Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 562

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

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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 war polarized the American population between those who supported it and those who...

(This entire section contains 428 words.)

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vehemently protested against it. The U.S. government finally withdrew its last troops from combat in 1973, but the war left lasting scars on the psyches of everyone, from the soldiers involved to those who had never left home. In all, 3 million soldiers participated in the war; 58,000 were killed, 1,000 were missing and never found, and 304,000 were wounded.

The growing use of drugs by young people, which became popular in the 1960s, continued in the 1970s, affecting people of every social class. In 1975, First Lady Betty Ford commented in an interview that she thought her own children had smoked marijuana.

The Civil Rights and feminist movements were still fighting for equal rights for minorities and women. Although many women supported the feminist movement, its effects were slow to trickle throughout American culture so that, like the girls in Rumble Fish, many women still felt that their status was derived from that of the man they were with. And although great strides had been made toward ensuring equal rights to people of all races, racial tensions still divided society, as shown by Rusty-James's unease at realizing that he and Steve are the only white boys in a black bar.

In world politics, the United States and the Soviet Union were superpower nations, each with influence or control over a large portion of the world. The two nations regarded each other with unease, suspicion, and a constant wariness, a situation known as the "Cold War." Conflict between communism and American democracy weighed on people's minds, along with the constant awareness that any open war between the two powers might end in nuclear annihilation. This tension was eased slightly in 1975 by the symbolic linking of the Soviet Soyuz and the American Apollo spacecraft while in orbit.

Economically, the United States experienced a serious recession from about 1973 to 1975, largely caused by rising oil prices. This recession was the most serious contraction of industrial production since the Great Depression and had widespread effects on employment and attitudes throughout the country.

Culturally, the options for entertainment and connection to other people were much less diverse than they are today. Most cities had only a handful of television stations, unlike the dozens or hundreds of cable channels available to many people today. Videogames, video players, personal computers, e-mail, and the Internet were unknown; even handheld calculators were an expensive novelty.


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Set during the late 1960s or early 1970s, Rumble Fish—like all of Hinton's novels—takes place in a southwestern city that the author never explicitly names in the text but has identified as her native Tulsa, Oklahoma. The characters in Rumble Fish are oppressed by their environment. They live on the "wrong side" of the river and seldom if ever escape city limits. Hinton sets up parallels between the bleakness of her characters' psychological landscape and the darkness of their physical surroundings. Most of the novel is set at night, and the few daytime scenes take place largely indoors, in pool halls or darkened rooms.

The river that bisects the city separates the characters in Rumble Fish from "bright lights" and bustling crowds. When the Motorcycle Boy leads Rusty-James and his friend Steve Hays on an excursion across the river, Hinton contrasts the dizzying whirl of activity that confronts the boys with the menacing, dark world that they leave behind. But Hinton suggests that although Rusty-James has a degree of physical mobility, he will never be able to cross certain boundaries. Essentially alienated from his physical environment, Rusty-James resembles his brother, who, when asked about a trip to California, replies sarcastically, "It was one laugh after another. Even better than here, as amusing as this place is." And although the book opens and closes with Rusty-James sitting on a beach, far from the inner city, it is clear that he has become oblivious to his surroundings and thus remains profoundly alone.

Literary Style

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First-Person Narrative The book is written in first person from Rusty-James' s point of view, which allows the reader to see events only as Rusty-James sees them, leading to some interesting questions about Rusty-James's perception and how much of it is accurate. In particular, it's not clear whether his suspicions of some adults are correct or not. For example, he is cynical about Cassandra and her motives and doesn't trust her because she gave up her rich family to come and live in his bad neighborhood and follow his brother around. He is also suspicious of Coach Ryan because Ryan is friendly with him. Although it's clear that both Coach Ryan and Cassandra have problems and motives of their own, readers may wonder whether they're as bad, or as selfish or phony, as Rusty-James thinks they are.

In addition, the one-sided presentation of events from Rusty-James's perspective is poignant because readers may see the gaps and flaws in his reasoning when he does not. He wants more than anything to be like his brother, but from the reader's point of view, this ambition is questionable: his brother has accomplished nothing, is going nowhere, and has lost both his color vision and his hearing through his own lack of good judgment. And although the Motorcycle Boy is apparently a natural leader, it's clear that he will never really use this gift for anything constructive because he is so emotionally damaged. This sad fact is lost on Rusty-James. Although in many other ways he seems much older than his fourteen years, in his unswerving admiration of his brother, he seems much younger.

Use of Slang The book is written in a tough, breezy style, as Rusty-James would speak but without any curse words. It seems unbelievable that the characters in the book would not curse, but obviously Hinton could not depict their talk realistically and have the book published for a young-adult audience. Instead, she implies cursing, as when Rusty-James says, "I said something to her I wouldn't normally say to a chick, but she really got on my nerves. She didn't flinch."

In addition, with rare exceptions, Hinton avoids using any slang that would make the book unnecessarily dated. Although it was written in 1975, most of the dialogue could appear in a book now and pass unnoticed. The few exceptions are largely street names for drugs—bennies, sneaky pete, horse—which typically undergo rapid evolution.

Literary Qualities

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While Hinton's other novels are straightforward narratives of adolescent life, constructed around conflict and confrontation, Rumble Fish presents a concentrated structure of images, offering a penetrating examination of its central character by creating a dreamlike atmosphere that reflects his confusion and despair. As Rusty-James slips away from reality, his memory becomes the elusive point of view from which the reader must determine what really happened; his increasingly selective recollection means that this point of view is not completely trustworthy. But despite his forgetfulness and skewed perceptions, Rusty-James attempts to be honest. His naive narration creates dramatic irony: readers understand what it happening to him more than Rusty-James does himself.

This sense of impending doom contributes a great deal to the tone and color of the novel. The characters' failure to escape their fates reflects a strong element of Greek tragedy. The classical tragedy revolves around a heroic figure who attempts to avoid destiny but, because of a "flaw" in his or her character, has no control over the future. Echoes of this literary tradition resound in Rumble Fish, elevating it well beyond the typical young adult novel. The Motorcycle Boy's color blindness brings to mind the tragic figure of the ancient Greek playwright Sophocles' King Oedipus, who blinds himself after unwittingly fulfilling a prophecy that predicted he would kill his father and marry his mother. The Motorcycle Boy's attempt to defy nature and free the fighting fish suggests the myth of Prometheus, who risked destruction by defying the gods and passing the secret of fire on to humanity. Cassandra, the Motorcycle Boy's drug-addicted girlfriend, shares with her mythological namesake the ability to see the future and the inability to make anyone believe her.

Hinton's symbolism is complex and intense. Because her theme stresses biological necessity, she equates physical characteristics with spiritual characteristics. Hinton uses color blindness to represent disenchantment and bleak reality, and blurred vision to emphasize Rusty-James's confused perception and motives. In the early sections, Rusty- James seems to enjoy colors. Later, when the Motorcycle Boy is killed by the police, Rusty-James temporarily loses his ability to see color, symbolizing the loss of his childish illusions.

Equally important to the novel's symbolic structure are the references to animals, which constitute another aspect of Hinton's biological determinism. Each of the major characters is associated with a specific animal appropriate to his nature. The Motorcycle Boy is termed a panther, dangerous, aloof, and easily camouflaged in its habitat; Steve, who Hinton often contrasts with Rusty-James, is called a rabbit, sensitive to his environment and easy prey; Rusty-James is a dog, affectionate, trusting, and obedient, but he is also associated with the fighting fish that attack blindly.

Finally, because environment plays a vital role in human destiny, Hinton uses the river and the ocean to show how Rusty-James and his brother are bound to their environment. The river separates their territory from the rest of the city, cutting them off from the majority of society. The Motorcycle Boy visits California but never sees the ocean, and by the time Rusty-James sees the ocean, he is only a shell of his former self.

Social Sensitivity

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Hinton's novels have continuously drawn the objections of critics who feel that books like Rumble Fish romanticize lawless behavior and glamorize rebellion. Others condemn the emphasis on persistent violence. There is no denying that Rusty-James's life is organized around antisocial behavior. Drinking bouts, drug use, sexual encounters, truancy, and casual violence are all a part of this novel; a teacher in the story even offers to pay Rusty-James to beat up another student. Hinton intends for the novel to document Rusty-James's disintegration, and it is abundantly clear that his way of life is self-defeating in the end. Nevertheless, Hinton does not withhold details, the most disturbing of which may be the intoxication Rusty-James feels from his violent acts.

Compare and Contrast

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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 violence.

Today: Gang members may be as young as nine or as old as thirty, and although males still outnumber females by fifteen to one, the number of young women in gangs is increasing.

1970s: Weapons used in gang violence are relatively simple, such as knives and chains, and opposing gang members meet face-to-face to fight.

Today: Gang members may use AK-47s or Uzis, and drive-by shootings have replaced vacant-lot rumbles.

1970s: Fifteen percent of whites and twenty-six percent of African Americans drop out of high school.

Today: Four percent of whites and seven percent of African Americans drop out of high school. Reasons given include "didn't like it," failing, job-related problems, and pregnancy.

1970s: Fewer than half the states in the United States and about one hundred counties in those states report gang violence.

Today: Every state, as well as the District of Columbia, and twelve hundred counties report gang violence.

Media Adaptations

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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 Boy; the film also starred Dennis Hopper, Tom Waits, and Nicolas Cage. Hinton also makes a brief appearance. She and Coppola collaborated to write the screenplay.

The novel was adapted as a record and cassette by Viking in 1977.

Another recording was produced by Recorded Books LLC in 1985.

For Further Reference

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Daly, Jay. Presenting S. E. Hinton. New York: Twayne, 1987. A comprehensive study of Hinton and her work. Daly finds her to be a ground-breaking figure in what he terms the "New Realism."

DeMarr, Jean, and Jane S. Bakerman. The Adolescent in the American Novel Since 1960. New York: Ungar, 1986. Brief comments on Hinton's protagonists as they reflect the era.

Donelson, Kenneth, and Aileen P. Nilsen. Literature for Today's Young Adults. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1980. Contains an evaluation of Hinton as a "new" writer of adolescent fiction.

Egoff, Sheila. Thursday's Child. Chicago: American Library Association, 1981. Contains brief comments on Hinton's contribution to young adult fiction.

Lenz, Millicent, and Ramona M. Mahood. Young Adult Literature. Chicago: American Library Association, 1980. Classifies Hinton with the new voices in young adult literature.

Senick, Gerard. Children's Literature Review. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale Research, 1978. Brief remarks on Hinton's interest in social classes.

Stanek, Lou W. A Teacher's Guide to Paperback Editions of the Novels of S. E. Hinton. New York: Dell, 1980. A guide to help teachers pose questions and evaluate the literary style of the novels.

Sutherland, Zena. The Best in Children's Books. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973. Contains a short commentary on Hinton's career.

"Teens Are For Real." New York Times Book Review (August 27, 1967): 29. A discussion of the realistic approach to young adult novels as typified by Hinton.

Varlejs, Jana. Young Adult Literature in the 1970s. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1978. An interesting evaluation of Hinton's styles and themes.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Chaston, Joel D., "Hinton, S(usan) E(loise)," in St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2d ed., edited by Tom Pendergast and Sara Pendergast, St. James Press, 1999, pp. 376-78.

Daly, Jay, Presenting S. E. Hinton, Twayne, 1987.

Fisher, Margery, Review of Rumble Fish, in Growing Point, May 1976, p. 289.

Hinton, S. E., Rumble Fish Production Notes, No Weather Films, 1993.

Hinton, S. E., and Lisa Ehrlich, "Advice from a Penwoman," in Seventeen, November 1981, p. 32.

Malone, Michael, "Tough Puppies," in Nation, March 8, 1986, pp. 276-80.

Powell, Jane, "Urban Guerrillas," in Times Literary Supplement, October 30, 1970, p. 125.

Review of Rumble Fish, in Publishers Weekly, July 28, 1975, p. 122.

Further Reading Corliss, Richard, "Rumble Fish," Film review, in Time, October 24, 1983, p. 90. Corliss reviews the Francis Ford Coppola film version of the novel.

de Montreville, Doris, and Elizabeth J. Crawford, eds., Fourth Book of Junior Authors, H. W. Wilson, 1978. This reference work examines Hinton's life and early work.

Lyons, Gene, "On Tulsa' s Mean Streets," in Newsweek, October 11, 1982, p. 105. Lyons takes a look at the city where Hinton grew up and how it appears in her fiction.

Silvey, Anita, Review of Rumble Fish, in Horn Book, November—December 1975, p. 601. Silvey provides a review and discussion of Hinton's book.

Stanek, Lou Willett, A Teacher's Guide to the Paperback Editions of the Novels of S. E. Hinton, Dell, 1980. This guide examines Hinton's novels from a teacher's perspective.

Sutherland, Zena, "The Teen-Speaks," in Saturday Review, January 27, 1968, p. 34. Sutherland examines Hinton's depiction of teenagers in this article.


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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.


Critical Essays


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