Describe the central conflict in S.E. Hinton's classic young adult novel The Outsiders.

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lhc eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The central conflict also happens to be the one most easily identified, which is the class conflict that is manifested in the rivalry between the group called the "Greasers" and the group called the "Socs".  The "Greasers" are so named because of their hair, and might be equated to teenagers today who identify themselves as "Goth", while the "Socs", or "Socials" are the rough equivalent of what might be called in eighties high school parlance "the preppies" and today are usually referred to as simply "the popular crowd".  The main character, Ponyboy Curtis, as well as his brothers, and their friends Johnny, Two-Bit and Dally are not to be confused with "hoods"; they are simply from the poor part of town, and as a general rule, they don't get into trouble, despite their reputation; however, they are frequently the target of malicious Soc aggression, and they will defend themselves when necessary.

The novel opens with Ponyboy narrowly escaping what would surely be an unpleasant attack by the Socs, thwarted only because his friends and brothers show up; the Socs at one time beat up Johnny so badly that the young man, who was the antithesis of an aggressive youth, swore he would kill the next person who came after him, and true to his word, began carrying a knife to protect himself.  Ponyboy describes Johnny as a "lost puppy", one that "has been kicked too many times".  So, although this central conflict is a class conflict, it is also a deadly situation, and by the time the novel ends, three teenagers will have died.

S.E. Hinton wrote and published this book when she was still in high school as a protest against what she considered to be syrupy, sentimental, unrealistic literature aimed at teenagers.  The novel still resonates deeply with teenagers today; even though the characters' names are unusual, and the descriptions of cars and clothing are unfamiliar, it has retained its appeal, particularly to young men who haven't had much experience with novels that they actually enjoy reading (probably the same type of novels Hinton was taking issue with when she wrote The Outsiders).  The universal themes that affect young people--their feelings, their issues, their fears and insecurities--haven't changed, and Hinton apparently captured those themes in a way that has stood the test of time.