Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Rumble Fish opens and closes in California, at least five years after the main action of the story has transpired. Rusty-James, who narrates the story in the first person, describes a chance encounter with his former best friend, Steve Hays, who is now studying to be a teacher. The dialogue, which propels the novel, reveals that Rusty-James has been in a reformatory and creates the framework for the flashback that becomes the novel’s vehicle.

Much of the story’s action originates in Benny’s, a pool hall and bar that serves as a hangout for junior and senior high school students who are disillusioned by the poverty of their neighborhood and the callous indifference of adults to their frustration. They are frequently truant from school, unsuccessful in the classroom, and usually in trouble. School officials are depicted as corrupt; one coach even offers Rusty-James a five-dollar bribe to beat up another student. Police officials add to the conflict and tension of the neighborhood with their abuse of power and prejudiced treatment of Rusty-James and the Motorcycle Boy.

Parental figures, too, are destroyed by their own weaknesses; Rusty-James’ father was once a successful attorney, but, as an alcoholic, he now offers no security or role model for Rusty-James or his brother. Their mother, whom the Motorcycle Boy eventually locates in California, has abandoned all responsibility for her sons, and the story of being left alone by her when he was a toddler haunts Rusty-James. He has developed a fear of loneliness as a result of this early loss, but the eventual loss of his girlfriend, his best friend, his street reputation, and his brother leaves Rusty-James dazed; at the novel’s close, he is wandering California and still trying to forget the pain of his past.

Although the story’s language is somewhat dated—using terms such as “rumble,” for example, to refer the frequent street fights—the conflicts are real and transcend time and place. The ready availability of alcohol and other drugs, the pervasive threat of concealed weapons, the alienation and disdain felt by street kids with no power in mainstream society, the constant jockeying for position within the framework of the street—all these issues remain pertinent and challenging for young adults.

The bravado of the young toughs masks the insecurities and vulnerability just beneath the surface, and, as Rusty-James attempts to hold on more tightly to the Motorcycle Boy, his mask falls. Rusty-James suffers a serious stab wound in his fight with Biff, his girlfriend Patty breaks up with him, he gets transferred to a rival school where he knows he will be beaten by his enemies, and he and Steve are jumped after getting drunk in an adult theater with the Motorcycle Boy. Little by little, the thin fabric of their existence tears, and eventually even Steve tells Rusty-James that he is like the ball in a pinball machine, hopelessly buffeted by external forces. Steve recognizes that the randomness of this existence will destroy him, and he, too, abandons Rusty-James. Patty becomes Smokey’s girlfriend, and Rusty-James learns that the group leadership has shifted to Smokey as well. The final conflict in a pet store involving the Motorcycle Boy and the fighting “rumble” fish of the title, more than any scene in the story, symbolizes the persecution, the misunderstanding, and the wasted potential of these young lives.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Rumble Fish was published in 1975, but Hinton wrote it during the early 1970s. At the time, the Vietnam War was still raging, and the...

(The entire section is 428 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Set during the late 1960s or early 1970s, Rumble Fish—like all of Hinton's novels—takes place in a southwestern city that the...

(The entire section is 252 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

First-Person Narrative
The book is written in first person from Rusty-James' s point of view, which allows the reader...

(The entire section is 404 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

While Hinton's other novels are straightforward narratives of adolescent life, constructed around conflict and confrontation, Rumble...

(The entire section is 520 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Hinton's novels have continuously drawn the objections of critics who feel that books like Rumble Fish romanticize lawless behavior...

(The entire section is 118 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1970s: Most members of gangs are between the ages of twelve and twenty-one, and it's rare for females to be involved in gang...

(The entire section is 176 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Critics have noted Hinton's extremely negative portrayal of parents in Rumble Fish. What does she reveal about Rusty-James's...

(The entire section is 300 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. The film version of Rumble Fish attempts to convey the emotions and mood of the novel. View the film and discuss the ways in which...

(The entire section is 185 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Some critics of the novel have said that Hinton' s portrayal of teenagers is not realistic because the young people in her book are tougher...

(The entire section is 154 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The Outsiders, published when Hinton was still in high school, begins a series of novels dealing with the conflicts teenagers have...

(The entire section is 211 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Matt Dillon (center) as Rusty-James and Mickey Rourke (right) as the Motorcycle Boy in the 1983 film version of the novel Published by Gale Cengage

Rumble Fish was made into a film in 1983 by Francis Ford Coppola, with Matt Dillon as Rusty-James and Micky Rourke as the Motorcycle...

(The entire section is 70 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Hinton's The Outsiders (1967) tells the story of the rivalry between two gangs.


(The entire section is 109 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Daly, Jay. Presenting S. E. Hinton. New York: Twayne, 1987. A comprehensive study of Hinton and her work. Daly finds her to be a...

(The entire section is 240 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Abramson, Jane, Review of Rumble Fish, in School Library Journal, October 1975, p. 106.


(The entire section is 256 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Daly, Jay. Presenting S. E. Hinton. Boston: Twayne, 1989.

Donelson, Kenneth L., and Alleen Pace Nilsen. Literature for Today’s Young Adults. 3d ed. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1989.

Mills, Randall K. “The Novels of S. E. Hinton: Springboard to Personal Growth for Adolescents.” Adolescence 22 (Fall, 1987): 641-646.

Stanek, Lou Willett. A Teacher’s Guide to the Paperback Editions of the Novels of S. E. Hinton. New York: Dell, 1975.