David Ansen has called The Outsiders "the prototypical young adult novel." Written when S. E. Hinton was sixteen, it is widely credited with ushering in a new era of "realism" in the writing of young adult novels. Yet Hinton's book also contains haunting lyricism; indeed, the tension between dreamy romanticism and hard-knock realism is part of what the book is about. In the early pages of the novel, Ponyboy Curtis tells us of his two brothers: "Darry's gone through a lot in his twenty years, grown up too fast. Sodapop'll never grow up at all. I don't know which way's the best. I'll find out one of these days." In Ponyboy's relationship with his two brothers and with Johnny Cade and Dallas Winston, he experiences the differences between growing up too soon and never growing up. By the end of The Outsiders, he has found some tentative answers to the question of which way of being is best.
Ponyboy portrays himself as dreamy and sensitive, not very realistically-minded, and the other characters respond to him this way as well. His idealism enables him to connect with Cherry Valance and with Johnny Cade; makes him fear Dallas Winston; causes him to admire his friend Two-Bit; and creates clashes with his hard-headed, realistic brother Darry. When Ponyboy meets Cherry, he realizes that they are both outsiders in their respective groups, the greasers and the Socs. Both of them are dreamy romantics who watch sunsets, and Ponyboy realizes that, like him, Cherry has green eyes. Of Two-Bit, who is older than Ponyboy, he says more than once that he admires Two-Bit's ability to "understand things." Like Two-Bit and the others in the gang, Pony is also protective of his friend Johnny's innocence, and they connect emotionally because they are both innocent. Pony is the youngest member of the gang, called "kid" by the others, and Johnny has not allowed his abysmal home life or his brutal beating by the Socs to kill his basic goodness. Pony writes of Johnny:
I don't know what it was about Johnny—maybe that lost-puppy look and those big scared eyes were what made everyone his big brother. But they couldn't, no matter how hard they tried, take the place of his parents. I thought about it for a minute—Darry and Sodapop were my brothers and I loved both of them, even if Darry did scare me, but not even Soda could take Mom and Dad's place. And they were my real brothers, not just sort of adopted ones. No wonder Johnny was hurt because his parents didn't want him. Dally could take it—Dally was of the breed that could take anything, because he was hard and tough, and when he wasn't, he could turn hard and tough. Johnny was a good fighter and could play it cool, but he was sensitive and that wasn't a good way to be when you're a greaser.
Ponyboy thinks of Dally and Johnny as opposites, but in the course of the story, each shows himself willing to sacrifice for others. Johnny calls Dallas "gallant," like a foredoomed Southern soldier in Gone With the Wind, because when he was arrested for something he knew Two-Bit had done, he didn't betray his friend and took the punishment himself. On hearing this story, Pony comments:
That was the first time I realized the extent of Johnny's hero-worship for Dallas Winston. Of all of us, Dally was the one liked the 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 clouds and books and sunsets. Dally was so real he scared me.
In spite of his original fear and dislike for Dally, a fear which he understands is motivated by his own idealism, Ponyboy comes to realize all that Dally has done for him. It is Dally who makes sure that Johnny and Pony are able to run...
(The entire section is 1608 words.)