Pony is a fourteen-year-old boy with greenish gray eyes and light brown hair, which he wears long. His parents were killed in a car accident, so he lives with his two brothers, Soda and Darry. All three of them belong to a gang known as the Greasers, which is comprised of teenagers from the poor east side of town.
Unlike most of the Greasers, Pony is a sensitive teenager. He often likes to be by himself to think or to read. He also enjoys going to the movies alone. His older brother, Darry, often screams at him for being by himself outside the house; he feels it is too dangerous, for the Socs, the rival gang, are always looking for a Greaser to jump. Darry also worries about Pony's grades. Although he is a good student, Darry wants to make certain that Pony does his best in school so that he can rise above being a Greaser and make something of himself. Darry had to drop out of school in order to support his brothers after the death of his parents. Through much of the book, Pony resents Darry's constant criticism and intrusion into his life. In contrast, Pony worships his middle brother Soda, largely because he has a happy-go-lucky attitude towards life and acts as a buffer between him and Darry. Because Pony does not want to be separated from his brothers and put in a boy's home, he avoids getting into any kind of trouble, especially with the police.
Pony is acutely conscious that he is underprivileged and scorned. The Socs look down upon him and the rest of the Greasers as though they are dirt and treat them as hoods. Pony is bitter about the fact that people never blame the Socs for any trouble because they look decent with their short hair, nice clothes, and expensive cars; instead, the Greasers are always blamed because they have long, oily hair and wear scruffy clothes. Pony knows that it is ironic that most of the Greasers are quite decent people who want to be left alone, while most of the Socs are cold-blooded and mean trouble makers.
Pony becomes friends with Cherry Valence, one of the Socs' girls, when he stands up for her against Dally's abusive language and rude behavior. Through her, he realizes that not all of the Socs are alike, for she is a nice, kind, understanding girl. He discovers that she is a dreamer and enjoys watching sunsets, just like he. As a result, Pony feels close to her and tells her things he does not tell anyone else. He talks to her about how nervous Johnny has been since he was beaten up by the Socs and how sad Soda was to be separated from Mickey Mouse, a horse that he adopted. He even realizes from his conversation with Cherry that the Socs also have problems in spite of their money, nice clothes, and fancy cars. Then when he gets to know Randy Adderson, one of the Socs, he realizes that Socs were just guys after all.
Pony is often afraid in the novel. When he walks home from the movie theater alone and is attacked by the Socs, he screams loud and long for help from his brothers or anyone else close by. When he sees Bob lying dead on the ground, he is paralyzed with shock and fear, unable to think or act; Johnny must tell him exactly what to do. When Johnny is in the hospital and dying, Pony is again speechless with fear. Then when he sees Dally shot by the police, his fear totally overcomes him; he faints and is unconscious and delirious for over three days. The only time that Pony acts in a courageous, heroic manner is the time when he rescues the children from the burning church.
Through most of the book, Pony misunderstands his oldest brother, Darry. Because he often criticizes him, Pony thinks that Darry does not like him at all. Then when Darry rushes to see him in the hospital, nurses him for three days while he is delirious and unconscious, and calls him little buddy, Pony begins to realize that Darry truly loves and cares for him. He has been strict with Pony because he does not want him taken away and put in a boy's home; in addition, he wants Pony to make something out of himself in life. Soda then makes Pony realize that he has always selfishly expected Darry to be understanding, without ever trying to understand Darry in return. As a result, Pony tries much harder to get along with his oldest brother.
After his full reconciliation with his brothers and his acquittal at the hearing on Bob's death, Pony is still not whole. Disturbed over the deaths of Bob, Johnny, and Dally, he cannot get his life together; he has trouble eating, sleeping, concentrating, doing schoolwork, or accepting that Johnny is dead. As a result of his troubled spirit, his grades suffer, and he is in danger of failing English if he does not produce a good semester theme. Then as he tries unsuccessfully to get his thoughts down on paper, Pony finds a letter that Johnny wrote to him prior to his death. In it, Johnny encourages him to stay gold and to break out of the pattern of violence offered by gang life. The letter provides the healing touch that Pony so needed. He decides that he will spend his time and effort in telling everyone about the problems that underprivileged children, like himself, face in life and seek help for their betterment. He will begin his mission by writing his English theme about it.
At the end of the book, Pony has emerged from his voyage of self-discovery
as a much better person. He no longer pities himself or has a chip on
his shoulder; instead, he looks into the future with optimism, knowing
that he can rise above gang life and poverty and do something constructive
in the world.
Johnny, the meekest member of the Greasers, is slightly built, with big-black eyes in a dark tanned face and long, jet-black hair heavily greased and combed to the side. He has the appearance of a little dark puppy that has been kicked too many times and is lost in a crowd of strangers. He always seems to be cringing and uncertain of himself, largely because he is a battered child. His father frequently beats him, and his mother ignores him except to scream at him about something. As a result, the Greasers are always trying to protect Johnny. Dally, in particular, watches out for him, and Johnny, in return, idolizes him; therefore, it is very surprising when Johnny tells Dally not to bother Cherry Valence. Obviously, Johnny has the moral courage to stand up for what is right.
Before the novel begins, Johnny has been beaten up by the Socs for no reason. As a result, he is constantly nervous, afraid of being hurt again. By nature, Johnny is not prone to violence; in fact, he is a very mild and decent teenager, just like Pony. But he now carries a switchblade for self-defense. When he and Pony are jumped by the Socs in the park, Johnny uses his switchblade to defend himself. In the fighting that ensues, he stabs and kills Bob. Pony is in shock to see Bob lying dead on the ground, knowing that Johnny has killed him. After the murder, Johnny, who is usually meek and mild, takes control, for Pony is paralyzed with fear. He suggests that they go and find Dally to get help. Johnny then follows Dally's instructions, taking Pony with him to jump a freight train to Windrixville. During the train trip, it is Johnny who stays awake in the boxcar and gets Pony up when it is time to jump off the train. Even when they reach the comparative safety of the abandoned church, Johnny is the one who ventures out to purchase supplies; he is also the one who thinks of cutting their hair in order to disguise their appearance. Though Johnny is as frightened as Pony, he becomes the provider and comforter.
During their hide-out in the abandoned church, Johnny and Pony become very close. They spend their time reading Gone With the Wind aloud, discussing life, and admiring sunsets. When Pony recites a poem by Robert Frost, entitled Nothing Gold Can Stay, Johnny is sensitive enough to understand that beauty and innocence are transient and must be guarded like gold. Johnny also displays a lot of courage and grit when he arrives at the decision to surrender himself to the police. He has carefully analyzed the situation and decided that he does not want to endanger the innocent Pony any longer; neither does he want to stay on the run for the rest of his life. Also, since he has no police record, he feels he will be given a light sentence, especially since he killed Bob in self-defense.
Johnny proves that he is heroic when he immediately, with no thought of self, goes into the burning church to save the children trapped inside. During the rescue effort, a burning timber falls on him. He is horribly burned and his back is broken. In the hospital, it is obvious that he is close to death. Before he dies, he writes Pony a letter in which he says that it is worth dying to have saved the children. He also encourages Pony to guard the gold, remember the good in the world, and rise above being a Greaser. Johnny's words of encouragement positively and dramatically change Pony's life.
Throughout the book, Johnny longs to receive love from his parents, who do not really care about him. He tells Pony that he is lucky to have Darry and Soda for brothers, for I ain't got nobody. But Johnny never gives up hope about his mother and father. When Dally comes to visit him and Pony at their hide-out in the church, he wants to know if his parents have been worried about him. Dally has to tell him that they have not even made an inquiry about his whereabouts. Then when Johnny is admitted to the hospital after the fire, he again wants to know if his parents have asked about him. When his mother finally shows up at the hospital, shortly before he dies, Johnny thinks it is too late and refuses to see her. He is convinced that she will simply yell at him for being an inconvenience, for he has been treated as a bother throughout his existence.
Out of the tragedy of Johnny's death, there emerges a positive hope
for Pony. Because of his dying friend's words of encouragement, Pony promises
to become a better person and reach out to help underprivileged children.
Dally, the meanest and most cynical member of the Greasers, has an elfish face, high cheekbones, a pointed chin, small, sharp animal-like teeth, and ears like a lynx. His long blond hair is not greased, and his cold blue eyes capture the hatred and resentment that he feels for the whole world. Dally's life has been particularly hard. He drinks excessively, lies, cheats, steals, rolls drunks, and jumps small children. His life of crime began very early, for he was jailed at the age of ten and has spent many days in prison for robbery and assault; he also spent three years living on the wild side in New York. It is no wonder that he is tougher, colder, meaner than the other Greasers. In fact, Dally states that he is hardened to life and even admits that he has no respect for the law. He thinks nothing of entering a drugstore and stealing two packages of cigarettes or of sneaking over the fence into the drive-in theater. In fact, the only thing that he seems to be honest about is automobile racing, which he enters and wins fairly.
In spite of his bad reputation, the Greasers can always count on Dally. When Two-Bit breaks the school windows, Dally takes the blame and goes to jail. When Pony and Johnny approach him for help after Bob is killed, he unhesitatingly does all he can for them; he gives them dry clothes, money, a loaded gun, and instructions for going to a hide-out. When the police question him about the whereabouts of Pony and Johnny, he misdirects them to Texas in order to protect his friends. He comes to visit them in the abandoned church to make sure that they are all right and do not need anything. When Johnny says he is going to surrender, he tries to talk him out of it, for he does not want his friend to become hardened in prison. When Johnny is trapped inside the burning building, he hits Pony across the back to keep him from going inside and saves Johnny himself, without thinking of his own safety. When Johnny, his pet, dies, Dally goes crazy. He robs a store and then points an unloaded gun at the police, inviting them to shoot him. It is as if life has become too much for him to bear.
The reader has to go beneath the surface in order to appreciate and
understand Dally. He was a true victim of his circumstances -- a product
of deprivation, neglect, poverty, and indifference. He never knew any
good in his short span of life and had no role models to help him escape
his life of crime. Johnny, however, realized that there was good in Dally
beneath the rough exterior. Pony realizes the same thing. He writes, I
remembered Dally pulling Johnny through the window of the burning church;
Dally giving us his gun, although it could mean jail for him; Dally risking
his life for us, trying to keep Johnny out of trouble...But Johnny was
right. He died gallant.