Ponyboy's Coming-Of-Age

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 away after Johnny accidentally kills Bob. Dally saves Ponyboy from the burning church and tries to save Johnny as well. Ponyboy also realizes that in spite of his cold exterior, Dally has been deeply scarred by his experiences, and is trying to spare Johnny the same trauma.

"Johnny," Daily said in a pleading, high voice, using a tone I had never heard from him before, "Johnny, I ain't mad at you. I just don't want you to get hurt. You don't know what a few months in jail can do to you. Oh, blast it, Johnny"—he pushed his white-blond hair back out of his eyes—"you get hardened in jail. I don't want that to happen to you. Like it happened to me...."

I kept staring out the window at the rapidly passing scenery, but I felt my eyes getting round. Dally never talked like that Never. Dally didn't give a Yankee dime about anyone but himself, and he was cold and hard and mean. He never talked about his past or being in jail that way—if he talked about it at all, it was to brag. And I suddenly thought of Dally ... in jail at the age of ten. Dally growing up in the streets ...

Ponyboy realizes that, to Dally, Johnny's innocence represents his own lost childhood. When Johnny dies a hero after having saved the kids from the burning church, Dally says bitterly that it is useless to care about other people, that caring for others is not worth it, and that Pony is going to need to toughen up too. Yet Dally's own inability to completely turn off his emotions leads him, in his agony over Johnny's death, to rob a liquor store and then wave an unloaded gun at the police. In this final gesture of his life, Dally finds a way both to end the torment of his emotions and to try to prove, one last time, how tough and violent he is. Ponyboy tells us that both Johnny and Dally died "gallant," but each of them has died gallantly for a different reason: Johnny because he never grew up and remained frozen in his youthful idealism, and Dally because he grew up too soon and lost his innocence in the struggle to survive.

Ponyboy struggles for a long time afterward, trying to make sense of these two deaths. The gang begins to worry about him becoming hardened; when Pony pulls a broken bottle on some Socs, Two-Bit and Steve react by telling him not to get tough like the rest of them. But Ponyboy tells himself, as Dally told him, "that if you got tough you didn't get hurt." It is only near the end of the book that Johnny's voice takes over, telling Ponyboy in a letter that it was worth it to save those kids, that he should "stay gold" and continue to look at the world through a child's eyes. It is only after reading Johnny's letter to him that Ponyboy begins to accept Johnny's death. Ponyboy's discovery of Johnny's letter is one of two reconciliations at the end of the book. Like Dally and Johnny, Soda and Darry are initially represented as opposites of each other. In his youthful idealism, Pony had believed that Darry was simply a hard-headed, and hard-hearted, realist who did not love him. As Jay Daly writes, "innocence/youth/idealism carried to such extremes is not youth/innocence/idealism at all. It is usually a more selfish, and sometimes dangerous thing. Look at Ponyboy's selfish attitude toward Darry early in the book. This is an attitude that is innocent of the most elementary awareness of another human being." At the end of the book, Soda is forced to confront the reality of his first love's betrayal at the same time his brothers involve him in yet another argument. Upon witnessing the pain he has been causing both his brothers, Pony finally realizes that Darry can feel as scared, hurt, or lost as the rest of them; that he has asked Darry to understand him without trying to do the same; and that Darry has sacrificed for his younger brothers. It is only then that the Curtises finally reach a reconciliation. Soda and Darry represent different kinds of voices than Johnny and Dally; they have found ways to survive without losing their goodness, their "goldness." They have done this in part by sacrificing for and taking care of Ponyboy.

In fact, Ponyboy cannot fully honor Johnny's wish that he stay gold. He has seen too much, and his own awareness of both the existence and the cost of his innocence makes it impossible for him to continue as he was before the deaths of Bob, Johnny, and Dally. But Ponyboy, like Darry and Soda, begins to stay gold by helping others: he writes that suddenly his story "wasn't only a personal thing to me. I could picture hundreds and hundreds of boys living on the wrong sides of cities ... There should be some help, someone should tell them before it was too late." Thus Ponyboy's narrative finds a way to reconcile the stories of Johnny and Dally, of Soda and Darry, by pointing out that they are all outsiders, all caught between never growing up and growing up too soon, all redeemed, even if only in death, by the sacrifices they, and by extension we as readers, have made for others.

Source: Jane Elizabeth Dougherty, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.
Jane Elizabeth Dougherty is a doctoral candidate in English at Tufts University.

A Look Inside A Landmark: The Outsiders

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Before we can begin to write a book rationale for our classroom or school library, two conditions should apply: (1) we know the book extremely well, and (2) we believe that this book makes a significant contribution to our curriculum and to students. Writing a rationale for why a book ought to be in the curriculum requires a knowledge of the goals and objectives of the curriculum; the skills, abilities and interests of students; a knowledge of students' literary and popular culture backgrounds; and a knowledge of the broader area of study in which the book is to be used. It is also helpful to know how frequently the title is used in similar situations, what reviewers have had to say about it in professional journals and in the popular press, and what awards the title has won, if any. Much of this material should be available locally; for example, in the school's curriculum guides. Much of the information, however, must be culled from a variety of sources such as textbooks, monographs and journals related to teaching or educational materials. The Book Review Index, published by Gale Research Company since 1965, provides an index of reviews appearing in more than 200 periodicals. Readers who are particularly concerned about children's and young adult literature should consult the annotated list of reference and bibliographical resources described in "Familiarity with Reference" (Kenney, 48-54). All of these sources add to the rationale writer's own justifications for using a specific title. And since rationales frequently don't get written until a work has been challenged, the rationale writer should also be familiar with the concerns that have been expressed about the work in the local community. This information should be available in a written complaint filed by a local community member but may also need to be acquired through an interview. The local newspapers are another obvious source for community viewpoints on the controversial material. At the state and national level, the rationale writer should consult the Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom which keeps track of what titles have been challenged and why they have been challenged.

A rationale explains why a title is valued in the curriculum. It provides reasons for having a book in the public school library or for using it in the classroom. It does not provide all of the support that is needed. A book may be attacked for reasons that are not included in an essay. For support, teachers and librarians should consult with their educational association or union, their local, state, and national subject matter organization and one or more of the anti-censorship coalitions or committees mentioned earlier. Most state professional organizations have such committees. A number of states also have intellectual freedom coalitions made up of union representatives, subject matter organizations, librarians, and school administrators.

The titles that are discussed in this book were chosen on the basis of frequency of challenge. Lee Burress listed over 800 titles that were challenged between 1950 and 1985, in The Battle of the Books. That list came from 17 surveys of censorship pressures carried out by various scholars. In addition, several titles were added to the list of frequently challenged books from more recent reports, especially from the ALA Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom. One person who was asked to write an essay complained because his favorite censored book was not on the list. The reason is fairly clear; that book is very rarely assigned in the schools, so it is almost never challenged. We could not practically provide essays on 800 or 900 titles, so we chose the books that are most often reported by teachers or librarians as objects of attack. Indirectly, therefore, this list of titles is an index of books that are used in the schools.

If we examine the list of challenged titles, it is clear that most are twentieth-century books, that most are by American authors, and that a disproportionate number are by non-Caucasian writers and deal with non-Anglo Saxon characters (disproportionate, that is, in comparison with the total number of books published in the U.S.). There is a strong suggestion here that racism lies behind the challenges. It is frequently disguised under charges that the books contain obscene or pornographic language. So far as the present writers know, no book used in the public schools has been found by a court to be obscene.

Another reasonable conclusion that may be drawn from the list is that good books are more likely to be challenged than are books of little value. Every library, bookstore and supermarket contains many books with the same kind of language as may be found in the challenged list of books. The great majority of those books are ephemeral or superficial. There is little in them, therefore, to question the values of this society, to challenge readers to question their own values or way of life. The essays in this collection provide specific support for a rather select list of titles which are frequently challenged. They also serve as models for the development of rationales for use in the public schools. The present volume is different from our earlier collection, Celebrating Censored Books, in two significant ways. It is expanded. The earlier volume focused on the so-called "dirty thirty." This volume doubles the number of works discussed and includes a selection from the earlier volume. In addition to essays written by teachers and professors of literature, Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints includes essays by poets, novelists and dramatists-authors of adult and adolescent literature.

The central charge to these reviewers was direct and simple: Why should anyone read this book? Why should it be recommended? They were asked to express their impressions of the text, of the concepts and emotions that readers might experience, of the personal and social understandings that might be achieved. A second concern addressed the question, "Why is this book under attack?" The reviewers were asked to consider the censorial challenges to the text in relation to its perceived merits. Another consideration suggested to reviewers was pedagogic, that is, classroom application.

The essays included in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints provide, in effect, a defense of these frequently challenged books, a rationale for ensuring access to them for readers and support for teaching them. This collection does not, however, propose a curriculum for the English language arts classroom nor is it a cultural literacy list. The editors are not arguing that everyone must read all of these books. Rather, we strongly advocate the right of readers to select literary materials in an open marketplace of ideas and of teachers to select classroom materials in keeping with appropriate teaching objectives.

The collection is organized in two sections. The first, "Perspectives: Censorship by Omission and Commission," offers six author's views. Arthur Miller considers historical attempts to "revise" Shakespeare's King Lear in conjunction with current omissions of segments of his plays from school texts. He reflects on current censorship practices against an international backdrop. John Williams focuses on acts of omission—publishers censoring, that is, not publishing—works by African-American authors. The nature and force of censorship attacks and their impact on authors is revealed by Norma Fox Mazer. She introduces censorship by commission, that is, the act of self-censorship, encouraged by publishers so as not to offend the public. Similarly, Rudolfo Anaya reflects on cultural discrimination that proscribes Hispanic-American writers and the effect of self-censorship on the expression of their life experiences. The last two essays in this section, by Mary Stolz and Lee Bennett Hopkins, encourage broad understanding of censorship challenges. They illustrate their insights with a wide selection of diverse fiction and poetry that has been challenged, from picture-story books to mature adolescent novels.

The second section, "Challenging Books," provides responses and defenses of individual books. Arranged alphabetically by the title of the text, they provide a varied perspective. Some are oriented to social issues, others to personal transactions with the text, and others to teaching concerns. They provide diverse, thoughtful approaches, suggesting that there is no one best way to prepare a rationale for a book or a particular situation. The array is enlightening.

But as these essays enlighten, we hope that they will stir the reader to take a deeper look at the whole question of intellectual freedom for our youth. We, as educators and parents, must constantly remind ourselves and our students that the constitutional guarantees of separation of church and state, freedom of speech and of the press, even the right to congregate to exchange ideas are not given by God but must be won anew with each generation. With the ever-escalating calls for accountability in public education, the growing diversity in the school population and the concomitant rise in controversial materials designed to address the needs of all of our youth, (and let's not forget the increasingly organized religious right) we cannot expect or even hope that the number of censorship attempts directed to our public schools will diminish anytime soon. Our future depends upon our youth having the opportunity to grapple with ideas in their reading, their viewing and their interactions with each other and their adult mentors. We can opt for no less if we are to have an educated public capable of dealing with the culturally pluralistic and diverse nature of our world.

A glance at the young adult section of almost any mall bookstore these days will reveal a generous number of novels by the widely heralded writers of the moment: Robert Cormier, Judy Blume, Norma Fox Mazer, Lois Duncan, and Richard Peck to name but a few. Standing right there beside them, almost assuredly, will be S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders—which is quite remarkable when one stops to consider the fact that the life spans of most young adult novels, even the initially popular ones, are brief indeed. Most of the highly popular works of the mid to late 60s—The Outsiders appeared in 1967—are now long forgotten. But The Outsiders, written when its author was 17 years old and making her maiden voyage on the publication waters, continues to hold the attention of the teenage reading audience as well as the English Education gentry. It would be hard to imagine a college or university instructor of a Literature for Adolescents course not calling attention to this novel somewhere along the line.

The question, then, is why this relatively short, rather simply written novel about a fourteen-year-old boy from the other side of the tracks in a moderately large, unnamed town has remained on the high interest list for so long—25 years. What follows is an attempt to answer that question....

Briefly stated, the American young adult long fiction genre has gone through three discernible evolutionary stages during this century. For the first 40 or so years, it provided little more than escape and recreational reading matter for the children and teenagers of that period. The Hardy Boys novels, along with the adventurous, picaresque, contrived, melodramatic works of Zane Grey, Edgar Rice Burroughs and William Heyliger held the interest of boys, especially those who fantasized about their exploits on the gridiron, the diamond, the jungle, or the battlefield. For girls, the career and love sagas (although not necessarily in that order) of Emily Loring, (Sue Barton, girl nurse) Daphne du Maurier Grace Livingston Hill, and Carolyn Keene (the Nancy Drew series) provided a wealth of entertaining books. In that pre-television era, such "light" reading preoccupied millions of young people in their search for escape from the world of homework and tedium. Escape yes, literary study no, in the eyes of classroom teachers, librarians, and teacher educators alike. For just about all of those professionals, a loosely defined set of "classics," largely written by Victorian era novelists and poets, served as objects of serious classroom study.

During the next three decades, however, a "new" kind of young adult novel began to emerge. Writers such as John R. Tunis, Paul Annixter, Fred Gipson, Esther Forbes, and Maureen Daly continued to include substantial doses of action, suspense, and adventure in their novels, but they also attempted to portray the world of the adolescent in a more realistic, self-conscious manner. As Stephen Dunning said of this young adult novel, "It pretends to treat life truthfully." As the more credible young adult novel appeared on bookshelves everywhere, teachers, especially those in the junior high schools, began to consider their teachable aspects, as did the growing number of university faculty members who called themselves English Educators.

Since the young adult novel has developed more recently as a serious literary endeavor, it comes as no surprise that the representation of ostensibly unsavory characters and settings should emerge only after other types had been featured. Main and supporting characters in the novels of Tunis, Annixter, Daly, et. al. were from suburban, rural, or historical backgrounds. Thus one of Susan Hinton's significant achievements in The Outsiders is to hold up for scrutiny young people from economically, culturally, and socially deprived circumstances. In Ponyboy Curtis, his brothers Sodapop and Darry, and his "Greaser" companions, Hinton has introduced readers, most of whom have probably been from white, middle-class origins, to the desires, the priorities, the frustrations, the preoccupations, and above all, the anger of those young people who may live in the seedier parts of town but who have established a code of behavior which reflects (to the dismay of some) their sense of dignity and self-worth. As developed by their author, there is little which has been considered contemptible, callous, or even objectionable about the Curtis brothers and most of their friends. Faced with poverty and limited opportunity, they maintain a certain determined optimism and aspiration for a better life. Most important, they believe in, trust, and support each other, all sentiments which can be universally admired despite the circumstances in which they are displayed. Hinton's novel is not "rigidly wholesome" nor "insistently didactic" as were many young adult works of preceding decades. It offers a number of complex human beings whose strengths and limitations are left to the readers themselves to infer and judge.

Breaking from the pattern of third-person omniscient narrators which characterized the majority of earlier young adult novels, Hinton has presented her story from her protagonist's angle of vision. As with Salinger's Catcher in the Rye (1951), wherein we view the world from the perspective of the disturbed, vulnerable teenage Holden Caulfield. Hinton establishes the 14-year-old Ponyboy as both protagonist and narrator. It is through his eyes that readers view the events and analyze the individuals who make up this novel. His naivete, lack of sophistication and commitment to an established lifestyle give the novel its tone. Amazingly, the author, a teenage female, has created a credible teenage male protagonist/narrator. In doing so, she has contributed significantly to the new realism of the contemporary young adult novel mentioned earlier.

In his 1958 study, Dunning pointed out that one of the major weaknesses of the young adult novels of that era was the authors' unrealistic depiction of adults and their relationships with adolescents, especially their sons and daughters. Hinton has dealt with this problem quite decisively; she virtually excluded adults from the narrative. This is truly a novel of the teenager, by the teenager, and for the teenager. It is devoid of significant adult characters, and the few that are included serve the most perfunctory of purposes. Thus the focus here is on the young people, particularly the two rival gangs: the Greasers (Ponyboy's) and the Socs (a group of upper-middle-class individuals whose main goals in life seems to be to embrace hedonism and to wreak havoc on the Greasers, although not necessarily in that order.) In The Outsiders, adults would only serve as a nuisance, and the author does not allow that to happen.

Hinton does provide an element of mature influence, however, in the person of Ponyboy's older brother, Darry. A reluctant school drop-out, Darry has assumed the responsibility of parenting his two younger brothers in the face of the untimely, accidental death of their mother and father. At age 20, Darry has taken on an adult role and, given his limited education and financial resources, does the best he can. It is through his character that readers perceive the fight for survival in an underclass situation. But Darry, perhaps more than the other Greasers, accepts his lot stoically and with dignity. He asks for neither material aid nor sympathy. To provide what is needed for family survival, he works longer hours and enforces house rules. In Darry, Hinton has added a note of prophecy to her story. As have countless young single parents of America's 1990s, he has become an adult before his time.

The theme of human fragility is given eloquent voice in The Outsiders. Violent confrontations with their rivals place the well-being of both gangs in constant jeopardy. The absence and indifference of parents lead most of the Greasers to the conclusion that they must pretty well fend for themselves. Death and serious, sometimes disabling, injury are possibilities which the latter group faces as a matter of course. During an interlude in which Ponyboy is hiding out with his friend Johnny, a fugitive from the recent murder of a Soc, he recites Frost's poem "Nothing Gold Can Stay" to his distracted friend. The poem has a profound impact on Johnny, who relates it to his own imperiled youth. Later, as he is on his deathbed, Johnny's last words are, "Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold...." In an environment where the concern with survival is omnipresent, the joy and promise of youth are both perceived with irony by Ponyboy and his Greaser cohorts, a far cry from the idyllic teenage days described in so many novels written in the decades before Susan Hinton's first literary effort. As teachers attempt to introduce their classes to a meaningful example of the ironic in literature, they may well look to The Outsiders.

The dour tone of The Outsiders prevails throughout, although the novel is punctuated with examples of humor, selflessness, courage, and humanitarian acts. Despite their heroic quest for dignity and self-determination, both Darry and Ponyboy reflect an alienation from conventional middle-class values largely through no fault of their own. Their contempt for the Socs and their lives of luxury, as well as their distrust of public institutions, particularly the law, may stamp them as undesirables in the eyes of some witnesses. It is an aspect of Susan Hinton's creative acumen that most thoughtful readers, both secondary school students and contributors to ALAN Review, do not demean these two young people for their attitudes toward middle-class mores nor their stubborn adherence to the Greaser code of street-wise self reliance. Their alienation does not result in anti-social, self-destructive behavior and their restrained optimism/hope for better days is made believable by the author's subtle portraiture. While there seems to be little hope for a privileged but emotionally disoriented Holden Caulfield at the end of Catcher in the Rye, Ponyboy and Darry exit the book with their heads held high and their eyes on the future. In establishing, most convincingly, her characters' ability to cope, Hinton has led her readers to accept that positive outlook.

In one further stratagem Hinton has assisted the opening of new doors to her young adult novelist successors. The "life goes on" spirit reflected in the ending of The Outsiders stands in sharp contrast with the young adult novels of earlier decades. All of the Horatio Alger-style books of the era before the 1940s included the Hollywood boy-gets-girl endings, which remain with us through endless TV dramatic offerings. Many of the well-written novels of the second phase described earlier were mixed, with the protagonist suffering some losses, usually minor, and some gains, usually crucial. As he leaves his readers, Ponyboy gives a few hints that he'll be okay, but there is no evidence that the quality of life, for either him or those around him, will improve to any degree, any time soon. "That's life" is what Susan Hinton seems to be saying in providing this ending to her book. Clearly, this perspective is consistent with the rest of the tale.

Undoubtedly, The Outsiders is, to a degree, a period piece, as indeed are the overwhelming majority of today's young adult novels. Paul Newman is probably a sex symbol only to the over-50 theater patrons. Other cigarette brands have replaced Kools among those widely smoked and advertised in this country. Affluent youngsters stopped wearing madras shirts long ago, and few, if any, 1990s teenagers are impressed by the Beatles or their hairstyle. Moreover, such words as "rumble," "chicken," "punkout," and "greasers" are terms long absent from teenage patois. The themes described above, however, are with us now and probably forever, and Susan Hinton has treated them with sensitivity. Thus, at least in this precinct, The Outsiders possesses a considerable dollop of literary merit. Yes, the book is still being read, taught, and discussed a quarter century after its publication. This is a solid reflection of its merit.

Source: John S. Simmons, "A Look Inside A Landmark: The Outsiders" in Censored Books' Critical Viewpoints, edited by Nicholas J. Karohdes, Lee Burress, and John M. Kean, The Scarecrow Press, Inc, 1993.

Presenting S. E. Hinton

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

In April 1967 the Viking Press brought out a book called The Outsiders, by S. E. Hinton and the world of young adult writing and publishing would never be the same. This is not an exaggeration. In more ways than one, The Outsiders has become the most successful, and the most emulated, young adult book of all time. The situation was ripe, in the mid-sixties, for the arrival of something like The Outsiders, although no one knew it at the time. There had been a "young adult" genre for many years, dominated by books like Maureen Daly's Seventeenth Summer, dreamy-eyed stories of carefree youth where the major problem was whether so-and-so would ask our heroine to the prom in sufficient time for her to locate a prom gown. Or there were cautionary tales to warn us that, if we were not good, and we all know what "good" meant, we would never get to the prom at all.

Into this sterile chiffon-and-orchids environment then came The Outsiders. Nobody worries about the prom in The Outsiders; they're more concerned with just staying alive 'til June. They're also concerned with peer pressures, social status, abusive parents, and the ever-present threat of violence. What in the world was this? It certainly wasn't the same picture of the teenage wonder years that the "young adult" genre projected (and no one ever lived). Welcome to real life.

There is a perception now that The Outsiders was published to immediate teenage accolades, but such was not the case. In fact, because the book was so different from what the publishers considered "young adult" material, it was at first sent out with the general trade, or adult, releases, where it disappeared into the murk. It was only gradually, as the word from the hinterlands drifted in, that the publishers realized the book was finding its word-of-mouth fame among the very teenagers whose lives it depicted. The rest, as they say, is history.

The grass-roots success of The Outsiders paved the way for writers like Paul Zindel Richard Peck M. E. Kerr, Paula Danziger, and Robert Cormier. It set off a wail of controversy from those who thought that there was enough real life in real life without also putting it into books. It caused many lesser writers to make the mistake of wandering off in search of the "formula" for her success, and it sent publishers scurrying off in search of other teenaged writer-oracles; everyone wanted a piece of "the next S. E. Hinton." In truth, of course, there is no formula, and it is not likely that there will be "another" S. E Hinton.

There are now perhaps ten million copies of Hinton books in print. The Outsiders, itself now twenty-years-old, no longer a teenager, continues to be the best selling of all Hinton's books. Clearly there is more to this than the novelty of its publication in those pre-Hinton, Mary-Jane-Goes-to-the-Prom years. In fact there is something in The Outsiders, as there is in the other Hinton books, that transcends the restrictions of time and place, that speaks to the reader directly. It has nothing to do with the age of the author, and little to do with the so-called "realism" of the setting. It does, however, have very much to do with the characters she creates, their humanity, and it has everything to do with her honesty. Her characters are orphans and outlaws and, as the song says, "to live outside the law you must be honest." If there is a formula to S. E. Hinton books it is only this: to tell the truth.

There is also something that is quintessentially American about S. E. Hinton. Her books are all set in the real American heartland, the urban frontier, and her characters are American pilgrim-orphans, believers in the dream of perfection, of an American paradise on earth. Francis Ford Coppola, who filmed and co-wrote, with Hinton, the screen versions of The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, called her "a real American novelist," straight out of the tradition that runs from Herman Melville right up through J. D. Salinger and beyond. The myth of the American hero, of the outlaw-individualist, of the "gallant," lives on in the eyes of Ponyboy Curtis and Johnny Cade.

None of this would matter, though, if it were not based on real characters. None of this would count if we did not believe that her books tell the truth, not so much about beer parties and gang fights, but about what it feels like to be a teenager, caught between childhood and adulthood, always on the outside looking in at a world that is very far from being a paradise on earth.

[Most of the controversy about The Outsiders came about because it] grew to be identified with something called "The New Realism" in young adult writing. The term—New Realism—was added later, but the fear—that books for teenagers were getting a little too realistic for their own good—was beginning to be heard more and more frequently during the time after the publication of The Outsiders. Indeed there are many who fix the point at which young adult writing changed, and changed utterly—from the cautionary Mary-Jane-Goes-to-the-Prom book to the attempt at serious and authentic portrayal of life as it is—with the publication of The Outsiders. Such a radical change could not be expected to go unchallenged....

The irony is that, while the debate team focused on the gangs and the violence, the smoking and the beer drinking—all dreaded evidence of the New Realism—the major thrust of The Outsiders had nothing to do with realism at all. The real message of the book is its uncompromising idealism. The real reason the book struck such a responsive chord in its young readers (and continues to strike that chord) was that it captured so well the idealism of that time of life. Of all the young adult novels of that period, The Outsiders is by far the most idealistic, the least concerned with the strictly realistic. In its search for innocence, for heroes, for that Garden of Eden that seems to slip further away as youth fades into adulthood, The Outsiders is a book for dreamers, not realists. And youth is the time of dreamers.

On its surface at least, The Outsiders is indeed a novel about the friction between social classes, in this case between the greasers and the Socs. It is also about the hunger for status, for a place in the pecking order, both inside and outside these groups. And it is about the violence that is so much a part of that particular place and time of life. These concerns are not, however, what make the book come alive. The book comes to life through its characters and situations, their almost painful yearnings and loyalties, their honesty.... With all the talk of clichés and melodrama, why does this book continue to speak to new generations of young readers? Idealism alone, after all, is not enough. Nor is sincerity. Think of all the sincere, idealistic books in dustbins and yard sales around the country. The continuing popularity, the continuing interest derives, I think, from the fortunate combination of achievements by the young Susie Hinton in three essential categories: the hand of the storyteller....; the continuing credibility of the characters; and the honesty, the sincerity... embodied in the themes of the book, each of which reduces, finally, to the yearning to "stay gold."

The orphans of The Outsiders are outlaws and dreamers. They're like "that tragic boy," Peter Pan, in J. M. Barrie's turn-of-the-century play The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up. Peter Pan, and his group of orphans, the lost boys, rejected by their parents, make their own world of heroics and adventure. They have their own Never Land, where they belong. Wendy, like Cherry with her busyness, cannot prevent herself from changing, until she suddenly turns around to discover that she is "old, Peter. I am ever so much more than twenty." Peter Pan, on the other hand, stays pure; he never grows up. He stays gold.

Likewise do the lost boys in The Outsiders form their own, more perfect world in the world of the gang. They dream of the perfection they know must exist, their Never Land, that perhaps they even once had and lost, where things are gold, where Johnny Cade can find his "ordinary people," where Ponyboy's parents remain golden and young. The striking thing about these orphans is that they use it to their advantage; they are dreamers and they use their abandonment to feed their dreams. Life intervenes, of course, and their dreams will never come true, but that's only because they have such high standards. They want perfection. Like Peter Pan, they want to stay gold forever.

Ponyboy recites [the Robert Frost poem "Nothing Gold Can Stay"] for Johnny.... The poem captures a feeling that is important to Ponyboy, though he's not sure of all of it. "He meant more to it than I'm gettin," he says, "I always remembered it because I never quite got what he meant by it." Ponyboy, who has the capacity to be a little slow when it serves to advance the story, needs Johnny to validate the poem for him, in his letter at the end of the book. "[H]e meant you're gold when you're a kid, like green. When you're a kid everything's new, dawn. It's just when you get used to everything that it's day." The only way to stay gold, then, is to stay a kid, or at least to retain that childlike wonder, that innocence, which continues to make the world new. The key to staying gold then, in Johnny's view, is to stay, like Peter Pan, a child.

If this is indeed the case, then it creates problems. To stay at a Peter Pan-level of innocence is to be retarded (in all senses of the word). All of us are in fact more like Wendy than like Peter; we lose gradually that limber quality of youth, the idealism and innocence, the ability, so to speak, to fly. To the extent that we retain some of this capacity we are blessed, but to retain it fully is impossible. Not just because "nothing gold can stay," but also because it would be unnatural to do so. Innocence cannot escape coming to terms with life, which does not necessarily mean being corrupted. The opposite of innocence is—not corruption, of course—but knowledge.

Worse yet, innocence/youth/idealism carried to such extremes is not innocence/youth/idealism at all. It is usually a more selfish, and sometimes dangerous, thing. Look at Ponyboy's selfish attitude toward Darry early in the book. This is an attitude that is innocent of the most elementary awareness of another human being. When he sees Darry cry, and feels his hurting inside, it is suddenly a loss of innocence, a falling into knowledge of the real world, but it's a far better condition he falls into than that he left behind.

It is no accident that those literary heroes who stay gold, who retain their innocence unnaturally, lead lives whose effect upon others is often far from innocent. There is something inhuman about them. Think of Melville's Billy Budd, or Lennie in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Their very innocence tends to lead them always toward, in Lennie's words, "another bad thing." It's as if they can't help but hurt people in the end. J. M. Barrie, once again, at the end of Peter and Wendy, describes his creation Peter, who would not grow up, as forever "young and innocent," but then he also adds, "And heartless."

The Frost poem is in fact not so much about the fleeting nature of youth, or even life, as it is about the Fall. Notice those repeating verbs, "subside ... sank ... goes down." The loss of Eden, of that state of perfection of which the "gold" of the poem is but a cruel reminder, this is the real knowledge in the poem, as it is in The Outsiders. When Ponyboy remembers his parents, it is always in a kind of misty Garden of Eden setting.... It's been only eight months since they died, but already they seem to have entered into a golden mythology. The book's idealism invents that place "in the country" of sunsets and ordinary people, but in fact—after the Fall—such a place cannot exist, not in this life.

Which brings us to the one way of staying gold that works. It is the only way of achieving the perfection that was promised. It involves memory, and the shifting of emphasis in Frost's last line from "gold" to "stay." Nothing gold can stay. Rather than agree that Ponyboy's image of perfection cannot exist in this world, the book agrees only that it cannot stay here. By dying Johnny stays gold in a way he could never have achieved in life. Even Dally becomes a gallant in death, frozen in time forever under the streetlights of the park like a carved figure from Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn."

Most of all, Ponyboy's parents stay perfect parents in a world sadly lacking in parental perfection. They will be young and golden and love him always. His mother in particular remains "beautiful and golden," perfect in a way she could not have remained in life. It is an irony that only by abandoning him could she become for him that symbol of perfection that Ponyboy, and all the others, so desperately need. In the words of the Keats poem: "She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, / For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!"

In the pages of The Outsiders, and in Ponyboy's memory, she remains, as the song goes, forever young. She stays gold. It's a cruel sort of perfection, but for the idealistic heroes of all the Hinton books (up until Tex), who prize perfection so highly, it's the only kind of Paradise they know.

Source: Jay Daly, in his Presenting S. E. Hinton, Twayne Publishers, 1987, 128 p.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Critical Overview