The Rise of Youth Culture
In the United States, the period from 1945 to 1963 was termed the "Baby Boom" because of the sharp increase in the number of children born during those years. By 1958, one-third of the country's population was fifteen years old or younger. The years after World War II had also seen an increase in wealth throughout the United States. By the time they became teenagers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, therefore, many of these "Baby Boomers" had plenty of spare cash to spend. Companies competed to attract the dollars of these new consumers. The film, music, television, and fashion industries created products especially for the increasingly influential teen market. Rock 'n' roll became the most popular music on the radio, and movies also reflected this new focus on adolescents. Actors James Dean and Marlon Brando became idols for portraying teenage anti-heroes in Rebel without a Cause (1955) and The Wild One (1954). Paul Newman, whose looks Ponyboy admires as "tough," followed in the footsteps of these actors by playing similarly cool characters in the films The Hustler (1961), Hud (1963), and Cool Hand Luke (1967).
Teenagers' increased spending power also gave them a new measure of independence from their parents. Rebellion against adult authority became a notable theme in many teen films. Loud rock 'n' roll...
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Setting is crucial to this story, for it is through their environment, the inner city, that the main characters are defined: they live on the wrong side of the tracks, and their surroundings force them to grow up quickly and to become tough. Hinton modeled the book's setting on her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, although she never refers to the city by name. The novel is most likely set in the mid-1960s, the time period during which it was written, although, again, Hinton makes few explicit references to external historical events that might fix the book in time.
In The Outsiders, the city is dirty, noisy, crowded, and full of danger. With the city's art museums, concert halls, and theaters traditionally off-limits, the only sources of culture available to the poor boys, or "greasers," are the rodeo and the movies. Many of the greasers dream of the freedom and quiet of the country, where people are not labeled and discriminated against because of their appearance. Ponyboy explains, "I wanted to be out of towns and away from excitement. 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." Later in the book, Ponyboy finds himself in the country with Johnny, who is wanted for murder. The two boys undergo a physical and emotional transformation while hiding out in an old church building for five days. For people accustomed to the fast pace of city life, the isolation and quiet of this new...
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Ponyboy narrates the story in retrospect, under the guise of having to write out a theme for English class. This presentation of a story by one of the characters involved is called first-person narrative. A first-person narrative is easily identified by the use of "I" in telling the story. Having one of the characters tell the story can make the story more immediate for readers, because they easily can put themselves in the narrator's place.
A first-person narrator also means a limited perspective, however. Ponyboy can only describe his own thoughts and can only relate events he has witnessed or heard about. This limited perspective lends itself very well to the themes of class conflict that appear throughout the book. At the beginning of the story, Pony can only sympathize with other greasers. A third-person narrator ("he/she said") who knows about all of the characters could tell the reader what Cherry or Randy or even Sodapop was thinking. Instead, Pony has to learn to understand other people's feelings all by himself. This understanding is an important part of his coming of age.
Hinton is a character writer instead of an idea writer. She develops her characters in depth and then lets them create the story. Consequently, the opening of the book is a very detailed introduction to each character. By the end of the book, the reader knows each character in intimate detail. In...
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Hinton makes great use of the literary technique of "point of view," that is, the point from which a story is told. Hinton always uses the first-person narrative in which the story is told through the eyes and experiences of a central character; only what he has seen or has been told can be related to the readers. Thus the presence of the author is removed almost entirely from the storytelling. This point of view is, in fact, a brilliant choice by Hinton, given the themes and concerns of her novels. Ponyboy is an engaging and intelligent creation; the reader tends to like him almost immediately for his complete honesty and for his growing self-awareness of the life he leads. His teenage voice captures the speech rhythms of modern youth. Many critics believe that Hinton's ability in this area is unusually masterful. She has a gift for the exact vocabulary (excluding most obscenities, which she does not use) and the syntax of the modern teenager. Thus the novel seems to take on an air of verisimilitude for the reader, even if the situations seem sentimental or cliche at times. Doubtless the true-to-life speech has led to the popularity of The Outsiders among young adults.
The world of romance — in its technical sense as an invocation of the socially remote or past, as a world separate from reality but one that reinterprets reality through well-known stories whose very familiarity allows profound allusions to other matters — is also invoked by Hinton as...
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The Outsiders contains a complex symbolic structure within a straightforward plot. Hinton uses symbolism to express class and character differences. For the greasers, long hair represents dignity and independence. Even the legal system recognizes some connection between hair and self-esteem, for as Johnny notes, the first thing a judge does when a greaser appears in court is to order a hair cut. The greasers' hair also symbolizes the group's lower social status: the word "greaser" refers to the way the young men fix their hair. It is a derogatory term, although the greasers have adopted it themselves.
On a broader symbolic scale, Hinton weaves archetypal images and situations into her story. Ponyboy and Johnny, for example, do not simply hide out in the country; they undergo a metamorphosis. Hinton carefully constructs their rites of passage to include the typical stages of this process. First, the boys are exiled: they must hide in the country, away from family and friends. For five days they wait for word from outside, yet during this period they are thinking and growing. They cut their hair, thus breaking a major connection with their past lives and making themselves more open to change. Their transition comes as a test, literally a trial by fire: the boys must decide in a few seconds whether or not to risk their own lives in an attempt to save the children in the burning church. They decide on the noblest course of action, and Johnny sustains...
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The area of social concerns has always been one of the most important to the fiction of Hinton. Primary among the concerns of her fiction is the role of the modern teenage peer-group, especially as it is realized in gangs. The narrator of The Outsiders, Ponyboy, is cognizant of his role as a gang member throughout the novel. He feels that he belongs to his gang, that he must cooperate with them, and that even if members sometimes disagree, they are still united against common enemies. Most of all, he knows that one must "save face" in front of the gang, fighting in fights and protecting his own. The world of adult authority, with its rights and duties, is almost nonexistent in the novel, except for the role of the police and state agencies (who are seen mainly as troublemakers for members of the gang). Ponyboy's parents are no longer alive, and he is being raised by his two older brothers, who are both members of his gang. This type of intense solidarity coupled with a world view that knows only immediacy and instant gratification might be one of the best portrayals of the teenage mind-set in modern times.
Another concern in the novel is class warfare, realized in a climactic gang fight between the "greasers," Ponyboy's peer-group, and the "Socs," the more wealthy, middle-class set. The warfare takes on the characteristics of a constant feud between the two groups. Individuals are brutally attacked by roving "packs" of teenagers from the opposing group,...
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Compare and Contrast
1967: Romanticized movies of teen rebellion give way to upbeat musicals extolling a life of beach parties, fast cars, and teen relationships.
1990s: One of the most popular genres for teens is the horror movie, in which a group of teens is pitted against a homicidal maniac. The 1996 film Scream becomes one of the top-grossing releases of the year, earning over $100 million in box-office receipts.
1967: The Beatles lead the "British Invasion" of American music as they dominate the pop charts. Their 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band uses several experimental recording techniques and influences countless pop and rock artists.
1990s: Popular music has broken down into countless genres, with no one type dominating the market. Rap, "alternative," rhythm and blues, pop, rock, and movie soundtrack albums all reach number one at various times during the decade.
1967: Drop-out rates show a sharp increase, and by the late 1960s over 7.5 million students have left high school before graduating. In 1967, 15 percent of white students are drop-outs, as opposed to almost 30 percent of black students (Hispanic rates were not recorded at this time).
1990s: In 1996, the overall dropout rate remains steady at five percent, or about 500,000 students yearly. Drop-out rates for both black and white...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Dallas Winston is an ambiguous character, romantic and independent, in some ways repugnant. He can be cruel and dangerous, but he loves Johnny, the gentlest boy in the gang. What makes Ponyboy admire Dally? Is Dally redeemed by his love and concern for Johnny? Does his suicide alter the way the reader thinks of him?
2. Discuss the various attitudes towards fighting found in The Outsiders. Which attitudes do you agree with? Which do you disagree with? Is violence ever justified?
3. One criticism of The Outsiders is its less-than-realistic language. Euphemisms such as "Glory!" are used in place of more likely, but more controversial expressions. In other scenes there are blanks where a curse would have been. Why does Hinton do this? Does it detract from the story or make it less believable? Why or why not?
4. What do you imagine Ponyboy doing in ten years? What about Sodapop, Darry, Two-Bit, Curly Shepard, Tim Shepard, Cherry, and Randy?
5. Imagine that you are a "greasey girl." Can you identify with Ponyboy's story? Do his complaints apply to you? Do you have any other problems that he would not be aware of?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Retell the story from the point of view of the Socs. What is the title of this new book? Are the Socs "the insiders," or are they outcasts, too?
2. Write a research paper on presentday gang life. Does the information you find remind you of Ponyboy's gang? Does it remind you of Tim Shepard's gang or the gang from Brumly? Considering that The Outsiders is set in the 1960s, how realistic do you think Hinton's portrayal of gang life is?
3. Write a paper about child abuse. What options are available for young people in Johnny's situation? Are Johnny's reactions and feelings typical of an abused child?
4. Who is your favorite character in this book? Why? Who is your least favorite character? Why? Which character in this book is most like you? Why?
5. Read some of the criticism written on The Outsiders. Do any of the critics mention ideas that you overlooked? What points do you agree with and disagree with in particular critics' assessments?
6. Many readers are surprised when they learn that S. E. Hinton is a woman. Why do you think this is so? What does this say about the book's content? What does it say about gender roles and conceptions about male and female behavior in your country?
7. Discuss the way adults are portrayed as a group and as individuals in The Outsiders.
8. Is there any one character in The Outsiders who can be called a villain? Who are some...
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Topics for Further Study
Reflect on the significance of the title—who are the outsiders, and what are they outside of? What does it mean to be an outsider and why has this become a twentieth-century phenomenon? Support your arguments with examples from recent history.
There are two famous novels with similar titles to Hinton's story. Both concern young men, circumstantial murder(s), and existentialism (the philosophy that the individual is solely responsible for his fate). The two novels are Richard Wright's The Outsider and Albert Camus's The Stranger (published in England as The Outsider). Compare Hinton's novel with one of these other "outsider" stories.
Many people deny that social or economic class plays a significant role in American society or government. Using examples from this novel and other teenage books or films (such as The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink through the recent Clueless), argue whether you think this is true or false.
Compare and contrast The Outsiders with another story of gangs, such as Boys in the Hood or West Side Story. Compare specific events, characters, and themes.
Juvenile crime and "youth predators" have become an obsessive political issue over the last decade. Are youth today really more violent than twenty or thirty years ago? Do some research into...
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The primary American novel of a youth maturing must be The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884). Huck's attempt to view the values and rules of the adult world lead to his own realizations. But more immediate as a precedent for The Outsiders is J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951). The first-person narrative told by a teenage narrator who is trying to mature and come to terms with himself and the world reminds one of Hinton. The speech rhythms of a teenager were also noted by the critics in this novel. A neglected but sure precedent is also found in West Side Story, This story of teenage rival gangs in New York who cannot find sense in the adult world, who achieve their status within the gang, and who come to a better understanding of each other at the end is similar to Hinton's themes. In addition, the poeticized telling of the story through music and dance in West Side Story brings to mind Hinton's use of literary allusions by Ponyboy in The Outsiders. The novels of Henry James and Joseph Conrad also are precedents in their use of the enveloping technique and a utilization of specialized narrators.
Although some have attempted to compare her style to that of American novelist Ernest Hemingway, this is clearly not the case. While the narrators of many of Hemingway's novels do have a tough, lean prose style in a first-person narration, they are clearly not the literary antecedents to the young, naive narrators who ask the...
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Warner Brothers produced a featurelength version of The Outsiders in 1983. It is rated PG and is available on video. The movie follows the plot of the book closely but leaves out much of Ponyboy's introspection. Still, the movie remains true to the spirit of the book, and it adds nothing that is not in the book. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, who also directed Rumble Fish (1983), the film stars C. Thomas Howell as Ponyboy and also features Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, and Diane Lane. Hinton makes a brief appearance in the movie as a nurse.
Hinton has written another book, Rumble Fish, that deals with gangs and people trying to escape gang life. Her second novel, That Was Then, This Is Now, deals with conflicts between friendship and growing away from the old gang. These books, like The Outsiders and Tex, are set in Oklahoma of the late 1960s or early 1970s.
Tex was adapted to the screen in a 1982 production directed by Tim Hunter and starring Matt Dillon, Jim Metzler, and Meg Tilly. The film version of That Was Then, This Is Now (1985) was directed by Christopher Cain and stars Emilio Estevez.
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The Outsiders was made into a film starring C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Diane Lane, Tom Cruise, and Emilio Estevez. The 1983 Warner Brothers film, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, was a huge success and remains a popular film.
Fox-TV adapted the novel as a television series in 1990.
The Outsiders was also made into a filmstrip with cassette in 1978 by Current Affairs/Mark Twain Media, and as an audiocassette for Random House, 1993.
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What Do I Read Next?
Hinton's second book, That Was Then, This Is Now, was published in 1971 after she overcame a serious writing block. The story concerns two foster brothers moving in opposite directions: one becomes successful with school and girls while the other falls into drugs and crime.
Hinton's 1975 novel Rumble Fish continues to deal with youths and gangs. In this story, Rusty James struggles to earn a tough reputation.
The 1979 work Tex is Hinton's most seamless novel. The story is set in California, where a traveling father has left his two sons in each other's care. As with her other stories, this one is action-packed.
The classic Catcher in the Rye by J. D Salinger (1951) relates two days in the life of an idealistic boy after his expulsion from school. Holden Caufield's disillusionment with the world is more profound than Ponyboy's, but comparable.
A novel by Pulitzer-Prize winner Paul Zindel 1969's The Pigman is about two sophomores who are outsiders in their own community. John and Lorraine pass the time by pulling pranks. It is during one of these pranks that they meet the "pigman" and are led to betray the friendship they have created.
For a real change of pace, a story...
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For Further Reference
Commire, Anne, ed. Something about the Author. Vol. 19. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980. Contains biographical information as well as some critical analysis of Hinton's work.
De Montreville, Doris, and Elizabeth D. Crawford, eds. Fourth Book of Junior Authors. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1978. Contains an analysis of Hinton's career up to 1978 and lists awards received.
Hinton, S. E. "Face to Face with a Teen- Age Novelist." Seventeen (October 1967): 133. Hinton talks about herself and her writing. Parts of this article are reprinted in Commire.
Teen-Agers Are for Real." New York Times Book Review (August 27, 1967): 26-29. More Hinton on Hinton and on young adult literature.
Klrkpatrick, D. L., ed. Twentieth-Century Children's Writers. New York: St. Martin's, 1978. An overview of Hinton's writing career to 1978, with analysis of her themes and characters.
Locher, Frances Carol, ed. Contemporary Authors. Vols. 81-84. Detroit: Gale Research, 1979. A brief overview of Hinton's work.
Robin, Lisa. "The Young and the Restless." In Media and Methods (May/June 1982): 28, 45. Focuses on Tex. Includes a teacher's guide to The Outsiders, Tex, Rumble Fish, and That Was Then, This Is Now that offers many useful discussion questions.
Senick, Gerard J., ed. Children's Literature Review. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale Research, 1978. Contains...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
May Hill Arbuthnot, in her Children's Reading in the Home, Scott, Foresman, 1969, pp. 174-75.
Aidan Chambers, review of The Outsiders, Children's Book News, Vol. 5, No. 6, November-December, 1970, p. 280.
Jay Daly, in his Presenting S. E. Hinton, Twayne Publishers, 1987.
Thomas Fleming, a review of The Outsiders, in the New York Times Book Review, Part H, May 7, 1967, pp. 10, 12.
Lillian V. Gerhardt, a review of The Outsiders, in the School Library Journal, Vol. 13, No. 9, May, 1967, pp. 64-65.
Alethea K. Helbig and Agnes Regan Perkins, "The Outsiders," in their Dictionary of American Children's Fiction, 1960-1984 - Recent Books of Recognized Merit, Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. 495-96.
Nat Hentoff, a review of The Outsiders, in the Atlantic Monthly, December, 1967, pp. 401-402.
Susan Eloise Hinton, "Teen Agers Are for Real," New York Times Book Review, August, 1967, pp. 26-29.
William Jay Jacobs, "Reading the Unreached," Teachers College Record, Vol. 69, No. 2, November, 1967, pp. 201-202.
Michele Landsberg, "Growing Up," in her Reading for the Love of It: Best Books for Young Readers, Prentice Hall Press, 1987, pp. 201-28.
Michael Malone, "Tough Puppies," in the Nation, Vol. 242, No. 9,...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Daly, Jay. Presenting S. E. Hinton. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
Donelson, Kenneth L., and Alleen Pace Nilsen. Literature for Today’s Young Adults. 3d ed. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1989.
Mills, Randall K. “The Novels of S. E. Hinton: Springboard to Personal Growth for Adolescents.” Adolescence 22 (Fall, 1987): 641-646.
Stanek, Lou Willett. A Teacher’s Guide to the Paperback Editions of the Novels of S. E. Hinton. New York: Dell, 1975.
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