The Outsiders

S. E. Hinton

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

The Outsiders | Themes


Importance of Surrogate Families

The greasers serve as a surrogate family for one another, especially since they all have nonstandard families of origin. Broken families, alcoholism, poverty, and various forms of dysfunction pervade the home lives of the greasers, forcing them to rely on each other in the absence of familial love or support from their biological relatives. The greasers act like adopted brothers for one another, illustrating that family is whoever one chooses rather than the people with whom one is biologically connected.

Ponyboy's home situation is the most interesting. Many of the greasers lack at least one parent, but Ponyboy has lost both. Yet he has a loving relationship with his brothers. He is actually the most fortunate of the greasers in terms of his home environment. The greasers to whom he isn't biologically related function as additional brothers for him, especially Johnny. Ponyboy is as close to Johnny as he is to Soda, and even more than he is to Darry. Two-Bit is like an adopted uncle and always looks out for Ponyboy. The surrogate family of the greasers assists Ponyboy's biological relatives in raising him and caring for him, both emotionally and logistically. Their help allows Ponyboy to live with his brothers even though both their parents are gone.

However, it is Johnny's home situation that most illustrates the importance of a surrogate family. Johnny actually has both parents, but neither pay him any attention, unless they need a scapegoat for something. They don't seem to notice, or care, whether or not Johnny returns home at night, which he often doesn't. Though tired of being their whipping post, Johnny ardently seeks their attention and approval, which he never receives. The greasers give Johnny someone to connect with and reasons to want to live. They all take Johnny under their wing, protect him, and love him. The tough hoods give Johnny the love he craves, the love his biological parents withhold from him.

Action and Consequence

A major theme in The Outsiders is the axiom that every action, every decision, has consequences, whether those consequences are intended or accidental. For example, when Ponyboy and Johnny flee the scene of Bob's murder, Ponyboy does not think at all about the possibility of later being split apart from his brothers as a consequence. But when he returns, he faces a hearing to decide his future, and being put in a boys' home or reform school are very real possibilities for him. Neither actually occurs, so he escapes the consequences of his actions in this case—though he does not escape his anxiety before the hearing, which results from the unintended consequences of his rash decision.

Johnny is not so lucky. When he and Ponyboy run into a burning building to save some schoolchildren, neither of them stop to consider the possible consequences. Again Ponyboy is spared any serious consequences, but now Johnny is in a hospital room hanging onto life by a thread. Even if he lives, he will never walk again due to a broken back. But he decides "it's worth it" because the children's lives "are worth more than [his]." Though he is not prepared for the extreme consequences of his impulsive actions, he dies at peace with the world. He will be remembered as a hero, not a hood. Dally, the most selfish of the greasers, tells Johnny he is proud of him just before Johnny dies, which gives Johnny the courage he needs to leave his friends forever.

Johnny's death has drastic negative consequences for Dally. Losing the one person in the world that Dally loved best triggers an overwhelming avalanche of raw emotion that overpowers Dally. He runs off and robs a grocery store, then calls Darry in a last-ditch plea for help. Darry, Soda, and Ponyboy rush over to the vacant lot, hoping to hide Dally from the authorities. But the police pull up right after Dally arrives on his home turf. When Dally pulls out an unloaded gun, the police shoot Dally with real bullets. While this is open to more than one interpretation, Dally most likely chose his consequences in this case. Johnny had been Dally's anchor within a harsh world full of violence, deprivation, and injustice. When Johnny dies, Dally's only hope is extinguished and his desire to live falters.

Economic-Based Prejudice

The differences between the wealthy Socs and the underprivileged greasers manifest in appearance, opportunities, and attitude. "We look hoody and they look decent," notes Ponyboy at the rumble, where the Socs show up looking like they are going to a movie, not participating in a street brawl. Ponyboy says most of the hoods he knows are "pretty decent guys underneath all that grease," adding, "from what I've heard, a lot of Socs are just cold-blooded mean." But "people usually go by looks," laments Ponyboy. Ponyboy formulates his own ideas about appearances and whether or not they matter. Through his friendship with Cherry, and later Randy, Ponyboy comes to believe that people are people, more alike than not at their core, whatever their outward differences are.

But the Socs often attack the greasers without provocation. The male Socs in particular call the greasers "white trash" and seem to think they are less human. When the Soc named David holds Ponyboy's head under the water at the fountain, he doesn't realize, or possibly doesn't care, that he is drowning another human being. It is as if Ponyboy is somehow less deserving of breathing the same air as the Socs merely because he lacks their economic advantages. They are, after all, the same gender, age, and race. There is no other basis for the Socs' intense hatred of the greasers other than lack of material wealth and the social standing that accompanies monetary gain.

More important than appearance is the lack of opportunity faced by the greasers; the most harmful result of the social class differences between the Socs and the greasers is the self-limiting beliefs that are embedded in the minds of the greasers. Through years of conditioning to accept hardships, the greasers view their world as tough, unfair, and without anything worthwhile to pursue. They don't formulate goals beyond high school, or even beyond getting through the day without getting jumped by a carload of Socs. When Darry pushes Ponyboy to write the semester composition to save his English grade after Johnny's death, Ponyboy argues back that his grades don't matter. Ponyboy assumes he'll have to get a job right after high school. But Darry puts the idea in his younger brother's head that Ponyboy could get a scholarship and go to college. This idea is foreign to Ponyboy, as it is to all the greasers; they don't perceive college as attainable for them. Meanwhile the Socs take for granted that they are headed for college and a lucrative career after that.

Senselessness of Violence

When two other greaser gangs come to help out at the rumble, Ponyboy notices they are much more like thugs than his greaser friends. He doesn't see his buddies as "future convicts," nor does he feel they belong in that street fight, slugging it out beside true criminals. Though Ponyboy participates in the rumble, he realizes that violence is senseless and won't solve the class warfare between the greasers and the Socs; the greasers will still be poor and shut out of opportunities while the Socs will continue to enjoy the many advantages of their wealth and social prestige, which no amount of fighting can take away from them.

But the most blatant example of the senselessness of violence is the death of Dally Winston, a 17-year-old who could only vent his feelings through fighting and crime. Unable to cope with the death of Johnny, who had been an "adopted" younger brother to him, Dally runs out of the hospital and robs a grocery store. In a desperate plea for help, he then calls Darry. But when the police catch up with Dally, he pulls a gun out of his waistband and waves it around, though it isn't even loaded. This last stand is what ultimately gets Dally killed by the police's gunfire. However, Dally's entire life, filled with violence and aggression, in and out of jail since the age of 10, prepares him for his untimely death.

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