When Hinton published The Outsiders in 1967, she used her initials so that readers would think she was a man. It was assumed by publishers, in that pre-young adult era, that readers would not believe that a woman could write realistically about the urban street world that Hinton’s first novel depicts. It is a sign of how far the genre has evolved since 1967 that The Outsiders seems so tame today.
The novel is set in a small southwestern city (similar to Tulsa), but in some ways it could be any city in the United States, for the novel is vague and dreamy in form. There are few adults, and the world of The Outsiders is divided into wealthy “Socs” (short for “socials”) and “greasers,” the tough gang members who dress in their early-1960’s uniform of long hair, blue jeans, and T-shirts. The three Curtis brothers—Darry, the oldest, Soda, the middle, and Ponyboy, the narrator—live together and have taken care of one another since their parents were killed in an automobile crash some years before. Surrounding the Curtises are other teenagers who share greaser values and the Curtis hospitality.
The action in this short novel is, as in most young adult fiction, simple and straightforward and covers only a few days. After an argument with his older brother, Ponyboy and his friend Johnny run to a nearby park, where they are attacked by a carload of Socs, angry at the greasers for picking up their girls earlier that evening. In the fight, Johnny stabs and kills Bob, the Soc leader, and Johnny and Ponyboy are forced to flee the city, with the help of Dally Winston, the toughest greaser in the novel. Later, in a fire in the church where they are hiding out, Dally, Johnny, and Ponyboy manage to rescue trapped children and become heroes. The death of Bob leads to a major rumble, however, and the greasers defeat the Socs in this violent finale. Johnny dies of his wounds from the fire; Dally goes wild, robs a grocery store, and is gunned down by the police.
In the brief denouement, Ponyboy thinks of the hundreds of greasers like himself who are misunderstood and decides that someone should tell their story: “Maybe people would understand then and wouldn’t be so quick to judge a boy by the amount of hair oil he wore.” He picks up a pen and begins the theme for his English class that will become The Outsiders: “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house . . . ”
The major theme of the novel is the story of Ponyboy’s successful initiation: He has survived the rumble, worked out his relationship with his brother Darry, and, in spite of the deaths of two friends, is a better and stronger person by novel’s end. The story of Pony’s initiation also has a number of subthemes. The first is what could be called the brotherhood theme. Loyalty is a cardinal gang rule, and the rumble at the end of the novel is only a particularly violent and ritualistic enactment of this value. Dally dies, in fact, because he became a loner and broke away from his supportive greaser gang.
Working with this brotherhood idea is the more important theme of eliminating prejudice. The greasers and Socs of the novel represent two clear socioeconomic groups in this world, and their ignorance and hatred of each other are what lead to the class warfare. Differences are created by social class, Hinton says, but underneath these superficial differences are people who share more than what separates them. As Ponyboy discovers, the sunset can be seen equally well from both sides of town.
How can the characters recognize this “family of man” that they all share? One obvious answer is in being sensitive to and tolerant of the world around them and breaking down the prejudice and ignorance that keep them from this recognition. In their sanctuary, Johnny and Ponyboy share Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and later, in his dying note to Ponyboy, Johnny says that Frost “meant you’re gold when you’re a kid, like green. When you’re a kid everything’s new, dawn. . . . Like the way you dig sunsets, Pony. . . . There’s still lots of good in the world.”
The good exists if one can retain one’s childlike innocence and capacity for wonder. Ponyboy begins the novel in response to Johnny’s counsel; his sensitivity and intelligence lead him to try to tell the story of the greasers and the Socs, and what links them.
There are a number of literary allusions for a work this short: Aside from the Frost poem, there are references to Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-1861) and to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936). The novel also contains a very literary three-part structure (city, country escape, city) reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Other literary echoes include William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (c. 1595) and the film West Side Story (1957). A deceptively simple story, The Outsiders is a fairly complex novel and one with a number of thematic strains and literary devices.
When director Coppola made the film of The Outsiders in 1983, he took the same respectful attitude toward the work as the adolescents from Fresno, California, who had written urging him to translate the book to film, and the film plays like an adolescent fantasy. There is a vagueness to both novel and film that one usually finds only in the world of romance: Characters are two-dimensional and play out preordained roles, setting is generalized and abstract, there is no sense of historical time (the story is taking place in the early 1960’s, readers guess, but mostly from the clothing), and the plot essentially consists of a series of ritualistic set pieces.
The novel, like the film, has been extremely popular with teenagers—probably because it was one of the first young adult books to deal with social classes as teenagers actually view them. Written when Hinton was only seventeen, The Outsiders was the first novel to deal sympathetically with “greasers,” to describe adolescent outsiders not as hoodlums or juvenile delinquents but as normal young people locked into class roles and conflicts. The freshness of its young author’s vision explains much of the book’s popularity.