Setting is crucial to this story, for it is through their environment, the inner city, that the main characters are defined: they live on the wrong side of the tracks, and their surroundings force them to grow up quickly and to become tough. Hinton modeled the book's setting on her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, although she never refers to the city by name. The novel is most likely set in the mid-1960s, the time period during which it was written, although, again, Hinton makes few explicit references to external historical events that might fix the book in time.
In The Outsiders, the city is dirty, noisy, crowded, and full of danger. With the city's art museums, concert halls, and theaters traditionally off-limits, the only sources of culture available to the poor boys, or "greasers," are the rodeo and the movies. Many of the greasers dream of the freedom and quiet of the country, where people are not labeled and discriminated against because of their appearance. Ponyboy explains, "I wanted to be out of towns and away from excitement. I only wanted to lie on my back under a tree and read a book or draw a picture, and not worry about being jumped." Later in the book, Ponyboy finds himself in the country with Johnny, who is wanted for murder. The two boys undergo a physical and emotional transformation while hiding out in an old church building for five days. For people accustomed to the fast pace of city life, the isolation and quiet of this new setting seems interminable.
Ponyboy narrates the story in retrospect, under the guise of having to write out a theme for English class. This presentation of a story by one of the characters involved is called first-person narrative. A first-person narrative is easily identified by the use of "I" in telling the story. Having one of the characters tell the story can make the story more immediate for readers, because they easily can put themselves in the narrator's place.
A first-person narrator also means a limited perspective, however. Ponyboy can only describe his own thoughts and can only relate events he has witnessed or heard about. This limited perspective lends itself very well to the themes of class conflict that appear throughout the book. At the beginning of the story, Pony can only sympathize with other greasers. A third-person narrator ("he/she said") who knows about all of the characters could tell the reader what Cherry or Randy or even Sodapop was thinking. Instead, Pony has to learn to understand other people's feelings all by himself. This understanding is an important part of his coming of age.
Hinton is a character writer instead of an idea writer. She develops her characters in depth and then lets them create the story. Consequently, the opening of the book is a very detailed introduction to each character. By the end of the book, the reader knows each character in intimate detail. In addition, the characters' names are particularly descriptive. "Ponyboy," for instance, creates an image of a youth becoming a cowboy. Sodapop's name reflects his own bubbly personality. Even "Dallas Winston," the combination of a Texas city and a famous cigarette brand, invokes bygone days of Western heroics and toughness. This invocation ties in with Hinton's fascination with that earlier rough and violent era.
Description and Diction
The brief detail used in the book is rather startling in its effectiveness. Just as Ponyboy can "get [Dally's] personality down in a few lines" of a drawing, he can sum up his friends in just a few words. Johnny, for instance, is "a little dark puppy that has been kicked too many times and is lost in a crowd of strangers." The speed of slang adjectives adds another dimension to description. "Greasers. You know, like hoods, JD's," for example, gives Mr. Wood a short but precise description of the boys' background.
The scene of heroic rescue is full of delightful phrasing. The comparison of the burning church to hell might be expected, but the simile of...
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