Historical Context

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The Rise of Youth Culture

In the United States, the period from 1945 to 1963 was termed the “Baby Boom” because of the sharp increase in the number of children born during those years. By 1958, one-third of the country’s population was fifteen years old or younger. The years after World War II had also seen an increase in wealth throughout the United States. By the time they became teenagers in the late 1950s and early 1960s, therefore, many of these “Baby Boomers” had plenty of spare cash to spend. Companies competed to attract the dollars of these new consumers. The film, music, television, and fashion industries created products especially for the increasingly influential teen market. Rock and roll became the most popular music on the radio, and movies also reflected this new focus on adolescents. Actors James Dean and Marlon Brando became idols for portraying teenage antiheroes in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and The Wild One (1954). Paul Newman, whose looks Ponyboy admires as “tough,” followed in the footsteps of these actors by playing similarly cool characters in the films The Hustler (1961), Hud (1963), and Cool Hand Luke (1967).

Teenagers’ increased spending power also gave them a new measure of independence from their parents. Rebellion against adult authority became a notable theme in many teen films. Loud rock and roll music became another way for teens to defy their parents’ values. Some adolescents’ rebellion turned violent, and teenage gangs sprouted in urban areas. The increase in the numbers of young people meant an increase in juvenile delinquents as well. These “JDs” became an urgent concern for law enforcement in the 1950s and 1960s. As The Outsiders demonstrates, however, not all of these delinquents were from poor neighborhoods. Children from supposedly “good families” also became drop-outs, gang members, and drug or alcohol users.

The Vietnam War and the Protest Movement

Teenagers were not the only Americans who challenged authority in the 1960s. The public in general had begun to question US involvement in Vietnam’s war against communist rebels. The United States had been providing military advisors to this southeast Asian country since the 1950s. In 1964, however, the number of US troops in Vietnam doubled. By 1967, almost half a million Americans were fighting in Vietnam. Nevertheless, many citizens had doubts as to the effectiveness and morality of American involvement. Protesters turned up in the thousands for anti-war demonstrations. The protesters came from all walks of life: groups included those made up of students, clergy, scientists, and women.

The year 1967 featured many notable protests. University of Wisconsin students destroyed university property while running recruiters from Dow Chemical (the makers of the defoliant napalm) off campus. The week of April 15 saw anti-war demonstrations in New York and San Francisco bring out 100,000 and 20,000 people respectively. A protest at the Pentagon led to arrests of several notable people, including poet Allen Ginsberg and pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. proposed a merging of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. He declared the US government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”

Race Relations in the 1960s

Although all of the “greaser” characters in The Outsiders are white, the prejudice they endure recalls that suffered by Black Americans and other people of color during the same era. Several laws and court decisions of the late 1950s and early 1960s had outlawed public segregation. Nevertheless, discrimination was still part of daily life for many Black people in the 1960s. In some Southern cities, public school integration had to be enforced by federal...

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troops. Black students who attended previously all-white schools often faced ridicule and even physical abuse from their classmates. (This calls to mind how Ponyboy is called a “hood” by his lab partner when he uses a switchblade to dissect a worm in biology class.)

Despite the political gains made by the civil rights movement, practical gains for Black Americans lagged far behind. According to census statistics of the 1960s, almost one-half of non-white households were below the poverty line, compared to one-fifth of white households. Unemployment rates among non-white people were more than double that of white people, at 7.3 percent. “White flight” occurred as white middle-class families moved from the city to the suburbs. As a result, many companies and stores moved out of the cities as well, leading to a decline in investment in infrastructure. The poor families left behind, both Black and white, often ended up with poorer schools, fewer government resources, and decaying neighborhoods. Thus, while political segregation was outlawed, economic segregation was still in place.

Race riots sometimes erupted in these impoverished neighborhoods, often provoked by incidents of police brutality. The most devastating of these incidents was the Watts riot that took place over six days in 1965. The Los Angeles police required the assistance of the California National Guard to halt this disturbance, which left thirty-four dead, thousands injured, and over forty million dollars of property damage. In 1967, race riots erupted in several US cities, leaving eighty-three dead and several hundred injured. These riots were different from the “rumbles” portrayed in The Outsiders, which are essentially conflicts between rival gangs. These race riots of the 1960s, on the other hand, usually began as conflicts between white police and Black residents. As the conflict grew, rioters targeted innocent bystanders and property as well. Shops were looted and burned, even those owned by Black families living in the neighborhoods. One result of these riots was the Anti-Riot Act, which was added to the Civil Rights Bill of 1968.

Social Concerns

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The area of social concerns has always been one of the most important to the fiction of Hinton. Primary among the concerns of her fiction is the role of the modern teenage peer group, especially as it is realized in gangs. The narrator of The Outsiders, Ponyboy, is cognizant of his role as a gang member throughout the novel. He feels that he belongs to his gang, that he must cooperate with them, and that even if members sometimes disagree, they are still united against common enemies. Most of all, he knows that one must “save face” in front of the gang, fighting in fights and protecting his own. The world of adult authority, with its rights and duties, is almost nonexistent in the novel, except for the role of the police and state agencies (who are seen mainly as troublemakers for members of the gang). Ponyboy’s parents are no longer alive, and he is being raised by his two older brothers, who are both members of his gang. This type of intense solidarity coupled with a worldview that knows only immediacy and instant gratification might be one of the best portrayals of the teenage mindset in modern times.

Another concern in the novel is class warfare, realized in a climactic gang fight between the “greasers,” Ponyboy’s peer-group, and the “Socs,” the more wealthy, middle-class set. The warfare takes on the characteristics of a constant feud between the two groups. Individuals are brutally attacked by roving “packs” of teenagers from the opposing group, and only quick-wittedness or aid from one’s own peer group can provide safety. Each group has a “territory” which must be defended for the honor of the gang. In addition, relationships between people must take place only within one’s gang and its attendant family members. When Ponyboy is friendly with a Soc girl, he and a friend, Johnny, are attacked by a pack of Socs. “You’re outa your territory,” Johnny tells them. They respond by stating, “Next time you want a broad, pick up ye own kind—dirt.” Hinton illustrates this social concern while spurring on the plot.

A major concern in society today, the use of illicit drugs, is treated in an unusual manner by Hinton. Her hero-narrators do not take illegal drugs and do not generally approve of those who do. When the reader sees Ponyboy smoking incessantly (most of the teengers do), it is tobacco, not marijuana. In fact, Ponyboy does not even like alcohol; it makes him ill. He tells readers, “I tried drinking once before. The stuff tasted awful, I got sick.” When he and Johnny see the pack of Socs about to confront them, he is especially fearful because a “cool deadly bluff” will not get rid of them if they are drunk. Hinton’s attitudes about alcohol and drugs may be in part attributed to the generally bright narrators she always employs; it certainly helps the readers accept the other terrible aspects of social life in the novel more readily by not alienating those who are opposed to drug use.

Relationships with the opposite sex are always described from the male point of view because the narrator is always male. While the relevant social concern of unwanted pregnancies is touched upon, it is given more of an erotic than a social concern. Girls are primarily in existence to be protected (if related to a gang member), to be eroticized (for immediate gratification), and to give one status within the group. While unwanted pregnancies seem to result in marriage rather than abortion in the world Hinton describes, the male viewpoint is certainly one of the factors that colors the depiction of this modern problem.

All of these social concerns come together in the viewpoint about values in the works. Because the world is populated by young teenagers, there is an immediacy to everything that happens and to everything that is desired. The young people in the novel cannot and do not plan for the future. After Johnny has killed a Soc during the “pack” attack scene in The Outsiders, he and Ponyboy can think only of immediate escape and someone who can effect this escape for them. This sense of living only in the present leads the characters to have less of an appreciation for their own individual identities and more of a feel for establishing their identities through the peer group. And, of course, it is because of this group identity that so few gain a true awareness of self which would lead to the development of a conscience and a probable concern for the social mores and values that adults usually see as the right way of behaving.

Additional Commentary

The Outsiders was one of the first so-called “problem” novels, dealing with poverty, class conflict, teenage violence, family difficulties, and child abuse. Some parents and teachers have complained that the book glamorizes violence and gangs. But Ponyboy dislikes meaningless fighting and deplores the lack of ambition demonstrated by most of the gang members, and it is with Ponyboy and his feelings that most readers will identify.

The conflict between the poor and the upper classes is at the heart of this story. The Socs label everyone from Ponyboy’s neighborhood as hoods and in so doing deprive the greasers of their humanity. The greasers are also guilty of prejudging the Socs, although Hinton deemphasizes this point. Clearly, though, both sides are at fault: neither attempts to understand the other group's problems, and both act violently. The important point, which many critics overlook, is that Ponyboy offers a way out of this cycle of violence and retribution. He listens to Cherry and discovers that the Socs must contend with serious problems such as overindulgent or absent parents, lack of responsibility, and, ultimately, lack of self-esteem. As Ponyboy’s hatred is tempered by understanding, he comes to realize that words, not blows, are the only solution.

Hinton has defended the violence in the novel, saying that it is a real part of teenagers’ lives. The violence in The Outsiders is realistic, but Hinton does not dwell on gruesome details. Parents and teachers should lead discussions about Ponyboy’s attitudes toward gangs and fighting and how these attitudes change during the story.

Greasers can’t walk alone too much or they’ll get jumped, or someone will come by and yell “Greaser” at them, which doesn’t make you feel too hot, if you know what I mean.

Family conflict is another major issue in The Outsiders. Although Darry and Ponyboy fight, readers know that they love each another, and the brothers do in fact come to terms with their feelings during the course of the story. Johnny, however, comes from an abusive home. His parents fight constantly and either ignore or berate and beat their son. Johnny suffers from low self-esteem as well as extreme shyness as a result. He longs for a loving home and knows he will never have one. Teachers may want to talk about Johnny’s feelings concerning himself and his parents and to offer some suggestions as to how Johnny might have improved his life, such as seeking counseling or moving into a foster home.

Perhaps the most curious problem with The Outsiders is its sexism. Hinton chooses to focus almost exclusively on male characters and has little to say, let alone anything positive, about the greasers’ female counterparts. When Dally harasses Cherry and Marcia at the drive-in, Ponyboy says he would probably have joined in if the girls had been “our kind” but refrained because these were “nice” girls. For someone who crusades against labeling and stereotyping, Ponyboy exhibits an attitude that does not make sense. Parents or teachers should discuss this inconsistency in Ponyboy’s beliefs and talk about the double standards many people hold for boys and girls.

The Outsiders is socially sensitive to a point and covers many important issues— teenage gangs, violence, and child abuse—that were not standard fare for young adult novels in 1967. Hinton handles these topics in an understated but forceful manner.


Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading