In S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, when Johnny and Ponyboy are in the church saving the schoolchildren why are not afraid?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Johnny and Ponyboy have lived with fear all of their young lives.  The rivalry between the Greasers and the Socs in S.E. Hinton’s novel, The Outsiders, is bitter and violent, and Johnny in particular has been the victim of a brutal beating – a beating that leaves him feeling vulnerable and frightened.  Yet, when they discover that the church in which they had been hiding following Johnny’s killing of Bob, a particularly sadistic Soc who Johnny believes is drowning Ponyboy is on fire and that children may be trapped inside, the two teenagers do not hesitate to rush into the building to save those kids.  Ponyboy is concerned that it was he and Johnny who inadvertently started the fire in the first place ("I bet we started it," I said to Johnny. "We must have dropped a lighted cigarette or something").  Still, the sense of guilt over being the cause of the fire does not entirely explain why two teenagers would fearlessly enter a burning building to rescue other children.  That guilt was a motivating factor in propelling them towards the burning church.  As Ponyboy relates, when an adult tries to restrain him, “I jerked loose and ran on. All I could think was: We started it. We started it. We started it!”

The absence of fear, however, is no doubt a manifestation of a life lived on edge of mortality, in which the threat from hostile Socs is exaggerated in the minds of these younger Greasers.  Once inside the burning building, Ponyboy reflects on his calm demeanor, asking himself “Why aren’t I scared,” and noting that Johnny was especially devoid of visible signs of fear:

“Johnny wasn't behaving at all like his old self. He looked over his shoulder and saw that the door was blocked by flames, then pushed open the window and tossed out the nearest kid. I caught one quick look at his face; it was red marked from falling embers and sweat streaked, but he grinned at me. He wasn't scared either. That was the only time I can think of when I saw him without that defeated, suspicious look in his eyes. He looked like he was having the time of his life.”

Ponyboy had, earlier in the novel, devoted considerable space to descriptions of Johnny’s fears regarding the Socs, especially following the beating he endured, which prompted him to begin carrying a switchblade.  Why this once petrified boy would respond as he did in the midst of a fire, then, is a mystery about which one can only offer conjecture.  It is possible that the absence of fear on the part of both boys was a result of the emotional hardening they were compelled by circumstances to experience, but this seems inadequate.  More likely, their perceived proximity to death had provided them a previously unseen insulation against this particular manifestation of mortal danger.  The fire was less threatening than the roving Socs in search of weaker Greasers on which to prey.  Also, the fire represented an immediate crisis the hazards of which provided no real opportunity to question one’s personal courage; you either act, or you don’t.  The omniscient threat of the Socs seemed eminently more dangerous than the fire, for which they felt responsible anyway.  In any event, just as with the soldier who throws himself on top of the live grenade to save his friends, Johnny and Ponyboy had within themselves a reservoir of courage they hadn’t previously encountered.  They had no time to contemplate the risks associated with their actions, in contrast to the almost surrealistic environment in which they lived in more normal times, when danger hung in the air on a daily basis.

user7870940 | Student

they are not afraid because they feel like it was their fault the fire occurred so they where taking responsibility and also the adrenaline from panic probably also contributed to this sense of fearlessness. 

galinski | Student

They are not afraid because for once in their lives they feel like they have a purpose that matters.  They need to save these children from the fire because in all actuality, it is their fault the fire started because of the constant cigarette smoking in the church.  This is used to contrast the way the reader views Johnny after he kills Bob.  It shows that there is still kindness in Johnny and that he is not completely hardened. 

udonbutterfly | Student

Johnny feel guilty that they probably started the fire and that sort of hypes up them feeling like they have nothing to loose. With Johnny comes from an abusive home. Johnny really has no where to go except the gang and with him having killed someone he feels like he is literally reduced to nothing so you can only realize how he feels when he not only thinks they he may have started the fire that was going to potentially kill more people. I doubt Johnny would have let his self live if he knew that the death of more people was caused by him. Then there's Ponyboy who is along just help Johnny.

vapoet | Student

Pony lost his parents when he was younger, and it is possible, considering the loving relationship he has with his brother, that he feels an obligation to help others in need, especially younger children.  He is raised in a home that allows immoral behavior (underage smoking, violence, alcohol, etc..), yet he is taught the value of kindness.  Pony is an intelligent, moral character.  This is his defining trait.

Johnny has parents, but his home is marked by abuse.  He feels unloved, and although we don't learn the specific details about his relationship with his parents, there is plenty of evidence that he is searching for love, hence his relationship with the Greasers, staying overnight in the park, running away.  Helping the children can be viewed symbolically as Johnny helping himself, discovering his true identity and building one of the universal themes of the novel:  morality defies the odds of abuse, poverty, appearance.

The religious symbolism is interesting.  The characters never discuss the possibility of a higher power, at least not directly.  Yet, it is a church where they find refuge and it is from the flames they rescue the children, achieving redemption.