What does Ponyboy mean when he says "those Southern gentlemen have nothing on Johnny Cade" in The Outsiders?
The Outsiders delves into the world of gang violence and territory as claimed by The Socs and the Greasers. Ponyboy is a Greaser and proud to be a member of a gang of "hoods" which may "steal things and drive old souped-up cars" but which is not like the Socs who "jump Greasers and wreck houses...for kicks" (ch 1). There is a clear class distinction as the Socs are "a public disgrace one day and an asset to society the next" which increases the social divide between the two gangs.
Johnny is Ponyboy's best friend and things are very tough for Johnny at home. Everyone looks out for Johnny, the "little dark puppy" who was badly beaten and left for dead by the Socs and so he lives in a state of perpetual fear of the Socs. Ponyboy is more academic than his brothers and his friends and is "supposed to be smart." Things go terribly wrong for the two friends when Ponyboy decides to run away and they get cornered by some Socs and Johnny ends up "knifing" and killing one of them. While the boys are hiding out Ponyboy starts reading a copy of Gone with the Wind which Johnny brought with some supplies because he knows how Ponyboy always wanted a copy.
Even though Johnny is not as "deep" as Ponyboy (ch 5) he loves reading Gone with the Wind and is especially impressed in the "manners and charm" of "those Southern Gentlemen" to whom he compares Dally. According to Johnny, Dally is "gallant" and loyal and, despite his propensity for getting into trouble, he always looks out for his friends. Ponyboy realizes that his idea of a hero and Johnny's ideas are very different. Johnny has to deal with reality whereas Ponyboy can escape in to his imagination. Johnny needs a real-life hero.
When Ponyboy talks about the "Southern Gentlemen" having "nothing on Johnny Cade" things have changed dramatically. Johnny and Dally are dead and Ponyboy has Johnny's copy of Gone with the Wind. He can only think about his friends who were like the southern gentlemen "riding into sure death because they were gallant" (ch 10). He reads Johnny's letter and thinks about how Johnny always listened and cared so much. Johnny was "rare" and Ponyboy recognizes how brave he was. When Johnny's letter talks of how it was worth saving the children because they have a future and Johnny tries to motivate Ponyboy to make a difference in the world and "stay gold," Ponyboy knows that Johnny's fight has always been futile. He has never really had a chance to make a difference because of his background and circumstances. Johnny represents the ultimate hero, loyal to a fault.
Ponyboy had long wanted to read the novelGone With the Wind, and when he and Johnny took refuge in the old abandoned church on Jay Mountain, Johnny obtained a copy at the store for them to read. Pony read it aloud to Johnny, who was fascinated by the chivalric nature of the Southern soldiers--their "manners and charm."
"I bet they were cool ol' guys..." (Chapter 5)
To Johnny, their gallantry reminded him of Dallas Winston. Pony did not see the comparison.
"Dally?... Shoot, he ain't got any more manners than I do... Soda's more like them Southern boys." (Chapter 5)
But in the aftermath of the fire at the church, in which Johnny was the first one into the burning building to help the children inside, it became evident to Pony that Johnny was more like the Southern gentlemen than any of the other greasers. Suffering from the painful burns in dignity, Johnny "almost grinned" when told he was a hero.
"Tuff enough," he managed, and by the way his eyes were glowing, I figured Southern gentlemen had nothing on Johnny Cade. (Chapter 8)