Published in 1967 when its author was just 17 years old, The Outsiders tells the story of 14-year-old greaser Ponyboy as he navigates the class conflicts that arise from being orphaned and disenfranchised in post-war America. The book was adapted for the big screen in 1983 and as a stage play in 2006. SE Hinton wrote the novel to address the lack of novels that she wanted to read:
One of my reasons for writing it was that I wanted something realistic to be written about teenagers. At that time realistic teenage fiction didn’t exist. If you didn’t want to read Mary Jane Goes to The Prom and you were through with horse books, there was nothing to read. I just wanted to write something that dealt with what I saw kids really doing.
Kimberly Reynolds, author of Radical Children’s Literature: Future Visions and Aesthetic Transformations in Juvenile Fiction, notes that until the nineteenth century, ‘fiction had identified the liminal space occupied by teenagers as belonging to girls and women’ (p. 74). In these books – think Little Women and What Katy Did – female characters in their teen years do not graduate directly into the adult world of work and/or matrimony but are allowed the opportunity to exist in a space in between adulthood and youth, learning and growing and being prepared to take on adult roles*. The post-war period saw the concept of the teenager entered the cultural consciousness. During this period YA as a genre rose to prominence and lent authenticity to adolescent experience in the face of a conservative ruling-class ideology.
SE Hinton’s four novels, The Outsiders (1967); This Is Now, That Was Then (1971), Rumble Fish (1974) and Tex (1979), and Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974) among others, form part of this generic shift. These books, which recognise the volitily of teen-hood for boys, foreground the adolescent crisis of identity by offering romantically isolated protagonists navigating social and political power dynamics, usually from position of alienation and oppression. These entwicklungs- and bildungsroman are probably best exemplified by JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951).
Like The Catcher in the Rye, The Outsiders is a first person, highly subjective narrative delivered by its protagonist. The prose is unpolished and occasionally immature, lending authenticity to the more unbelievable or at least extremely convenient elements of the plot, the dei ex machinis that might otherwise engender a tired eye roll instead fly by almost unnoticed and without the least blip in the readers suspension of disbelief.
Ponyboy lives a life on the margins, inducted into the counter-culture as it existed in the American Mid West in the 1960s by his two elder brothers. Their friends are greasers, and with his parents dead it is this network that forms Ponyboy’s family. It is a remarkably loving family too; despite their carefully cultivated hard-edged image (complete with slicked back hair and concealed switchblades) the boys portion out their chocolate milk, cuddle when they’re blue and pepper their speech with terms of endearment.
References to other works are rife in The Outsiders. Within a few paragraphs Ponyboy has compared himself to Great Expectations protagonist Pip; Dally’s suicide-by-cop smells strongly of Sal Mineo’s death in Rebel Without a Cause; Ponyboy’s snuggling up to Johnny for warmth recalls Ishmael and Queequeg doing the same in Moby Dick; Johnny tells Ponyboy that he and Dally remind him of the ‘Southern Gentlemen’ (p. 92) in Gone With the Wind (“I bet they were cool ol’ guys. […] They remind me of Dally.” [ibid.]); even The Sound of Music gets a passing reference (Sodapop is ‘sixteen-going-on-eventeen’ [p. 2]).
It makes sense – Ponyboy is an avid consumer of popular culture: when we first meet him he is walking home from a Paul Newman movie and he has ‘read everything in the house about fifty million times’ (p. 214). He is more academically minded than his cohorts, studying independently and recognising with only slight superiority, ‘I make good grades and have a high IQ and everything, but I don’t use my head’ (p.4). His taste for reading and use of literary allusions identify him as something other than he appears to be and serve as reminder that his petty criminality and a taste for violence do not exist in a cultural and societal vacuum.
Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold….
The adage at the heart of The Outsiders, stay gold, is a part of the books deep intertexuality. It is inspired by Robert Frost’s 1923 poem ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’:
Nature’s first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
The poem is a synecdochic musing on mutability and the transitory experiences of living. The tragic inevitability of limitation and entropy are captured in a startlingly brief form.
To Johnny, though, the poem urges a resistance to change:
I’ve been thinking about it, and that poem, that guy who wrote it, he meant that you’re gold when you’re a kid, like green. When you’re a kid everything’s new, dawn. 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. […] You still have a lot of time to make yourself be what you want.
Johnny’s analysis of the poem is not entirely naive. He understands that the poem speaks of inconstancy but doesn’t grasp the implied inevitability of change. Johnny views the lines as a warning. To him, gold represents purity, innocence and preciousness to Johnny, qualities he sees in Ponyboy and wishes he might keep.
Ponyboy recites ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 adaptation of The Outsiders.
But Ponyboy is already struggling towards adulthood. He’s dealt with losing both of his parents and his best friend, he’s been implicated in a murder and he’s been branded a delinquent for whom reform school is aways a threat. He is young, he likes sunsets and books and he thinks he should be polite around girls, but his innocence is already lost.
If Ponyboy is not an innocent, then, what is he? This search for an identity is the novel’s overarching theme. The novel itself is the method by which Ponyboy constructs his own identity: he is an unreliable narrator building a narrative in which he is the hero.
The greasers are marked by a particular brand of working class masculinity built on poverty, violence and petty criminality – to be tuff (meaning cool) as well as tough to the outside world**. Though he intentionally others himself by marking himself as artistic and literary Ponyboy’s identity as part of the greaser clique is strong and closely defined. He exists not just as a brother to Sodapop and Darry but as a member in his own right, giving him the safety to disclose his artistic nature without fear of repercussion. As I note above, this facet of Ponyboy’s personality also provides for him a strand of affinity with the Socs:
Maybe the two different worlds we lived in weren’t so different. We saw the same sunset.
The conflict between the greasers and Socs is based entirely on class difference, and is first described in terms of tribal markers – greasers “wear our hair long and dress in blue jeans and T-shirts, or leave our shirttales out and wear leather jackets” (p. 3); the Socs wear English Leather saving cream and drive new Corvettes.
For both groups loyalties are complexly coded and futures assured. As Julia Eccleshare notes in her introduction to the Puffin Modern Classics 40th anniversary addition of the text, the greasers, condemned to the margins of society by accident of birth, ‘come from little and, despite being bright and potentially achieving, have little hope of going anywhere’. Darry has had to give up any thoughts of a college education in order to raise Ponyboy and Sodapop and opportunities are few and far between. Johnny comes from violence and will die in violence. Dally is already in and out of reform school. They are victims of circumstance, of not having a financial buffer or an extended family network, of their place in relation to the means of production.
To the Socs, greasers are deserving of animosity. The notions of poverty and prosperity as moral rather than social categories is still strongly evident in American politics today, and the Socs are proponents of this ideology. The greasers, and Ponyboy in particular, are more keenly aware that the differences are socioeconomic, and thier awareness sharpens as the novel moves forward:
It seemed funny to me that Socs – if these girls were any example – were just like us. They liked the Beatles and thought Elivs Presley was out, and we thought the Beatles were rank and that Elvis was tuff, but that seemed the only difference to me… I thought maybe it was money that separated us.
His physical transformation in Windrixville serves to underline this realisation. Cutting off and bleaching his hair to avoid police capture marks a transition in Ponyboy’s attitude and makes him feel like a ‘blasted pansy’ (p. 88) but it comes immediately before his heroism at the church fire. His physical transformation foreshadows his transformation from hood to hero in the eyes of society***.
Nevertheless, even this act of heroism will be forgotten. Says Soc, Randy, as he punks out of the rumble:
“…You can’t win, you know that don’t you? […] You can’t win even if you whip us. You’ll still be where you were before – at the bottom. And we’ll still be the lucky ones with all the breaks. So it doesn’t do any good, the fighting and the killing. It doesn’t prove a thing. We’ll forget if you win, or if you don’t. Greasers will still be greasers and Socs will still be Socs. Sometimes I think it’s the ones in the middle that are really the lucky stiffs…”
Ponyboy cannot lose an innocence he never really had, but he is equal to the Socratean task of knowing himself. His self-awareness is apparent, as is his insight into the conflicts and commonalities that mark the complex relationship between greasers and Socs. Counter-cultural values are not dismissed, though they are identified with harder socioeconomic circumstances, and Ponyboy learns, with epistolary encouragement from Johnny to embrace his identity without assuming its permanence.
Other points worth noting
– Two motifs that Hinton makes great use of – eyes and sunsets – would get most people thrown out of creative writing class for lack of originality. By comparison, Two-Bit’s switchblade is symbolically linked to the transience of power when it is only maintained by violence in a way that betrays maturity of storytelling which is absent elsewhere.
– Women and girls don’t really get much attention, though unintended pregnancy is briefly touched upon. It’s interesting, since the author is female, that this should be the case. Gender is undoubtedly important in The Outsiders, whether it be for its role in identity formation or in relationship building. I would have liked to have spent some time on it.
– The time that Ponyboy and Johnny spend in Windrixville sleeping in the church has all the hallmarks of a childhood idyll and precisely the carefree innocence Hinton wanted to avoid is evoked. As the boys avoid responsibility they explore their authentic selves, smoking, chatting and walking, and sleeping on the mountainside. It’s all very Swallows and Amazons. There is value to the childhood Robinsonades after all.
– For a book about hoodlums there’s an awful lot of sobbing and hugging.
– Does Ponyboy’s and Johnny’s choice of literature suggest that they’ve idealised the middle class masculinity proposed by them, or am I reading too much into that? I’m thinking of the idealised image of the ‘Southern gentleman’.
*For a counter example think of Treasure Island or Great Expectations where Jim and Pip are launched directly into the world of Grown Up Business and expected to get on with it.
** Between one another they also show sensitivity and a desire to nurture but this is only allowed to be percieved as loyalty by those outside the group.
*** The greaser hairstyle is another motif that Hinton regularly invokes. In the altercation that occurs immediately after we meet Ponyboy, Socs threaten to cut his hair thereby denying him the only outward marker of his willful social transgression and of his tribe (Maybe we couldn’t have Corvairs or madras shirts, but we could have hair’. [p. 87]); Dally, Sodapop and Two-Bit are all noted for their hair and before the rumble Ponyboy frets that his hair is not greaserly enough.