Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series, Supplement)
Rumble Fish opens and closes in California, at least five years after the main action of the story has transpired. Rusty-James, who narrates the story in the first person, describes a chance encounter with his former best friend, Steve Hays, who is now studying to be a teacher. The dialogue, which propels the novel, reveals that Rusty-James has been in a reformatory and creates the framework for the flashback that becomes the novel’s vehicle.
Much of the story’s action originates in Benny’s, a pool hall and bar that serves as a hangout for junior and senior high school students who are disillusioned by the poverty of their neighborhood and the callous indifference of adults to their frustration. They are frequently truant from school, unsuccessful in the classroom, and usually in trouble. School officials are depicted as corrupt; one coach even offers Rusty-James a five-dollar bribe to beat up another student. Police officials add to the conflict and tension of the neighborhood with their abuse of power and prejudiced treatment of Rusty-James and the Motorcycle Boy.
Parental figures, too, are destroyed by their own weaknesses; Rusty-James’ father was once a successful attorney, but, as an alcoholic, he now offers no security or role model for Rusty-James or his brother. Their mother, whom the Motorcycle Boy eventually locates in California, has abandoned all responsibility for her sons, and the story of being left alone by her...
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Rumble Fish was published in 1975, but Hinton wrote it during the early 1970s. At the time, the Vietnam War was still raging, and the war polarized the American population between those who supported it and those who vehemently protested against it. The U.S. government finally withdrew its last troops from combat in 1973, but the war left lasting scars on the psyches of everyone, from the soldiers involved to those who had never left home. In all, 3 million soldiers participated in the war; 58,000 were killed, 1,000 were missing and never found, and 304,000 were wounded.
The growing use of drugs by young people, which became popular in the 1960s, continued in the 1970s, affecting people of every social class. In 1975, First Lady Betty Ford commented in an interview that she thought her own children had smoked marijuana.
The Civil Rights and feminist movements were still fighting for equal rights for minorities and women. Although many women supported the feminist movement, its effects were slow to trickle throughout American culture so that, like the girls in Rumble Fish, many women still felt that their status was derived from that of the man they were with. And although great strides had been made toward ensuring equal rights to people of all races, racial tensions still divided society, as shown by Rusty-James's unease at realizing that he and Steve are the only white...
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Set during the late 1960s or early 1970s, Rumble Fish—like all of Hinton's novels—takes place in a southwestern city that the author never explicitly names in the text but has identified as her native Tulsa, Oklahoma. The characters in Rumble Fish are oppressed by their environment. They live on the "wrong side" of the river and seldom if ever escape city limits. Hinton sets up parallels between the bleakness of her characters' psychological landscape and the darkness of their physical surroundings. Most of the novel is set at night, and the few daytime scenes take place largely indoors, in pool halls or darkened rooms.
The river that bisects the city separates the characters in Rumble Fish from "bright lights" and bustling crowds. When the Motorcycle Boy leads Rusty-James and his friend Steve Hays on an excursion across the river, Hinton contrasts the dizzying whirl of activity that confronts the boys with the menacing, dark world that they leave behind. But Hinton suggests that although Rusty-James has a degree of physical mobility, he will never be able to cross certain boundaries. Essentially alienated from his physical environment, Rusty-James resembles his brother, who, when asked about a trip to California, replies sarcastically, "It was one laugh after another. Even better than here, as amusing as this place is." And although the book opens and closes with Rusty-James sitting on a beach, far from the inner city, it is...
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The book is written in first person from Rusty-James' s point of view, which allows the reader to see events only as Rusty-James sees them, leading to some interesting questions about Rusty-James's perception and how much of it is accurate. In particular, it's not clear whether his suspicions of some adults are correct or not. For example, he is cynical about Cassandra and her motives and doesn't trust her because she gave up her rich family to come and live in his bad neighborhood and follow his brother around. He is also suspicious of Coach Ryan because Ryan is friendly with him. Although it's clear that both Coach Ryan and Cassandra have problems and motives of their own, readers may wonder whether they're as bad, or as selfish or phony, as Rusty-James thinks they are.
In addition, the one-sided presentation of events from Rusty-James's perspective is poignant because readers may see the gaps and flaws in his reasoning when he does not. He wants more than anything to be like his brother, but from the reader's point of view, this ambition is questionable: his brother has accomplished nothing, is going nowhere, and has lost both his color vision and his hearing through his own lack of good judgment. And although the Motorcycle Boy is apparently a natural leader, it's clear that he will never really use this gift for anything constructive because he is so emotionally damaged. This sad fact is lost on...
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While Hinton's other novels are straightforward narratives of adolescent life, constructed around conflict and confrontation, Rumble Fish presents a concentrated structure of images, offering a penetrating examination of its central character by creating a dreamlike atmosphere that reflects his confusion and despair. As Rusty-James slips away from reality, his memory becomes the elusive point of view from which the reader must determine what really happened; his increasingly selective recollection means that this point of view is not completely trustworthy. But despite his forgetfulness and skewed perceptions, Rusty-James attempts to be honest. His naive narration creates dramatic irony: readers understand what it happening to him more than Rusty-James does himself.
This sense of impending doom contributes a great deal to the tone and color of the novel. The characters' failure to escape their fates reflects a strong element of Greek tragedy. The classical tragedy revolves around a heroic figure who attempts to avoid destiny but, because of a "flaw" in his or her character, has no control over the future. Echoes of this literary tradition resound in Rumble Fish, elevating it well beyond the typical young adult novel. The Motorcycle Boy's color blindness brings to mind the tragic figure of the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles' King Oedipus, who blinds himself after unwittingly fulfilling a prophecy that predicted he would kill his father...
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Hinton's novels have continuously drawn the objections of critics who feel that books like Rumble Fish romanticize lawless behavior and glamorize rebellion. Others condemn the emphasis on persistent violence. There is no denying that Rusty-James's life is organized around antisocial behavior. Drinking bouts, drug use, sexual encounters, truancy, and casual violence are all a part of this novel; a teacher in the story even offers to pay Rusty-James to beat up another student. Hinton intends for the novel to document Rusty-James's disintegration, and it is abundantly clear that his way of life is self-defeating in the end. Nevertheless, Hinton does not withhold details, the most disturbing of which may be the intoxication Rusty-James feels from his violent acts.
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Compare and Contrast
1970s: Most members of gangs are between the ages of twelve and twenty-one, and it's rare for females to be involved in gang violence.
Today: Gang members may be as young as nine or as old as thirty, and although males still outnumber females by fifteen to one, the number of young women in gangs is increasing.
1970s: Weapons used in gang violence are relatively simple, such as knives and chains, and opposing gang members meet face-to-face to fight.
Today: Gang members may use AK-47s or Uzis, and drive-by shootings have replaced vacant-lot rumbles.
1970s: Fifteen percent of whites and twenty-six percent of African Americans drop out of high school.
Today: Four percent of whites and seven percent of African Americans drop out of high school. Reasons given include "didn't like it," failing, job-related problems, and pregnancy.
1970s: Fewer than half the states in the United States and about one hundred counties in those states report gang violence.
Today: Every state, as well as the District of Columbia, and twelve hundred counties report gang violence.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Critics have noted Hinton's extremely negative portrayal of parents in Rumble Fish. What does she reveal about Rusty-James's parents? Does Hinton have a purpose for drawing such characterizations?
2. In what ways do the fighting "rumble fish" for which the book is named parallel the natures of Rusty-James and the Motorcycle Boy?
3. In many ways, Steve is a comic character, yet his fate is far more desirable than Rusty-James's. What factors account for his survival?
4. What does Rusty-James admire about his brother? Why does it seem unlikely, for much of the novel, that he will grow up to be like him?
5. The Motorcycle Boy is a mass of contradictions. Explain his opposing traits.
6. Rusty-James's father believes that the Motorcycle Boy is exactly like his mother. What traits do they share?
7. An observer in the pool hall calls the Motorcycle Boy "royalty in exile." What does he mean?
8. Police Officer Patterson is described as having a vendetta against the Motorcycle Boy. What might be the policeman's motives for wanting to destroy the Motorcycle Boy?
9. Some readers (as well as Steve) think that the Motorcycle Boy is mentally ill. Give some reasons for this opinion.
10. The Motorcycle Boy claims that his expulsion from school resulted from his perfect scores on tests and his perfect behavior. Is it possible that a student could be thrown out for such...
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. The film version of Rumble Fish attempts to convey the emotions and mood of the novel. View the film and discuss the ways in which director Francis Ford Coppola attempts to translate these qualities to the screen.
2. Research and report on the "New Realism" that some critics credit Hinton with introducing to young adult fiction. Compare her work, particularly Rumble Fish, to young adult fiction before and after.
3. Some critics view Rumble Fish as the successor to J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Compare Rusty-James and Holden Caulfield. Pay special attention to their attitudes toward society and their acts of rebellion. Does Rusty-James continue a tradition or break from it?
4. Research incidences of teen-age violence, both in gangs and among individuals. Show how Rusty-James's attitudes and actions support or contradict the views held by psychologists and sociologists.
5. Compare Rumble Fish to a Greek tragedy such as Sophocles' Oedipus Rex. Explain the similarities in theme, philosophy, and literary technique.
6. Compare Rumble Fish to another realistic young adult work such as Robert Cormier's Chocolate War (1974). Do the two writers share any common points of view?
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Topics for Further Study
Some critics of the novel have said that Hinton' s portrayal of teenagers is not realistic because the young people in her book are tougher than any real people would be. Do you agree? Why or why not?
Recent statistics show that gang violence is a problem throughout the United States. Do some research to find out what makes young people more likely to join gangs. What does research tell us that young people are looking for when they join gangs?
The Motorcycle Boy is color-blind and sometimes deaf because of all his motorcycle accidents. Find out about color blindness. What is it, who has it, and how do they get it? Is it common for people to have color blindness as a result of accidents?
Hinton has admitted that her portrayal of girls in the book is somewhat out of date. Do you agree with this? Provide specific examples to support your answer.
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The Outsiders, published when Hinton was still in high school, begins a series of novels dealing with the conflicts teenagers have with one another and with society. That Was Then, This Is Now, Rumble Fish, and Tex are the other books in this series. Although Rumble Fish, which concentrates on a single character, marks a change in style and focus, Hinton's fiction is limited to one time and place: Oklahoma in the 1960s or early 1970s.
The film versions of Tex, The Outsiders, and Rumble Fish all starred the popular young actor Matt Dillon and were praised by critics. Directed by Tim Hunter, Tex (1982) was the first of Hinton's works to be adapted to screen. The celebrated director Francis Ford Coppola directed both The Outsiders and Rumble Fish in 1983, filming the latter in black and white to stress the theme of color blindness. The film version of Rumble Fish starred Mickey Rourke, Diane Lane, and Dennis Hopper in addition to Dillon. The three movies have served as showcases for an impressive array of young talent; other performers featured in the various Hinton films include Emilio Estevez, Nicolas Cage, Rob Lowe, Ralph Macchio, Vincent Spano, Patrick Swayze, and Tom Cruise. That Was Then, This Is Now was adapted to the screen in 1985.
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Rumble Fish was made into a film in 1983 by Francis Ford Coppola, with Matt Dillon as Rusty-James and Micky Rourke as the Motorcycle Boy; the film also starred Dennis Hopper, Tom Waits, and Nicolas Cage. Hinton also makes a brief appearance. She and Coppola collaborated to write the screenplay.
The novel was adapted as a record and cassette by Viking in 1977.
Another recording was produced by Recorded Books LLC in 1985.
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What Do I Read Next?
Hinton's The Outsiders (1967) tells the story of the rivalry between two gangs.
In That Was Then, This Is Now (1971), Hinton depicts two foster brothers who drift apart as one becomes involved with drugs and crime and the other focuses on school.
Hinton's Tex (1979) describes two boys who can't rely on their unstable father and turn to each other for support.
Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War (1974) is a story of a boy who resists both a gang and the authority figures at his school.
Paul Zindel's The Pigman (1975) depicts two young people, alienated from their families, who turn to an old man for support and become involved in a tragedy.
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For Further Reference
Daly, Jay. Presenting S. E. Hinton. New York: Twayne, 1987. A comprehensive study of Hinton and her work. Daly finds her to be a ground-breaking figure in what he terms the "New Realism."
DeMarr, Jean, and Jane S. Bakerman. The Adolescent in the American Novel Since 1960. New York: Ungar, 1986. Brief comments on Hinton's protagonists as they reflect the era.
Donelson, Kenneth, and Aileen P. Nilsen. Literature for Today's Young Adults. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1980. Contains an evaluation of Hinton as a "new" writer of adolescent fiction.
Egoff, Sheila. Thursday's Child. Chicago: American Library Association, 1981. Contains brief comments on Hinton's contribution to young adult fiction.
Lenz, Millicent, and Ramona M. Mahood. Young Adult Literature. Chicago: American Library Association, 1980. Classifies Hinton with the new voices in young adult literature.
Senick, Gerard. Children's Literature Review. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale Research, 1978. Brief remarks on Hinton's interest in social classes.
Stanek, Lou W. A Teacher's Guide to Paperback Editions of the Novels of S. E. Hinton. New York: Dell, 1980. A guide to help teachers pose questions and evaluate the literary style of the novels.
Sutherland, Zena. The Best in Children's Books. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973. Contains a short commentary on Hinton's career....
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Abramson, Jane, Review of Rumble Fish, in School Library Journal, October 1975, p. 106.
Chaston, Joel D., "Hinton, S(usan) E(loise)," in St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2d ed., edited by Tom Pendergast and Sara Pendergast, St. James Press, 1999, pp. 376-78.
Daly, Jay, Presenting S. E. Hinton, Twayne, 1987.
Fisher, Margery, Review of Rumble Fish, in Growing Point, May 1976, p. 289.
Hinton, S. E., Rumble Fish Production Notes, No Weather Films, 1993.
Hinton, S. E., and Lisa Ehrlich, "Advice from a Penwoman," in Seventeen, November 1981, p. 32.
Malone, Michael, "Tough Puppies," in Nation, March 8, 1986, pp. 276-80.
Powell, Jane, "Urban Guerrillas," in Times Literary Supplement, October 30, 1970, p. 125.
Review of Rumble Fish, in Publishers Weekly, July 28, 1975, p. 122.
Corliss, Richard, "Rumble Fish," Film review, in Time, October 24, 1983, p. 90.
Corliss reviews the Francis Ford Coppola film version of the novel.
de Montreville, Doris, and Elizabeth J. Crawford, eds., Fourth Book of Junior Authors, H. W. Wilson, 1978.
This reference work examines Hinton's life and early work.
Lyons, Gene, "On Tulsa' s Mean Streets," in...
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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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