The Outsiders Themes
by S. E. Hinton

The Outsiders book cover
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The Outsiders Themes

The main themes in The Outsiders are social class, loyalty, and identity.

  • Social class: The Socs flaunt their wealth, while the Greasers live in poverty. Their socioeconomic differences fuel the novel's central conflict.
  • Loyalty: Johnny's loyalty to Ponyboy leads him to kill Bob, igniting the deadly conflict between the Socs and the Greasers. Loyalty is depicted as a destructive force when not properly moderated.
  • Identity: Ponyboy’s search for identity leads him to wonder whether he will model himself on the other Greasers or follow his own course. Ultimately, he finds himself by writing his story down.

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Themes

Bridging Social Classes

The Outsiders focuses on issues of social class, exemplified by confrontations between the lower-class Greasers and the upper-class Socs. Ponyboy hasn’t done anything to provoke the Socs into ganging up on him, but this is not a personal or unusual attack; the Socs regularly beat up on Greasers, and the Greasers retaliate. The relations between the social classes are made more complicated when Johnny and Ponyboy befriend the Soc girls, Cherry and Marcia, at the movies. Ponyboy is surprised to find that he relates to Cherry. This is the first instance where readers see that the Socs are not all the same and that there is a common bond across the social classes. Despite learning that the Socs have their own problems, the pre-existing tensions cause the Socs to want to punish Johnny and Ponyboy for hanging out with the Soc girls. This prompts Bob the other Soc to force Ponyboy’s head underwater at the fountain and causes Johnny to kill Bob.

One of the big differences between the social classes is how they are perceived in public. The title of the novel, The Outsiders, refers to how the Greasers are not typically thought of as good kids or members of society. The Socs, on the other hand, are condemned for causing fights and wrecking houses but are just as likely to receive recognition and praise for their accomplishments. This perception slowly begins to change throughout the novel as the result of a closer look at the conflict between Ponyboy, Johnny, and Bob, and the boys’ heroic efforts with the burning church.

Honor Among the Lawless

The Outsiders focuses on giving readers insight into a group of people who are normally looked down upon in society. The novel also shows how the Greasers follow a behavioral code, even when they break the law. The idea of honor among the lawless is exemplified by Dally Winston. Although he has an extensive criminal record, his sense of pride and loyalty motivates him to help Johnny and Ponyboy find a way out of town after Johnny kills Bob. This is made more apparent when Johnny compares Dally to the Southern gentlemen in Gone with the Wind, who “[ride] into sure death because they were gallant.” As a result of Johnny and Ponyboy's saving the children from the burning church, and Dally's saving Johnny’s life, the newspaper prints an article called “Juvenile Delinquents Turn Heroes.” This shows how public perception of the Greasers has begun to change, as people recognize that one can be an honorable or ethical person despite having a criminal background.

When Ponyboy first recites “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” it is in response to Johnny wishing that the beautiful sunrise could last forever. Although Ponyboy says he doesn’t understand the poem, the reader is left to draw the connection between beauty and its transitory nature. On his deathbed, Johnny tells Ponyboy to “stay golden,” alluding to the poem although a fuller explanation isn’t given. Only when Ponyboy finds Johnny’s letter are we given Johnny’s interpretation of the poem, saying “[Y]ou’re gold when you’re a kid, like green…It’s just when you get used to everything that it’s day. Like the way you dig sunsets, Pony. That’s gold. Keep that way, it’s a good way to be.” Johnny’s letter connects the poem to the major theme of the novel, which is that our personal character...

(The entire section is 2,227 words.)