Ponyboy Curtis steps out from a movie theater into the bright sunlight, thinking about Paul Newman and catching a ride home. He never likes to walk alone in town, for he is fearful of being jumped by a rival gang member. Pony is a Greaser, a gang member from the poor, east side of town; his bitter enemies are the Socs, the rich gang of teens from the west side of town. The two groups are constantly picking fights with each other.
Pony notices a red Corvair trailing him. It finally pulls up beside him, and five Socs emerge and surround him. One of them pulls out a knife, flips open the blade, and holds it against his throat, while the others pin him down on the ground. Afraid of being killed, Pony starts screaming for his brothers or anybody else who might be around to help. When the Socs hear shouts and the sound of pounding feet, they run away. Some of the Greasers, including Steve Randle, Two-Bit Matthews, Dally Winston, and Johnny Cade, chase after the fleeing Socs and chunk rocks in their direction.
Darry, Pony’s oldest brother, is in the group who has come to his aid. He pulls Pony to his feet and asks him if he is seriously injured. He then berates Pony for going out unaccompanied. Darry, who is twenty years old, is Pony’s guardian, for their parents have been killed in an automobile accident. He dropped out of school in order to work and provide for his brothers. Now he pins all of his hopes on Pony, knowing he is bright and a good student. The middle brother, Sodapop, seems to be much kinder than Darry. He notices that Pony is bleeding from a cut on his face and is genuinely concerned. Soda is also a high school dropout and works at a gas station.
In bed that night, Pony wonders why the Socs hate the Greasers so much. He
resents that they call him a hood and pick on him constantly. His latest
encounter earlier in the evening has really shaken him, and he cannot
go to sleep. Soda thinks he is upset because Darry is always hollering
at him. He tells him that Darry is really proud of him because he is intelligent,
but Pony is skeptical about his oldest brother’s affection. To cheer Pony
up, Soda lets him in on a secret; he tells him that he intends to marry
Sandy after she finishes school.
From the first page of the novel, it is obvious that Pony is to be the first person narrator and protagonist of the story. It also becomes obvious that he will often shift his story from the present to the past, using flashbacks to give important background information. Pony establishes that he is a poor fourteen-year-old from the wrong side of town. He belongs to a gang of teenagers who are known as the Greasers, because of their long, oily hair. The rival gang to the Greasers is known as the Socs, an abbreviation for the Socials, a rich gang of west side teenagers. They “jump Greasers and wreck houses and throw beer blasts for kicks.” Greasers, on the other hand, are blamed for stealing, starting gang fights, holding up gas stations, and driving their old cars dangerously. By the end of the chapter, it is apparent that the author’s sympathies are completely with underprivileged, deprived Greasers.
The story is filled with dialogue, including taunts from the Socs to the Greasers. They can often be heard yelling, “We’re gonna cut all that long greasy hair off.” The language also includes street talk, filled with grammatical errors and slang. Soda talks to Pony about their older brother, saying, “Listen, kiddo, when Darry hollers at you...he don’t mean nothin’. He’s just got more worries than somebody his age ought to. Don’t take him serious...you dig, Pony? Don’t let him bug you. He’s really proud of you ‘cause you’re so brainy. It’s just because you’re the baby--I mean, he loves you a lot. Savvy?” Such slang is typical of the dialogue throughout the novel and adds to the realism of the characters.
Pony, the main character, is described in detail in this first chapter. He has greenish-gray eyes and light brown, almost red, hair, which he wears long and slicked down. Although he belongs to a gang, he is not stereotypical. He often enjoys being alone, away from the gang members, to watch sunsets, to think about life, to read, and to study his schoolwork. He takes pride in being a good student. Sometimes, however, Pony can be stubborn. Darry has warned him not to go out alone because of the Socs, but when the novel begins, Pony has been to the movies by himself and is walking home alone.
Although Pony resents Darry’s intrusions into his life, it is obvious that he also stands in awe of this twenty-year-old brother. Pony thinks he is very handsome, for he is six feet two inches tall and has eyes like “two pieces of pale blue-green ice.” Pony also appreciates the fact that Darry dropped out of school in order to go to work to support Soda and him. But Pony gets tired of Darry’s criticism, especially about studying harder. Though Soda assures Pony that Darry really does love him, the younger brother does not believe him, for Darry never shows him any affection.
Although he is awed over Darry, Pony idolizes his middle brother, Soda, who tries to understand and support Pony. In spite of the fact that he is only seventeen years old, Soda has dropped out of school because he was a poor student. He now works in a gas station with his best friend, Steve Randle. Soda is described as a happy-go-lucky boy who gets “drunk on just plain living,” never touching a drop of real alcohol.
Within the chapter, other Greasers are introduced and developed. Two-Bit Mathews, is still a junior in high school even though he is eighteen and a half years old. He is infamous for having the last word, shoplifting, getting in fights, and using his black-handled switchblade, which he has stolen. Another gang member is Dallas Winston, usually called Dally. His meanness is reflected in his eyes, which are ‘blue, blazing ice, cold with a hatred of the whole world.’ He first went to jail at the age of ten and has been in and out of prison ever since; he is known for drinking too much, riding in rodeos, rolling drunks, and cheating. Dally is also respected, for he has spent three years on the wild side of New York and is known for his meanness.
Everyone in the gang is protective of Johnny Cade, who has the look of a small
puppy that has been kicked too often. His father constantly beats him,
and his mother either yells at or ignores him. The Greasers have become
his substitute family, trying to care for him and to answer his needs.
Unfortunately, when the novel opens, Johnny has already been jumped and
severely beaten by the Socs, an action that caused his nervousness to
increase and his sense of insecurity to flourish.
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