder.
Ponyboy is conscious of his tendency to pretend, and even his preference for his dreams over reality. In Chapter 5, he admits, "I liked my books and clouds and sunsets. Dally was so real he scared me."
Chapter 10 begins with the most obvious case yet of pretending: Ponyboy cannot grasp that Johnny has died, so he tells himself, "That still body back in the hospital wasn't Johnny." He pretends that he'll find Johnny at the house, or in the lot. This case of denial has been foreshadowed by Ponyboy's tendency to create alternate realities for himself throughout the story, but the difference is that "this time my dreaming worked. I convinced myself that he wasn't dead."
Johnny buys this book for Ponyboy when they are staying in the abandoned church, and they kill time by reading it. Johnny doesn't understand a lot about the Civil War, but he is obsessed with the idea of southern gentlemen, "impressed with their manners and charm." He compares them to Dally, showing how he idolizes Dally even though Ponyboy doesn't see much to respect in him at the time.
When Ponyboy and Two-Bit go to visit Johnny in the hospital, he asks them to buy him a new copy of Gone with the Wind, since the old one burned in the church. When Johnny dies, he leaves his copy of the book to Ponyboy. Ponyboy links Johnny and Dally's deaths to Gone with the Wind, as he considers how they "died gallant." He can only think of "Southern gentlemen with big black eyes in blue jeans and T-shirts, Southern gentlemen crumpling under street lights."