'The Outsiders' Themes

In The Outsiders, author S. E. Hinton explores socioeconomic differences and impositions, honor codes, and group dynamics through the eyes of a 14-year-old narrator.

Rich vs. Poor

The rivalry between the greasers and the Socs, two opposing groups of teenagers, stems from their socioeconomic differences. However, as the story progresses and the characters experience personal growth, they realize that those differences do not automatically make them natural enemies. On the contrary, they discover that they share many similarities. For example, Cherry Valance, a Soc girl, and Ponyboy Curtis, the greaser narrator of the novel, bond over their love of literature, pop music, and sunsets, which indicates that personalities can transcend societal conventions. However, they remain pretty much in place. “Ponyboy... I mean... if I see you in the hall at school or someplace and don't say hi, well, it's not personal or anything, but…,” Cherry tells him when they part, indicating that she is aware of the social divides.

While the events of the novel unfold, Ponyboy begins noticing a pattern of shared experiences between Socs and greasers. All of their lives, despite the social differences, follow a path of love, fear, and sorrow. On that note, it’s one of the Socs, Randy, who remarks how pointless their bitter and violent rivalry actually is. “I'm sick of it because it doesn't do any good. You can't win, you know that, don't you?” he tells Ponyboy.

Honorable Hoodlums

Greasers abide by their idea of an honor code: they stand up for one another when facing enemies or authority figures. This is evidenced in their protectiveness of Johnny and Ponyboy, the younger and weaker members of the group. In another example of honorable actions, Dally Winston, the delinquent in the group, let himself be arrested for a crime Two-Bit committed. What’s more, while listening to Ponyboy read Gone With The Wind, Johnny compares Dally to a Southern gentleman, in that, much like them, he had a fixed code of behavior.

Group vs. Individual

At the beginning of the novel, Ponyboy is devoted to the greasers because the gang provides him with a sense of community and belonging. In contrast with the other members, though, he is bookish and dreamy. The aftermath of Bob’s death encourages him to question his motivations to belong to the greasers, and the conversations he had with Socs such as Cherry and Randy showed him that there was more to individuals than their belonging to a specific social group. On that note, when Ponyboy sets out to write his account of the past events, he does so in a way that highlights the individuality of each of his friends beyond their identity as greasers. 

Gender Relations

The conflict between the Socs and the Greasers has always been heated, but formulaic. Tensions escalate when Ponyboy, Dally, and Johnny befriend Soc girls Cherry and Marissa, with a “normal” gang conflict snowballing into a deadly brawl, an escape, and two more collateral deaths. Even internal romantic relationships don’t fare much better. Sodapop’s girlfriend, Sandy, whom he intends to marry, eventually goes to Florida after becoming pregnant by another boy.

Literary Devices

Literature

Literature helps Ponyboy to make sense of the world around him and the events that unfold. He sees himself as Pip, the protagonist in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, as they’re both orphaned and they are both looked down upon for not being “gentlemen.” His reciting “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost is about the fleeting beauty of nature, which, taken in the context of The Outsiders, indicates short moments of respite in what is, generally, a hostile universe. Reading Gone with the Wind with Johnny prompts the latter to see the most uncouth greaser, Dally, as a modern iteration of a Southern Gentleman, in that, even with his lack of manners, he behaved honorably. The title “Nothing Gold Can Stay” is echoed in Johnny’s valediction of Ponyboy, in which he urges him to “Stay Gold.”

Empathy

In The Outsiders, empathy is the device that enables characters to resolve conflicts, both between gangs and within a singular household.

The conflict between the Socs and the greasers is based on class prejudice and appearance, yet, beneath that façade, they all have their fair share of issues. As Cherry tells Ponyboy, “things are rough all over.” For example, the novel depicts the ultimate "bad guy," Bob, who gets killed by Johnny in retaliation, as the product of a troubled family life and neglectful parents.

In the domestic realm, Ponyboy initially has a rough time with his eldest brother, Darry, who is cold and stern towards him. Ever since their parents died, he had to work two jobs and give up on his dreams of college in order to take care of his younger brothers. Even though this did harden him, he deeply cares about his kid brother and is determined to work as hard as he can to secure a better future for him. It’s Sodapop who eventually makes these things clear for Ponyboy, as he can no longer stand to witness his two brothers bicker and fight all the time, and the two resolve to get along better in order to give Sodapop some peace of mind. 

Symbol: Hair

Greasers use their hair styling as a signifier and symbol of belonging to their gang. They wear their hair long and dress in blue jeans and T-shirts. “My hair is longer than a lot of boys wear theirs, squared off in back and long at the front and sides, but I am a greaser and most of my neighborhood rarely bothers to get a haircut,” says Ponyboy as he introduces himself in the novel—fellow greaser Steve Randle wears his in “complicated swirls.” When, during their escape, Johnny and Ponyboy have to cut and bleach their hair, they are, in a way, cutting their ties with the greasers and with the gang culture of their town. While Johnny dies a hero, Ponyboy detaches himself from the greasers/Socs diatribe after the final rumble, and commits to writing his experiences to honor Johnny’s memories.