In S.E. Hinton’s story about boys from the “wrong side of the tracks” and their seemingly-perpetual conflict with the well-to-do Socs, The Outsiders, the theme of heroism and hero-worship is a constant. The Greasers are a tight-knit group of boys, all from lower-income and usually broken families, some the victims of physical abuse at the hands of uncaring parents. All these boys have is each other. For the novel’s main protagonist and narrator, however, there are also dreams of escaping this environment. Ponyboy is a smart, perceptive child forced to grow up too fast because of the death of his and his brothers’ parents and because of the socioeconomic conditions under which these boys exist. He is realistic about the circumstances of his life, and is hardened, to a certain degree, by his experiences. Nevertheless, he remains a kind, thoughtful boy whose underlying decency is not concealed by his outward appearance. In Chapter 2 of Hinton’s novel, Ponyboy and Johnny meet Cherry and Marcia, two Socs who have an unpleasant encounter with Dallas Winston, the toughest and most streetwise of the Greasers. In the following exchange, Cherry expresses her gratitude towards Ponyboy and Johnny for saving them from more of Dallas’ vituperation:
Cherry sighed in relief. "Thanks. He had me scared to death."
Johnny managed an admiring grin. "You sure didn't show it. Nobody talks to Dally like that."
She smiled, "From what I saw, you do."
Johnny's ears got red. I was still staring at him. It had taken more than nerve for him to say what he'd said to Dally—Johnny worshiped the ground Dallas walked on, and I had never heard Johnny talk back to anyone, much less his hero.
The theme of heroism continues as Ponyboy describes the bonds that hold these boys together, noting, “You take up for your buddies, no matter what they do. When you're a gang, you stick up for the members. If you don't stick up for them, stick together, make like brothers, it isn't a gang any more. It's a pack.”
The “gang” is a family; for some of these boys, it’s the only real family they have. It protects them and provides a sense of belonging when going home is simply not an option. As Ponyboy’s narrative continues, though, it becomes more apparent that the coarse, grungy Dallas, or Dally, is the Greaser to whom the younger, weaker boys look up. In Chapter 5, Dallas’ toughness and personal code of honor again cause Ponyboy to reflect on his least favorite Greaser. Listening to Johnny describe the time Dallas took the blame for a minor crime committed by Two-Bit “without battin’ an eye or even denyin’ it,” Ponyboy observes:
“That was the first time I realized the extent of Johnny's hero-worship for Dally Winston. Of all of us, Dally was the one I liked least. He didn't have Soda's understanding or dash, or Two-Bit's humor, or even Darry's superman qualities. But I realized that these three appealed to me because they were like the heroes in the novels I read. Dally was real. I liked my books and clouds and sunsets. Dally was so real he scared me.”
So, the theme of heroism is well-established when Ponyboy and Johnny, having been hiding from the police following Johnny’s killing of a Soc, rescue a group of children from a burning church. The boys are now heroes in the public eye, with their photograph prominently displayed in the local newspaper with the caption: “JUVENILE DELINQUENTS TURN HEROES.” It is now when Two-Bit states, "What I like is the 'turn' bit . . . Y'all were heroes from the beginning. You just didn't 'turn' all of a sudden."
Two-Bit’s comment is a confirmation of what we’ve already observed about these boys. Heroes, an overused word, are not without fear. What makes most heroes is their instinctive will to act despite the risks to their personal safety. Johnny, in particular, is the most heroic of all of the Greasers, and his death from burns sustained in the fire is a prelude to the novel’s tragic development in Chapter 10 with Dallas’ “suicide-by-cop” shooting. Two-Bit’s observation about Johnny and Ponyboy, however, reaffirms the courage that these boys display every day, just by surviving until the next day.