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The Outsiders

S. E. Hinton

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in S. E. Hinton's novel The Outsiders.

The Outsiders | Symbols


The Greasers' Long, Oiled Hair

The greasers' long hair is a symbol of their membership in the greaser gang, as well as their freedom from the constraints of society. Ponyboy's long hair is unique, but at the same time it allows him to blend in with his peers. On the very first page of the book, Ponyboy concedes his "hair is longer than a lot of boys wear theirs" and "most of my neighborhood rarely bothers to get a haircut."

Readers learn just how important Ponyboy's hair is to him when he and Johnny are hiding in the abandoned church after Bob's murder and Johnny returns from the store with peroxide. Even after Johnny explains they can't fit their own descriptions when the police come looking for them, Ponyboy continues to object to cutting and dyeing his hair. "It was my pride," he protests. He fully realizes the importance of his hair to his identity when he says, "Our hair labeled us greasers, too—it was our trademark. The one thing we were proud of." Not only does Ponyboy's hair create a sense of belonging for him, but it is also a status symbol.

Others also identify the greasers by their long hair. Bob, the aggressive Soc, claims a greaser is "white trash with long hair." Also, when Ponyboy is jumped by some unnamed Socs in the first chapter, a Soc asks Ponyboy, "Need a haircut, greaser?" But long hair is something the greasers have that the Socs do not, and it creates some dignity for the greasers. Ponyboy proclaims, "Maybe we couldn't have Corvairs or madras shirts, but we could have hair."

As a symbol of liberty for the greasers, their hair can also be used against them, not only by the Socs but also by the establishment. Johnny's argument to get Ponyboy to cut his hair is the fact that the judge would make him do it if he got caught. Ponyboy claims he doesn't understand that because "Dally could just as easily mug somebody with short hair." Johnny then explains authorities use it as a weapon against them. "They can't take anything away from them because they don't have anything in the first place," Johnny clarifies for Ponyboy, "so they cut their hair."

The Socs' Expensive Cars

While the greasers have their hair, the Socs have their expensive cars. The cars of the Socs symbolize their material wealth, their upward mobility, and the many advantages they have over the greasers. Cherry Valance drives a red Corvette Sting Ray and Randy Adderson drives a blue Mustang.

Meanwhile, Darry, who works two jobs, drives a nondescript Ford. And Two-Bit's "brakes are out" the day he and Ponyboy visit Johnny and Dally in the hospital. Dally doesn't even own a car and is always borrowing his rodeo partner's wheels to get around. When describing the greasers, Ponyboy tells readers they "drive old souped-up cars." These marked differences in their rides signify the social class distinctions that are at the heart of the plot and themes of this novel.

The Greasers' Weapons

The weapons carried by the greasers illustrate their violent struggle for survival. Johnny's switchblade, which he started to carry for protection after he was violently mugged, is both the weapon that saves Ponyboy's life and the weapon that promises a prison sentence for Johnny. Yet for the greaser gang that includes Ponyboy, weapons perform more as a status symbol than as protection or any other useful purpose. Ponyboy observes that his greaser gang isn't nearly as tough as they make themselves out to be. "The only weapons we ever used were knives, and shoot, we carried them mostly just for looks," Ponyboy reveals.

The most flagrant example of this is Two-Bit's most prized possession, his "jet-handled switchblade, ten inches long, that would flash open at a mere breath." He keeps it "razor sharp" even though it's only a showpiece and "he used his plain pocketknife when he needed a blade." The black-handled knife functions much more as a status symbol than a weapon. Any utilitarian use is lost to the prestige of merely waving it around. "Every time he ran into a new hood he pulled it out and showed off with it," Ponyboy narrates.

When Dally visits Johnny and Ponyboy at the abandoned church and tells them it's all-out warfare all over the city between the Socs and the greasers, he mentions he has started carrying "a heater." Ponyboy objects on the grounds that "you kill people with heaters!" Dally responds the gun isn't even loaded; in other words, the gun is merely for show, to intimidate opponents, but not to actually hurt anyone. Even Dally, the toughest, meanest greaser, uses a weapon for show.

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