S.E. Hinton was still in high school when she wrote The Outsiders, first published in 1967. An immediate sensation, the novel is now considered the best-selling young adult novel of all time. Its realistic portrayal of teenage life—drawn from Hinton’s experience at a high school in Tulsa, Oklahoma—stood in marked contrast to the light, shallow young adult fiction of the day. Audiences responded, and The Outsiders changed the genre. The novel inspired a 1983 movie directed by Francis Ford Coppola that has become a classic; as the film continued to attract new audiences, it was re-cut in 2005 to be even more faithful to the novel. Although The Outsiders, set in 1965, addresses the difficult and unusual circumstances of a particular group of teenage friends, it speaks to anyone who has experienced the pain of rejection and loneliness born of condemnation and social ostracism. The novel speaks to those who are outcast, encouraging them to persevere, even in a dark world.
The Outsiders centers on the violent rivalry between two high school social groups: popular, well-to-do students and poor, unpopular students who are considered “lower class.” The confrontations between the snobbish “Socs” (short for “socials” and pronounced SOSH-es) and the rebellious “greasers” drive the action. The madras shirts and slicked-back hair that identify each group respectively have long gone out of fashion, but after more than forty years, the novel’s themes endure. “In-crowds” and “outcasts” still figure prominently in high school society, whether they are defined by socioeconomic class or other factors. Teens without strong family relationships still find the acceptance they need in groups of friends or in gangs—sometimes with violent results—and dreamers like Ponyboy, the novel’s narrator and a member of the greasers, still struggle to hold on to their innocence, even as they grow up and experience the raw injustices of the world around them.
Hinton weaves a narrative fraught with tension and drama; the action is nonstop from the moment early in the book when the Socs jump Ponyboy on his way home from the movies. Anything can happen in the dangerous, unpredictable world Ponyboy and his friends inhabit, and the rumbles, getaways, and daring rescues move the plot along swiftly. The pacing makes the book wholly readable, but it is the character development that elevates it beyond an exciting story. The characters in Ponyboy’s gang— Dally, Two-Bit, Johnny, Darry, Sodapop, and Steve—are fully rendered, believable, and memorable. They are flawed without becoming unlikeable, and they are tough while remaining vulnerable. Their attempts to make sense of the world—and to survive it—endear them to the reader, as does their fierce loyalty to one another. Judged as worthless by society at large, they find respect, acceptance, and comfort only in each other. In their need to belong and to matter, they are humanized; the disparaging social labels attached to them are meaningless.
Robert Frost’s poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” is developed as a central motif in the novel. It emphasizes the difficulty of the young to remain young and pure of heart in an adult world often characterized by cruelty and corruption. The idea can be found in numerous minor exchanges between the boys throughout the narrative, but it is expressed most clearly and most poignantly in the conclusion through Johnny’s dying words to Ponyboy: “stay gold.” The message—and the novel itself—continues to resonate with young readers navigating the difficulties and uncertainties of their own lives, making The Outsiders a perennial favorite.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Explain what it means to be a hero in the context of Ponyboy’s world.
2. Describe how the boys act as one another’s family.
3. Chart Ponyboy’s growth from childhood to adulthood.
4. Compare and contrast greasers and Socs.
5. Discuss how the boys in Ponyboy’s gang cope with the world around them.
6. Explain the meaning of the expression “stay gold.”