How does Johnny's character evolve throughout The Outsiders?

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In The Outsiders, Johnny realizes that he can release the burden of parents who have only shown him abuse and can instead find a true sense of family in the friends who have always tried to protect him.

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Johnny's character doesn't evolve significantly over the course of the plot. He is unlike many of the Greasers and has a sensitive soul, where some others are hardened and cold. Johnny finds acceptance and love from the group that he never receives at home. Johnny's friends know that he is abused at home, and everyone rallies around him in support of circumstances that are even more difficult than the typical Greaser's life of survival.

One way that Johnny does transform is the way he defines family. In chapter 3, he tells Pony,

"I think I like it better when the old man's hittin' me." Johnny sighed. "At least then I know he knows who I am. I walk in that house, and nobody says anything. I walk out, and nobody says anything. I stay away all night, and nobody notices."

At this point, Johnny still clings to a seemingly impossible idea that his parents are capable of real love. He has suffered beatings with a two-by-four and still longs for even that contact compared to the silence he is often met with at home. After Johnny commits murder in an attempt to save Pony's life, he and Pony finally spend time away from everyone, including Johnny's parents, and Johnny develops a new perspective of family.

As Johnny lies dying in the hospital, he realizes that he's surrounded by the only family that matters: his friends. His mother is pressing for admission to his room, and Johnny says, "Tell her to leave me alone. For once ... just to leave me alone." At the end of his life, Johnny releases the burden of parents who have never really loved him and instead is content to share his final moments with the group who has always rallied around him and tried to protect him. And that is enough.

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Initially, Johnny is portrayed as a timid, scared boy who does not speak much and is not very charismatic. After Johnny kills Bob Sheldon in self-defense, he ends up running away with Pony to hide out in an abandoned church in Windrixville. During his time spent in the abandoned church, Johnny becomes closer friends with Ponyboy, becomes fascinated by the characters in the novel Gone With the Wind, develops charisma, and becomes more outgoing. After visiting with Dally, the boys return to discover that the church is in flames and that there are children trapped inside. Johnny demonstrates courage by fearlessly following Ponyboy into the fire, saves several children, and even pushes Pony to safety before a beam falls on his back.

As Johnny is in critical condition in the hospital, he reveals his maturation by telling Pony that he regrets threatening suicide because he desperately wants to see the world. Before Johnny dies, he writes Ponyboy a memorable letter encouraging him to tell Dally to look at a sunset and urging Ponyboy to stay gold (innocent). Johnny's wise words and acceptance of death illustrate that he has gained perspective on life and has matured significantly since the beginning of the novel. By the end of the novel, Johnny is no longer a timid child. Instead, he is considered a hero who has gained wisdom and is at peace with his life.

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As the story progresses, Johnny is shown as intelligent as well as sensitive.

From the beginning to the end of the story, Johnny and Ponyboy become closer.  Johnny may not necessarily change much, but Ponyboy’s understanding of him develops.

When Pony first introduces Johnny, he describes him as “scared of his own shadow” because of a beating some Socs had given him when he was sixteen.  Johnny had it “awful rough at home-it took a lot to make him cry.”  Pony does not seem to admire Johnny much.

If you can picture a little dark puppy that has been kicked too many times and is lost in a crowd of strangers, you'll have Johnny. He was the youngest, next to me, smaller than the rest, with a slight build. (Ch. 1, p. 11)

It is not until Johnny and Ponyboy get into the fight in the park and Bob is killed that we see another side of Johnny.  This is when we realize that Johnny has a depth and intelligence to him that Pony had not seen before.

Johnny brings Pony a copy of Gone with the Wind, because he heard him say he wanted one and he thought it would kill time.  It is through this story and discussions of Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” that we develop a better understanding of Johnny’s sensitivity and intelligence.

It amazed me how Johnny could get more meaning out of some of the stuff in there than I could-I was supposed to be the deep one. Johnny had failed a year in school and never made good grades-he couldn't grasp anything that was shoved at him too fast…. (Ch. 5, p. 76)

One of Ponyboy’s main points is that greasers are stereotyped as low-lifes and hoods, when they really are just people.  Johnny did kill Bob, but he killed him out of fear.  It was an impulse.  The kid was drunk, and Pony remembered how badly the Socs had beaten him when they jumped him.  Pony, and the reader, learn quite a bit about Johnny’s character from his actions since then.

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