Considered a classic by many, The Outsiders, (1967) by S.E. Hinton, is an unusual story that resonates profoundly with young people decades after its original publication. This story was innovative if not revolutionary in its gritty portrayal of teens mired in a world of self-perpetuated violence and crime. It was remarkable to me just how much my modern day middle school students sympathized with the characters in the book, even though they seemed to have so little in common with them. The secret, I believe, is in Hinton’s raw, unrefined, and authentic writing style — she being only seventeen when she wrote it. There are events, particularly in the adult sphere, which seem unrealistic, but Hinton’s younger characters so accurately reflect the fears, instincts, and desires of young people that every scenario feels plausible from an emotional standpoint. The book is worth reading, if only to demonstrate how adult authors can miss the mark when trying to portray the emotions and perceptions of youth characters. More than this, The Outsiders is a great opportunity for parents and teachers to begin discussions on a myriad of moral questions, from prejudice to friendship.
The story is told from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old orphan from the wrong side of the tracks named Ponyboy. His parents died in a car crash when he was just a child, and he was, for better or for worse, raised by his two older brothers in impoverished circumstances. The community in which Ponyboy is trying to discern his role and sense of self is sharply divided along socio-economic lines into two categories, greasers and socs. The socs view the greasers as crude, uneducated criminals. The greasers think the socs are rich, entitled snots that are abusive of their privileges and power. As is often the case, there is some truth in these stereotypes, but each group uses the stereotypes to justify violence against the other. The theme of prejudice is presented as a grand problem on the communal scale that in the end is only solved, at least in part, by individual acts of humility and understanding. The terrible truth that comes through is that it is often only after tragic loss that people can admit to their vulnerability and risk embracing different perspectives. For some characters the truth comes too late, resulting in further tragic loss and suffering. There is a short-sighted ignorance on both sides of the tracks, and it is the wisdom and understanding that can only come from literature that transforms Ponyboy, his family, and in a way, the community as a whole.
Ponyboy’s best friend Johnny is in some ways the real hero of the tale. In the course of the story the violence escalates until someone is killed. Ponyboy and Johnny become tied up in it and particularly Johnny is made to suffer the consequences. We come to feel deeply for the victimized Johnny and for all the greaser community, who are loyal to their own and determined to thrive despite their diminished prospects in life. Johnny heroically accepts suffering and tells his fellow greasers that their desire for vengeful retribution on the soc community is meaningless. Johnny is a Christ-like character in this novel, and Ponyboy as narrator is his disciple, writing down and interpreting the meaning of Johnny’s life to the audience.
While Johnny, in his actions, presents a compelling example of action, Ponyboy stands as the representative of the literary tradition as an essential element in the event of truth and communal transformation. Ponyboy does not save the day by devising a brilliant solution from his own imagination, as do so many protagonists in youth novels today, but by stopping and listening to the wisdom that is offered through literary tradition. In the most famous scene in the book, Johnny and Ponyboy are watching a sunset in a rare moment of peace and serenity. The majesty of nature overwhelms them both, but poetry comes to Ponyboy’s aid to give voice to what nature says. He recites Robert Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” The central line is, in fact, the title of the poem. While one might think that the poem is only expressing the sad truth that all good things come to an end, as does the innocence of these boys, the central line has a second meaning. It is true that nothing gold can stay, but that is because it must go. The gold, being what is best and brightest in this world, sacrificial love, must remain in motion, or else it becomes something other than itself. Love is that gold, which must be shared or else it is extinguished. This moment in the sun is what will grant Johnny the hope and strength to persevere in his heroic moment, and express his central desire for Ponyboy: that he “stay golden”; Ponyboy must honor their love and friendship by paying it forward in the telling of this tale.
Ponyboy was already familiar with the hidden virtue of his fellow greasers, but he was not aware of the redeeming elements in the soc community. The seriousness of the murder, for which there is partial responsibility on both sides of the track, brings a temporary stay of violence and blind prejudice, granting a rare opportunity for both communities to demonstrate their shared humanity. Ponyboy, by the end, has become the privileged witness to the best and worst the warring groups and is brought to the central truth which Hinton wishes to leave with his young audience, “We see the same sunset, and that while we are the ones who create the divides between ourselves, we can also be the ones to challenge them.”
Some believe that Hinton was writing this story as a veiled and hyperbolized autobiography. Hinton had struggles in her own life, not entirely unlike those that Ponyboy faced, and it is literature that delivers them both in the end. It is in the act of writing this story that both Ponyboy and Hinton come to escape the limitations of their circumstances and find their true identity. Throughout the novel we have a refreshing take on the coming-of-age novel. While there are definite victims in the tale, we are directed more to admire the protagonist/author who is the source of his own success. Learning to live and laugh in a fallen world is the secret of the happy life for the author and the attentive audience.
Violence is very much a central part of this book, but it is considered in a very serious light, and most of the violent moments are not described in great detail. There is also the hint of the boy/girl dynamic in the story, but it is not central or romanticized. Ponyboy interacts with a soc girl called Cherry that he clearly has some attraction to, but by the end of the story we see Cherry assuming more of an older sister role. There is some foul language, such as “damn” and “hell,” but anything worse is only alluded to with phrases like “what he said made my ears turn red.” Parents who are sensitive to smoking should be aware that most characters in this story smoke cigarettes called “weeds.” Overall, there is not much that should inspire caution for an audience older than fourteen.
The Outsiders has themes that still resonate with young readers today and I would recommend it to any parent or teacher looking to open a dialogue on mob mentality, family, virtue, the power of literature, or morality. It has some glaring moments that lack refinement, but these are overshadowed by the book’s artful presentation of the gifts of freedom, self-determination and the Western literary tradition.
- What are the challenges that poverty presents to young people? Are they insurmountable, and if so, why?
- What are the challenges that prosperity presents to young people? Are they insurmountable, and if so, why?
- Do you like the greasers or the socs more? Why?
- Did Dallas deserve what happened to him? Why?
- Why are the greasers and socs fighting? Do they see each other clearly?
- Which side do you see as more at fault in the death of Bob?
- Was the decision of the court just in how it dealt with Johnny and Ponyboy?
- When Ponyboy says, “Nothing gold can stay,” what does he mean?
- When Johnny tells Ponyboy to, “stay golden,” what is he trying to tell him?