Study Guide

The Outsiders

by S. E. Hinton

The Outsiders Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Outsiders

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.

The Outsiders Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

After his parents are killed in a car accident, Ponyboy Curtis becomes increasingly frustrated with the rules imposed on him by his oldest brother, Darry. Ponyboy thinks Darry hates him. He does not realize that Darry’s rules are meant to keep Ponyboy and his other brother, Soda, out of trouble. Darry is worried that if his brothers get in trouble, the three will be split up and sent to a boys’ home.

Ponyboy walks home from the movies alone. He is followed by a red Corvair full of Socs, the rich kids in town. Ponyboy notices the car and worries that the Socs might try to beat him up. His fears are not unfounded, since his friend Johnny Cade had recently been assaulted by such a group. The Socs get out of the car and threaten to cut off Ponyboy’s long, greasy hair. The Socs pin Ponyboy to the ground, and he screams for help. Ponyboy’s brothers and friends hear his cries for help and come to his aid. Ponyboy is shaken up but not seriously injured. Darry criticizes Ponyboy for his lack of common sense. He says that Ponyboy should know better than to walk home alone.

Later, Ponyboy goes to the drive-in with his friends Dally Winston and Johnny Cade. Dally starts talking dirty to two rich girls sitting near them. The redhead, Cherry Valance, tells Dally to leave them alone. Dally backs off and leaves. Cherry asks Ponyboy if he intends to pick up where Dally left off. Ponyboy says he does not. The girls strike up a conversation with Ponyboy despite the fact that he is from the wrong side of town.

Dally returns and starts taunting the girls again. Cherry throws her drink on him. Dally will not stop bothering the girls until Johnny intervenes on their behalf. When Johnny tells him to stop, Dally stalks off and does not come back. Cherry tells Ponyboy that she and her friend, Marcia, left their boyfriends because the boys were drunk. The girls ask Ponyboy and Johnny to sit with them. Two-Bit arrives before the movie is over, sneaks up on the group, and frightens Johnny. Cherry is surprised by the strength of Johnny’s reaction, until Ponyboy tells her that Johnny was jumped by a group of Socs a few months before.

After the movie, Two-Bit convinces the girls to let him give them a ride home. As they are walking to Two-Bit’s car, a Mustang full of Socs pulls up. Bob Sheldon and Randy Anderson, Cherry and Marcia’s boyfriends, plead with the girls to come with them and stop walking with “the bums.” Two-Bit takes offense at the comment. Cherry and Marcia agree to go with Bob and Randy in order to prevent a fight. Before Cherry leaves, she tells Ponyboy not to take it personally if she does not talk to him at school on Monday. Ponyboy understands: They are not in the same social class, and they never will be. Cherry also tells Ponyboy that she hopes she never sees Dally again, because she will fall for him if she does.

Two-Bit leaves. Ponyboy and Johnny continue walking home but stop at a vacant lot down the street to talk about meeting the girls. They wish that they lived in a place not divided into Greasers and Socs, where everyone is just plain and ordinary. The boys fall asleep in the vacant lot. Johnny wakes Ponyboy and tells him that he is going to stay in the lot instead of going home. Ponyboy realizes he has missed his curfew and rushes home.

When Ponyboy gets home, Darry is still awake, worried and angry. Ponyboy tries to explain, but Darry is tired of his excuses. When Soda tries to stick up for Ponyboy, Darry yells at him. Ponyboy defends Soda. The argument comes to an abrupt end when Darry slaps Ponyboy in the face. It is the first time Darry has used physical violence against his brother, and, though he tries to apologize, Ponyboy bolts from the house. He returns to the vacant lot, wakes Johnny up, and tells him that they are running away.

After running for several blocks, Ponyboy tells Johnny about the fight with Darry. Ponyboy thinks it over and suggests that they walk to a nearby park and back. He hopes that may provide enough time for him to cool off and go back home. While at the park, the two boys are confronted by Bob, Randy, and a couple of their friends. Bob and Randy want to pick a fight over the girls. Johnny notices the rings on Bob’s fingers and realizes Bob is the Soc who assaulted him. Bob and the other Socs grab Ponyboy and begin to drown him in a fountain. Johnny pulls out a switchblade and kills Bob to save Ponyboy.

When Ponyboy comes to, he and Johnny go to Dally for help. Dally tells them to hide out in an abandoned church in Windrixville. He gives them some money and a gun and tells them that he will visit as soon as it is safe. Ponyboy and Johnny disguise themselves by cutting their hair short and bleaching Ponyboy’s blond. They pass their time in Windrixville by playing cards and reading Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936).

Dally arrives nearly a week later and reports that a rumble is being planned between the Greasers and the Socs. Cherry Valance is spying for the Greasers. She has told Dally that she will testify that the Socs were drunk and looking for a fight and that the boys must have fought back in self-defense. When Johnny hears Dally’s news, he decides that he and Ponyboy should go back to Tulsa and turn themselves in. They cannot run forever, he reasons, and it is not fair to keep Darry and Soda worrying about Ponyboy. Dally tries to talk Johnny out of returning because he does not want Johnny to end up in jail and become hardened by it: Dally does not want Johnny to end up like him.

The three are heading back home, when they notice that the church is on fire. Ponyboy jumps out of Dally’s car to investigate. A group of kids on a school picnic and their teachers are outside the church, waiting for firemen to arrive. One of the teachers realizes that some of the kids are missing. They hear faint screams coming from inside the church. Ponyboy runs into the burning building, followed by Johnny and Dally. Together, they manage to rescue the children trapped inside. Dally pulls Ponyboy out of the church just before the roof collapses. Ponyboy passes out. When he comes to, he learns that a large timber fell on Johnny and broke his back. Dally escaped with a severely burned arm but is otherwise all right. Ponyboy also learns that they are being lauded as heroes, which strikes him as funny since he is used to being called a “punk” or a “hood.”

Johnny dies before the rumble. Dally cannot cope with Johnny’s death. While the rest of the gang fights the Socs and wins, Dally robs a grocery store. He pulls a gun on the police who are pursuing him and is shot to death while his friends look on. Ponyboy is traumatized by his experiences and suffers a break with reality. He thinks that he is the one who killed Bob and that Johnny is still alive.

At a court hearing, the judge acquits Ponyboy based on Randy and Cherry’s testimony. Ponyboy returns to school but has a hard time readjusting to “normal” life. His grades drop. Ponyboy’s English teacher knows he is capable of doing better and offers him a chance to improve his grade by writing an essay for extra credit. Ponyboy chooses to write an essay telling the Greasers’ side of the story. He opens the essay with the first sentence of the novel, “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” Ponyboy’s essay is the novel, The Outsiders.

The Outsiders Extended Summary

The Greaser Gang
The Outsiders opens with the recollections of Ponyboy Curtis, the narrator of the story. He tells...

(The entire section is 1310 words.)

The Outsiders Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1 Summary

Ponyboy Curtis comes out of a movie theater alone. He likes watching movies by himself, but now he is in danger. It is not safe for boys like him, greasers, to be alone on the streets.

Greasers come from the poor side of town. They are tough kids who wear their hair long and dress in simple jeans and T-shirts. Greasers know how to steal and fight, and they are the enemies of the Socs, or “Socials.” Socs are rich kids who drive fancy cars, drink too much, and beat up greasers for fun.

As a lone fourteen-year-old greaser, Ponyboy is an easy target for the Socs, but he sees no choice but to walk home by himself. He knows he should have waited to go to the movies until one of his older brothers, Darry and...

(The entire section is 666 words.)

Chapter 2 Summary

The next evening, Ponyboy goes into town with Dallas and Johnny. The three boys hang around the streets, chatting with other greasers, chasing little kids, and watching fights. When it gets dark, they climb the fence of the Nightly Double, a drive-in movie theater, and sit down in some seats that are set up for people without cars. Immediately, Dallas spots some Soc girls and begins talking dirty to them. This makes Ponyboy uncomfortable, but he does not try to make Dallas stop.

When Dallas goes to buy a soda, Ponyboy chats with the girls, who are impressed to learn that he has skipped a year in school. One of them asks, “What’s a nice, smart kid like you running around with trash like that for?” It bothers...

(The entire section is 491 words.)

Chapter 3 Summary

After the movie, the boys convince the girls to let Two-Bit drive them home. As they all walk to Two-Bit’s car, Cherry explains to Ponyboy that money is not the only difference between Socs and greasers. She says poor kids like Ponyboy are more emotional and real, whereas the richer Socs find it difficult to feel anything. She says the Socs have more than they want, so it is difficult to satisfy them.

Ponyboy is normally quiet, but he finds it easy to talk to Cherry. He tells her all about Soda, but when she asks about Darry, Ponyboy gets bitter and says Darry is cold and mean. He argues with Two-Bit and Johnny, who say that Darry loves Ponyboy. The whole conversation is overwhelming to Ponyboy, who gets frustrated...

(The entire section is 448 words.)

Chapter 4 Summary

Ponyboy and Johnny are heading home through the park when they hear a car horn. It comes from the blue Mustang, the one that picked up the girls. Five Socs get out and drunkenly approach Ponyboy and Johnny. They grab Ponyboy and dunk him in the fountain, holding him under so long he thinks he is drowning.

Moments later Ponyboy wakes up on the ground beside the fountain, coughing and shivering. Johnny is sitting beside him, big-eyed and pale. “I killed him,” Johnny says. “I killed that boy.”

Bob, the handsome leader of the Socs, is lying dead on the ground. Johnny explains that he stabbed Bob in self-defense; the Socs were drowning Ponyboy and preparing to beat Johnny up like they did before. When Bob...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

When Ponyboy wakes up, he keeps his eyes closed and tries to pretend he is still back at home with his brothers. After a while, he faces reality and opens his eyes. The church is empty, and a note says Johnny has gone to buy supplies. Ponyboy sits alone and feels increasingly spooked by his situation and surroundings until Johnny returns.

The boys know the police must be looking for them, so Johnny insists on cutting and bleaching Ponyboy’s hair. Hair is an important part of Ponyboy’s identity as a greaser, so at first he resists cutting it. Johnny points out that the police will make the boys cut their hair if they get caught, and Ponyboy reluctantly lets Johnny play barber with a switchblade. When the job is done,...

(The entire section is 426 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

Ponyboy and Johnny are shocked to hear that Cherry is helping the greasers. Bob, the boy Johnny killed, was her boyfriend. However, she knows how ruthless Bob sometimes was, and she believes Johnny acted in self-defense. Dallas mentions that Cherry seems to hate him, but Ponyboy knows that Cherry is afraid of falling in love with Dallas.

Johnny announces that he wants to go home and turn himself in. He says it is not fair for him to make the others take care of him or to keep Ponyboy away from his brothers. A bit fearfully, Johnny adds, “I don’t guess my parents are worried about me or anything?” They are not, and Johnny is devastated. This makes Dallas angry. He cannot understand why Johnny bothers caring about...

(The entire section is 642 words.)

Chapter 7 Summary

A crowd of reporters comes into the hospital waiting room, and Ponyboy answers their questions. Afterward, the doctor explains to Ponyboy and his brothers that Dallas will be okay within a few weeks, but he will have some scarring. Johnny will be crippled for life if he survives.

The boys can do nothing more at the hospital so they go home to bed. In the morning, Ponyboy gets up first. He is cooking his family’s usual breakfast of eggs and chocolate cake when Two-Bit and Steve arrive with a morning paper. The front page is covered with stories about Ponyboy and the gang. There is a story about the fire, another about the fight with the Socs that ended in murder, and a third about Ponyboy and his brothers. Reading the...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

Ponyboy and Two-Bit go to the hospital, but the nurses refuse to let them see Johnny. The boys keep pestering until a doctor hears them. “Let them go in,” says the doctor. “He’s been asking for them. It can’t hurt now.” Hearing this, Ponyboy realizes Johnny is dying.

In the hospital room, Johnny is clearly exhausted and in pain. However, he is thrilled that the newspaper called him a hero. When the boys ask if he wants anything, Johnny asks them to bring some grease for his hair and a copy of Gone with the Wind, so Ponyboy can finish reading it to him. Johnny knows he is dying, and he says he does not want to die. “Sixteen years ain’t long enough,” he says. Ponyboy assures him he will be...

(The entire section is 495 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

Ponyboy sits down to dinner with Darry and Soda, but he has trouble eating because he does not feel well. He secretly swallows five aspirin, hoping they will suppress his headache so he can fight. The brothers shower and dress up as they always do before a rumble so they can show the Socs they are not just trash.

Darry suggests that Ponyboy should not be in the fight, and Ponyboy protests. Unlike his brothers, he does not like fighting, but he feels he has to pitch in for his side. Darry admits that the greaser side needs every fighter it can get now that Johnny and Dallas are in the hospital and a few other boys are in jail. Reluctantly, Darry says Ponyboy can participate.

As the time for the rumble...

(The entire section is 630 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

Dallas leaves with his car, so Ponyboy is left to walk home from the hospital alone. He is grieving, sick, and dazed from the kick to his head in the fight. For several hours he stumbles confusedly through the streets, trying to convince himself that Johnny is not really dead. Eventually a man stops him, tells him he is hurt, and gives him a ride home.

When Ponyboy gets in, the whole gang is waiting for him and wondering where he has gone. At first Darry seems angry, but then he looks at Ponyboy’s face and realizes something is wrong. Ponyboy explains that Johnny is dead and Dallas is missing. Before this news has a chance to sink in, a phone rings, and Dallas is on the line. He says he held up a liquor store and the...

(The entire section is 413 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

Ponyboy’s doctors say he has to stay in bed for a whole week. He is not the kind of person who usually sits still, so he has trouble following the doctors’ orders. He reads and draws pictures, but he is bored. One day he looks through Soda’s old yearbooks. He finds a picture he recognizes slightly, but he is not sure why. When he reads the name, he finds out it is Bob.

Ponyboy studies the picture for some time, trying to imagine what kind of person Bob was when he was not drinking and fighting. He knows that Cherry thought he was sweet and funny, a good friend, and a leader. Ponyboy wonders about Bob’s parents. Do they hate Ponyboy and Johnny? Ponyboy hopes so. He hopes that Bob’s parents do not pity the...

(The entire section is 419 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

Ponyboy expects his hearing to take place in a big courtroom, but it does not. It is just a meeting with his brothers, his doctor, Cherry, Randy, their families, and a judge. The Socs speak first, telling the story as they saw it. Ponyboy thinks they get the facts right except that they say Johnny was the one who killed Bob. When the Socs are finished, the judge asks Darry and Soda whether Dallas was a good friend of theirs. Both boys answer yes, although they know that it is risky to claim friendship with a juvenile delinquent like Dallas. Ponyboy is proud of them for standing by their friend.

When it is Ponyboy’s turn to speak, the judge asks nothing about the night Bob was killed. Ponyboy only has to talk about his...

(The entire section is 765 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear