In Rumble Fish, S. E. Hinton offers even her youngest readers an insightful study of the dynamics of social conflict. In the novel, the institutions traditionally entrusted with the maintenance of order, such as the family, schools, and law enforcement, fail to counteract the poverty, ignorance, violence, and despair that threaten Rusty-James, the Motorcycle Boy, and the other teens in the neighborhood. Sympathy for the boys and their situation develops through the hero/sidekick relationship that exists between Rusty-James and Steve, and their dialogue reveals the submerged emotions of loneliness and dependency that haunt most young people as they attempt to define their place in society. The novel affirms that disappointment, failure, and loss are constants in human existence; that an inability to adapt to expected norms will ultimately lead to conflict; and that order within a disordered society must originate within the self.
The title symbol, that of the freed fighting “rumble” fish, accurately represents the cruel paradox of youthful existence. Like the fighting fish, teenagers exist in a sort of isolated captivity, since interaction often results in conflict. Like the fish, too, teenagers frequently lack the vision to recognize deceptive mirrors (as seen in Rusty-James’ vision of the Motorcycle Boy) and occasionally destroy themselves in confusion. The river where the Motorcycle Boy releases the fish marks the line of demarcation between the haves and the have-nots in their community, and when the Motorcycle Boy leads Rusty-James and Steve on an excursion across the river, Hinton contrasts the bright lights to the menacing world of their neighborhood. Boundaries exist that Rusty-James cannot cross, and his increasing alienation from his environment leads to a greater loss of hope.
Although the helplessness, disenchantment, and confusion of Rusty-James and the Motorcycle Boy are decidedly depressing, and Hinton holds out the promise of a brighter future. Her powerful characterizations alert young readers to the hazards of letting limited experience shape one’s entire perspective on life. The contrast between Steve and Rusty-James, for example, demonstrates that each individual must find a direction independent of the negative influences that seek to isolate and alienate. Steve’s optimistic future is ensured by his decision to remove himself from the chaos of the streets, even though his own family life is fraught with violence and suffering. Steve finds within himself a direction; Rusty-James, on the other hand, continues to seek external definition, particularly via his emulation of the Motorcycle Boy, which leads only to chaos and frustration. Ironically, when Steve sees Rusty-James in California, he continually refers to the similarity between Rusty-James and the Motorcycle Boy, but, even though Rusty-James has always wanted to be just like the Motorcycle Boy, the similarity does not represent any achievement; on the contrary, it seems to suggest certain doom.
Rusty-James’ inability to overcome his family’s legacy echoes Greek tragedy’s message that humanity is motivated by biological necessity and destiny. Those who dare to resist this determinism, like the Motorcycle Boy, are eventually destroyed. Even in the conclusion’s very different setting, at the beach where the sun shines and the waves keep coming in, Rusty-James can only hope that he will eventually separate himself from his tragic past.