An American Bildungsroman: S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders was published in 1967. The novel describes the experiences of American teenagers at the start of the social revolution that marked the latter years of the 1960s.
- As involvement in the Vietnam War escalated and the civil rights movement got underway, the baby boomer generation reached peak adolescence en masse in the late 1960s. As they questioned the polemic Cold War paradigm inherited from their parents, these young readers looked to see representations of their own coming-of-age stories in literature and popular art. The coming-of-age novel—formally referred to by the German term bildungsroman—deals with the progression of a protagonist from child to adult, from innocent to morally complex, from naive to wise. In The Outsiders, readers witness Ponyboy’s journey toward maturity as he defines himself as an individual apart from the social group to which belongs.
- Hinton writes within the greater tradition of American bildungsromane, developed by writers such as Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, and Herman Melville. These writers often paint a bleak portrait of adulthood, characterizing adults as belligerent, absent, and/or tormented. While other western bildungsromane often depict protagonists struggling against adversarial adults, American bildungsromane sometimes consider the transition into adulthood as an experience of personal loss, such as the loss of innocence, freedom, or possibility. The Outsiders falls in line with this transition of loss; Ponyboy experiences the literal loss of both Dally and Johnny, and his attitude toward his father-like brother, Darry, transitions from adversarial to understanding at the end of the story.
Reception and Publication History: The young-adult generation of baby boomers created a surge in market demand for popular writing that captured the zeitgeist of their generation.
- S. E. Hinton grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and in the 1960s she was an eager reader who yearned to see characters similar to herself in novels. Inspired by popular works of the era marketed to adults, such as the writing of J. D. Salinger and Shirley Jackson, and films such as Rebel Without a Cause and West Side Story, Hinton began writing The Outsiders when she was 16, and the novel was published when she was 18.
- The Outsiders initially enjoyed moderate success as a paperback novel. But when teachers found that it was a student favorite and added it to their classroom curricula, sales took off. The 1983 film adaptation of the novel, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, further increased the novel’s popularity. As of 2014, over ten million copies had been sold, despite its being banned due to depictions of teenagers smoking, drinking, and “rumbling.”
Literary Allusions: Unlike many of the other greasers, Ponyboy and Johnny both love to read. Their allusive discussions about literature are a primary vehicle through which Hinton conveys the themes of the novel.
- While hiding away in the church, the two boys read Gone with the Wind to pass the time. Written by Margaret Mitchell and first published in 1936, Gone with the Wind is a romantic historical drama following the struggles of Scarlett O’Hara, a southern aristocrat who comes of age during the Civil War near Atlanta, Georgia. When her family’s plantation is destroyed, Scarlett must rebuild her life from nothing. Scarlett’s experience parallels Ponyboy’s in that both are trying to survive in the context of civil strife. Further, comparing Dally to the southern gentlemen in the novel allows Johnny and Ponyboy to analyze and understand Dally’s character.
- Johnny recites the Robert Frost poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” as he and Ponyboy watch a sunrise together. Discussing the sunrise and sunset functions as a...
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- means of building friendship for Ponyboy. Sharing this poem reveals the intimate friendship between Johnny and Ponyboy and the connection they share. The themes of the poem include mortality and the passing of time, the appreciation of the temporary, and the natural beauty of earth. These themes are echoed in Johnny’s final words: “Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold . . .”
Allusions to Popular Culture: In its slang, character stylings, and references to pop culture, The Outsiders stands as a time capsule of Americana from 1965.
- In the opening lines of the text, Ponyboy confesses that he has Paul Newman on his mind. Paul Newman was a popular Hollywood leading man in the 1960s. Known for playing charismatic rebels, Newman starred in films such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969).
- Mustangs, Corvette Sting Rays, and Corvairs are all references to muscle cars of the era manufactured by Ford and Chevrolet.
- The Beatles and Elvis Presley were both popular, best-selling musical acts who were seen as heart throbs during the 1960s.