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The Outsiders | Context

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Gang Membership

By the late 1960s to early 1970s, gang activity that had begun in big cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles began to spread to the southern region of the United States. However, these gangs, primarily composed of young males of varying ethnicities, remained relatively small and dispersed in the beginning. As Hinton illustrates with The Outsiders, the appeal of gang membership is universal and based on several important features. Gangs do the following:

  • Provide a surrogate or substitute family when traditional family units break down, as with Darry, Soda, and Ponyboy, who extend membership in their nontraditional family to other members of the gang.
  • Give a sense of self-esteem to young people who lack social status, as with the greasers who are intimidated by the upper-class Socs.
  • Continue a family tradition of membership, as with the brothers Darry, Soda, and Ponyboy.
  • Reflect a lack of educational, economic, or recreational opportunities in an area, as with the greasers' inability to break the cycle of poverty in which they are caught.
  • Ensure survival for members living in dangerous areas, as when Ponyboy is attacked by a group of Socs and the other greasers come to his aid.
  • Allow members to express cultural identity, as with the greasers, a group of lower-class Oklahoma youth.

On the other hand, gangs are often characterized by intimidation and violence that expresses anger and frustration stemming from stagnant social circumstances. Such violence is evident in the deaths of Bob, Dally, and Johnny.

Birth of YA Literature

The Outsiders is often considered the first young adult (YA) novel. Bridging the gap between children's and adult fiction, YA novels tend to feature young characters, usually adolescents, and focus on their challenges and changes. Contemporary YA fiction includes mature topics, such as war and racism, and a wide range of subcategories, including dystopian fiction and fantasy.

When Hinton wrote The Outsiders as a high school student, she was an avid reader frustrated by the fact that she could not find any novels that represented the true teen experience or had any resemblance to her own life as a teen. The Outsiders was originally published by Viking Press as an adult novel, since the YA genre did not exist. The Dell paperback version didn't sell well at first, until someone noticed that teachers were selecting it as classroom reading for their students.

With The Outsiders, YA fiction was born. The gritty realism of the novel heralded the beginning of starkly realistic books for adolescent readers. Hinton is considered to have been the catalyst for change in the way teens read and in the books that are published for them. The coming-of-age stories known as "young adult literature" focus on the challenges specific to experiencing many firsts, such as first relationships or first jobs. Other authors, such as Judy Blume (Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, 1970) and Robert Cormier (The Chocolate War, 1974), followed the path Hinton blazed and carried on her candid exploration of serious situations and themes for teen readers.

Literary and Film Influences

Hinton has cited a number of inspirations for The Outsiders.

Gone with the Wind (1936) by Margaret Mitchell: Ponyboy reads a portion of Margaret Mitchell's 1936 Civil War drama, Gone with the Wind, to Johnny when they are holed up in the abandoned church alone, bored, and scared after Bob's murder. This historical story focuses on plantation life in the American South, slavery, and General Sherman's march through Atlanta. Ponyboy periodically refers to the Southern gentlemen in that novel, calling them "heroes." When Johnny dies after rescuing a group of schoolchildren from the burning church, Ponyboy believes those Southern gentlemen from Mitchell's epic saga have nothing on Johnny.

The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson: Considered one of the best modern literary ghost stories, this book has been adapted into a play and a 1963 movie. In the plot of this horror novel, the heir to Hill House and a supernatural investigator invite two guests known to have experienced other paranormal events to stay. The house seems to possess one of the guests, driving her mad and leading to her suicide. Though The Outsiders doesn't have direct correlation to the plot or characters of Jackson's novel, the idea of being haunted by phenomenon outside one's control is illustrated clearly within many of Hinton's characters, including Johnny, Dally, and Darry.

Cowboy Stories of Will James: In The Outsiders both Dally and Cherry have a rodeo connection. In fact, they take their rodeo participation rather seriously. But the most personal horse association in The Outsiders is the story of the ornery pony that Soda cared for and loved. The horse's owner sold him away, severing Soda's ties with his beloved animal and illustrating the deprivation and loss of control often resulting from lack of money.

Rebel without a Cause (1955) has a strikingly similar plot with The Outsiders. A troubled teen is harassed by a gang of tough guys who like to play a game called "chickie," which involves a car race toward the edge of a cliff. When one of the boys accidentally dies, three friends hide out from the police in an old, abandoned mansion. In The Outsiders the accidental knifing of Bob as well as the time Johnny and Ponyboy spend hiding in the abandoned church are direct correlations with this movie. There is even a knife fight, as in The Outsiders.

The characters of Rebel without a Cause also directly parallel the characters in The Outsiders. The troubled, angry Jim Stark dovetails with Dally, while Judy is similar to Cherry. The neglected Plato closely resembles Johnny. It is not difficult to see the similarities of both plot and character between this movie and Hinton's book, both of which focus on a tough guy gang.

West Side Story (1961) is a Broadway musical and a movie and is a modern take on British playwright William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In West Side Story two feuding New York City youth gangs, one white and the other Puerto Rican, war over turf, control, and respect on the inner-city streets. The social class conflict between the Socs and the greasers in The Outsiders echoes that of the Jets and the Sharks, minus the racial tensions in West Side Story. Also, the rumble in The Outsiders mirrors the one in West Side Story. Irrational hatred, which builds toward violence, serves as the cornerstone of both this movie and Hinton's novel.
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