The major theme of the novel revolves around the purposelessness of any gang of teenagers. The book centers on the foolish gang rivalry existing between the Socs, the rich kids from the west side of town, and the Greasers, the poor kids from the east side.
Pony, the protagonist of the story, is bitter about the fact that the wealthy
Socs have nice cars, fancy clothes, and girlfriends; things are simply
easier for them than for the Greasers. Because the Socs are convinced
that they are better, they constantly pick on members of the Greasers,
who fight back. During one squabble, Bob, one of the Socs, is murdered
by Johnny in self-defense. Then Johnny, while hiding out in a church,
is killed while trying to rescue children from the burning building. In
reaction to Johnny’s death, Dally, his best friend, goes on a rampage.
He robs a store and points an unloaded gun at the police; as a result,
he is shot and killed. Because of the needless gang fighting, three teenagers
are killed in the novel, clearly pointing out the negative aspect of belonging
to a gang. Hinton is obviously trying to warn the reader against participation
in any gang.
Related to the major theme of the book is the theme that a teenager can rise
above his circumstances through hard work, patience, and determination.
Pony is the proof of this theme. Even though he is born into poverty,
loses his parents in a car accident at an early age, and participates
in the Greasers, by the end of the book, he is determined to better his
plight in life, largely due to the encouragement he receives from the
deceased Johnny in a letter. At the close of the novel, Pony wants to
tell the world that underprivileged children need to have some breaks
in order to get ahead and need to be judged for who they are, not by how
they look or how they dress. Hinton definitely convinces the reader that
Pony, because of his intelligence and determination, will rise above the
poverty and gang life that he was born into.
When the story opens, the mood is bitter and rebellious. Pony and the other
Greasers resent the fact that the Socs have lots of money, nice cars,
fancy clothes, and many girlfriends. In contrast, they are poor and must
work extremely hard for everything they have. In addition, society is
prejudiced against them because of their clothes, long hair, and greasy
appearance. In the middle of the novel, the mood becomes increasingly
angry. The Greasers are tired of the Socs always picking on them, and
the Socs are furious about the Greasers hanging out with some of “their
girls.” As a result, the Socs jump Pony and Johnny. In self-defense Johnny
kills Bob, one of the Socs. The mood then becomes one of terror. Pony
and Johnny are scared for their own safety and fear the police. Upon Dally’s
advice, they hide in an abandoned church and worry about being found.
The mood then switches to great sadness, for Johnny, in trying to rescue
the children when the church catches on fire, is killed himself. Dally
then gets himself foolishly shot by the police, leaving Pony with two
less friends. By the end of the novel, however, the mood has some degree
of hope. Pony is determined to rise above his past. He adopts a new mission
in life, to tell the world about the problems and deprivations of underprivileged
children, like himself. It is obvious that in the end, Hinton is very
sympathetic towards the plight of Pony and the Greasers.
Susan Eloise Hinton was born in 1948 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she was raised. She was a good student and attended the University of Tulsa, majoring in education. Her first novel, The Outsiders, was written when she was sixteen years old and published in 1967. Though it is her first book, it is probably her best known. The story revolves around two rival gangs, one rich and the other poor. The book is remarkable for its action-packed plot, believable characters, and realistic language. Her second novel, That was Then, This is Now (1971), again deals with the problems of teenage boys and drug abuse. Rumble Fish (1975) is the story of a fourteen-year-old boy, who tries to emulate his elder brother, a former gang leader. Tex (1979) deals with two teenage brothers who have been abandoned by their father. Taming the Star Runner (1988) is about Travis, a city boy, who was sent to stay with his uncle on a ranch in the country; like the horse, Star Runner, he is not meant to be tamed.
All of Hinton’s novels are set in her hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she
continues to live with her husband and son. Her books deal with teenage
problems, such as poverty, rejection, violence, alcohol, and drug abuse.
Although her youthful characters often reject authority, they always have
a sense of hope during her novels. As a result, they are frequently taught
in classrooms at both the high school and middle school levels. In addition,
Hinton has received acclaim for her realistic writing. In 1988, she was
awarded the first annual Margaret A. Edwards Award by the American Library
Association, in honor of “an author whose book or books, over a period
of time, have been accepted by young adults as an authentic voice that
continues to illuminate their experiences and emotions, giving insight
into their lives.”
The Outsiders was published in 1967, a restless time in the United States when teenagers were outspoken and rebellious. They hated the Vietnam War and the establishment that caused it to continue. They resented the fact that young people from minorities and underprivileged backgrounds were not given opportunities to succeed. To voice their dissatisfaction, they had sit-ins and protests; many became hippies, and others turned to drugs. It was this society that formed the background for Hinton’s first novel. She was only sixteen years old at the time of its publication. As a result of her being a teenager herself, she was able to realistically understand and depict the plight of the underprivileged youth, Pony Curtis, as he battled to survive in a world of gang fights and dysfunctional family. She truly knew the desperate need of her youthful characters to be accepted by young and old alike.
In most of Hinton’s novels, including The Outsiders, adults are never major characters. In fact, most of the adults in her books are rather weak individuals. In The Outsiders, Jerry Wood and Mrs. O’Briant are two teachers who stand by rather helplessly when the church catches fire, while her teenage characters go into immediate action. Mrs. Cade is the only other adult in the novel, and she has never done anything to rescue Johnny from the abuse he receives from his father; she does not even seem worried about him when he runs away after Bob is killed. When she finally comes to the hospital to see her son as he is dying, she only complains about his ingratitude.
The language that Hinton uses in her novels is very typical of teenagers of the time. The dialogue is always liberally peppered with street slang, adding to the realism of the characters. Hinton admits that she is a character writer. The young people that she brings to life in her fiction are much more important to her than the plot. She says that even though her teenagers are always fictional, “I always know my characters, exactly what they look like, their birthdays, what they like for breakfast . . . [they] are as real to me as anyone else in my life, so much so that if I ran into one of them at the laundry, I wouldn’t be all that surprised.”
Although Ms. Hinton is no longer a teenager herself, she still concentrates
on writing about teenage characters and gears her novel to a teenage audience,
largely because she has met with great success in the past and her teenage
readers always want her to write more.
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