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/they 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...
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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 falling cinders as biting ants is rather novel. Adding realism to tension occurs in a truism: “I picked up a kid, and he promptly bit me.” And a reaction to Two-Bit’s drinking, “I’d hate to see the day when I had to get my nerve from a can,” sounds like a wise saying. Hinton is successful in using youth slang in her prose style, and this success makes the narrative more believable.
Allusions are references to other works of literature or art. A narrator can use them to explain a character or situation by comparing it to something already known by the reader. Ponyboy refers to several other works of literature to make comparisons as well as to avoid lengthy explanations. For instance, he refers to Charles Dickens’s novel Great Expectations, another tale of class conflict: “That kid Pip, he reminded me of us—the way he felt marked lousy because he wasn’t a gentleman or anything, and the way that girl kept looking down on him.” While Johnny and Ponyboy are hiding out at the church, they discuss two works: the novel Gone with the Wind and the poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” Johnny sees echoes of the Southern gentlemen’s gallantry in Dally’s coolness, and the sunrise reminds Ponyboy of the poem. It is only later, with Johnny’s help, that Pony comes to understand the meaning of the poem. In this way, an allusion has helped illustrate the coming-of-age theme of the novel.
Imagery is using visual images, sometimes called symbols, to reinforce themes or represent deeper meanings. The novel does not contain many symbols, because the story is simply a recounting of what happened. There is one overriding image in the story, however, one which is important to the main characters and the main theme. The image is that of a sunrise or sunset. Once again, the myth of the cowboy is suggested. Our heroes should ride off safely into the sunset, just like the heroes of Western movies. Unfortunately, not all of the gang will make that ride. Sunsets also figure in the novel because Pony likes to watch them. This signifies that he is a sensitive boy who appreciates beauty. But he is not alone in his appreciation. He discovers that a Soc, Cherry, is capable of watching a sunset. Given the chance, so is Johnny. The sunrise that Johnny and Pony share at the church prompts recitation of a Robert Frost poem, “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” That poem sums up the meaning of the sunset in this story and is the theme Pony is trying to develop for his English teacher. For Johnny and Pony, the phrase comes to mean that good things don’t last. Sunsets are short, and blissful escapes into abandoned churches end in fire. But it is possible, Pony proves, to remain true to one’s self and thereby “stay gold.”
Hinton makes great use of the literary technique of “point of view,” that is, the point from which a story is told. Hinton always uses the first-person narrative in which the story is told through the eyes and experiences of a central character; only what he has seen or has been told can be related to the readers. Thus the presence of the author is removed almost entirely from the storytelling. This point of view is, in fact, a brilliant choice by Hinton, given the themes and concerns of her novels. Ponyboy is an engaging and intelligent creation; the reader tends to like him almost immediately for his complete honesty and for his growing self-awareness of the life he leads. His teenage voice captures the speech rhythms of modern youth. Many critics believe that Hinton’s ability in this area is unusually masterful. She has a gift for the exact vocabulary (excluding most obscenities, which she does not use) and the syntax of the modern teenager. Thus the novel seems to take on an air of verisimilitude for the reader, even if the situations seem sentimental or cliche at times. Doubtless the true-to-life speech has led to the popularity of The Outsiders among young adults.
The world of romance—in its technical sense as an invocation of the socially remote or past, as a world separate from reality but one that reinterprets reality through well-known stories whose very familiarity allows profound allusions to other matters—is also invoked by Hinton as a technique. Her novels deal with a world in which adult values and authority are nonexistent or not understood, a world socially remote. And her very use of cliche situations, so often criticized by reviewers, becomes an important element in this technique by taking situations so familiar that they are cliche but transforming them through the specialized sensibility of her intelligent but not-yet-matured teenage narrator in the plot. The narrative in The Outsiders often alludes to much more than it states, forcing the reader to transform the experiences of Ponyboy into something larger than the musings of a teenage boy.
Finally, the novel achieves a kind of local brilliance through its use of the enveloping technique. After enduring all of these traumatic experiences through the course of the novel, especially the tragic deaths of his friends Johnny and Dallas, Ponyboy responds by feeling dissociated from everything around him in an attempt not to be hurt further. He starts “running into things” and “losing things.” The A’s he always made in English become D’s or worse. At the end his English teacher gives him the chance to pass the course if he can write a good semester theme, one based on “something important” but something from Ponyboy’s own ideas and experiences. Ponyboy considers this, and then in a final flash of realization and insight, he begins his English theme. The novel ends with the beginning words of Ponyboy’s English theme, which are also the opening words of The Outsiders. This technique, using a meta-rhetoric, is a wonderful evocation of the new maturation achieved by Ponyboy in a way that reckons and reviews everything that has happened in the novel as an indication of this maturation, enveloping all the experiences within it.
It is clear that Ponyboy also has reached a new level of self-awareness at this point, as he now notes the difference between more oral, non-reflective storytelling and the power of the more reflective and insightful written word, which allows fuller realization and understanding of all that has happened. Ironically, this self-enclosing of the story line as it has been told and is now being written by Ponyboy also opens up what has been happening in the course of the narrative to the full understanding of the reader.
The Outsiders contains a complex symbolic structure within a straightforward plot. Hinton uses symbolism to express class and character differences. For the greasers, long hair represents dignity and independence. Even the legal system recognizes some connection between hair and self-esteem, for as Johnny notes, the first thing a judge does when a greaser appears in court is to order a haircut. The greasers’ hair also symbolizes the group’s lower social status: the word “greaser” refers to the way the young men fix their hair. It is a derogatory term, although the greasers have adopted it themselves.
On a broader symbolic scale, Hinton weaves archetypal images and situations into her story. Ponyboy and Johnny, for example, do not simply hide out in the country; they undergo a metamorphosis. Hinton carefully constructs their rites of passage to include the typical stages of this process. First, the boys are exiled: they must hide in the country, away from family and friends. For five days they wait for word from outside, yet during this period they are thinking and growing. They cut their hair, thus breaking a major connection with their past lives and making themselves more open to change. Their transition comes as a test, literally a trial by fire: the boys must decide in a few seconds whether or not to risk their own lives in an attempt to save the children in the burning church. They decide on the noblest course of action, and Johnny sustains an injury that proves fatal. Nevertheless, both boys are reborn in a sense: they come through the fire; they rescue their innocence and goodness, as symbolized by the children they save from the church; and they are proclaimed heroes. Praised in the newspapers and admired even by their enemies, Ponyboy and Johnny mature as a result of their ordeal. Johnny grasps the meaning of a Robert Frost poem that he and Ponyboy puzzled over while cooped up in the church, and Ponyboy recognizes that most violence serves no purpose. Both want to share their insights with others.
The structure of The Outsiders is circular rather than linear. It begins and ends with Ponyboy leaving the movie theater, thinking about Paul Newman and a ride home. By the end of the book, though, readers know that what they have just read is Ponyboy’s semester theme paper and that it has been written for two distinct purposes: to tell the “hundreds and hundreds of boys living on the wrong sides of cities” that there is still some goodness left in the world, and to tell the greasers’ side of the story to everyone else.
At times the plot or characterization is a bit melodramatic, as in Dally’s self-contrived death and Johnny’s dying words, a reference to Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay”: “Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold. . . .” While such sentimentality may detract from readers’ enjoyment of the story, the book’s intensity and essential truthfulness make up for any shortcomings in plot or characterization. Readers will identify with the confusion felt by the characters and with Ponyboy’s struggles to be an individual while remaining one of the gang. Although the characters are stereotypes, they possess a truthful simplicity that will perhaps appeal to younger readers more than to adult readers.
The primary American novel of a youth maturing must be The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884). Huck’s attempt to view the values and rules of the adult world lead to his own realizations. But more immediate as a precedent for The Outsiders is J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). The first-person narrative told by a teenage narrator who is trying to mature and come to terms with himself and the world reminds one of Hinton. The speech rhythms of a teenager were also noted by the critics in this novel. A neglected but sure precedent is also found in West Side Story. This story of teenage rival gangs in New York who cannot find sense in the adult world, who achieve their status within the gang, and who come to a better understanding of each other at the end is similar to Hinton’s themes. In addition, the poeticized telling of the story through music and dance in West Side Story brings to mind Hinton’s use of literary allusions by Ponyboy in The Outsiders. The novels of Henry James and Joseph Conrad also are precedents in their use of the enveloping technique and a utilization of specialized narrators.
Although some have attempted to compare her style to that of American novelist Ernest Hemingway, this is clearly not the case. While the narrators of many of Hemingway’s novels do have a tough, lean prose style in a first-person narration, they are clearly not the literary antecedents to the young, naive narrators who ask the unsophisticated questions in Hinton’s works. Hemingway’s narrators have a complex wounded psychology, which is different from the inner simplicity of Hinton’s heroes, and Hemingway forces his first-person narrators into a specialized relationship of familiarity with the readers that Hinton’s narrators do not attempt and do not want.