The Outsiders, by S. E. Hinton, is a coming-of-age story that compels readers to question society’s stereotyping of people and expresses the need for people to always have hope. Based on two rival teenage gangs, the poor, east-side Greasers, and the rich, west-side Socials (Socs), The Outsiders is told through the eyes of sensitive, 14-year-old Greaser, Ponyboy Curtis. The novel explores the choices people make when faced with adversity, sending an important message to readers that everyone is an individual, regardless of their background.
The characters of Ponyboy and Dallas ‘Dally’ Winston, a hardened and damaged Greaser, are vital to this message and they also play key roles in portraying the book’s fundamental theme that even the most hardened people need to retain some innocence and to have hope in their lives. From the very beginning of the novel, Hinton discourages readers from stereotyping characters in The Outsiders. She does this by defining the characters according to their individual traits, not by the group society has deemed they belong to.
Although Hinton introduces Ponyboy as a member of the Greaser gang, with his long, oiled hair and outfit of jeans and tshirt, she challenges readers not to stereotype him as a Greaser by making it known that he is sensitive, loves books, movies and drawing, and gets good grades at school. Hinton also makes it clear through Ponyboy’s discussions with Soc Cherry Valance, that the rich and privileged should not be stereotyped either, for they too can suffer problems. Ponyboy ultimately realises that Greasers and Socs are not that different after all and this is particularly evident when he ponders: It seemed funny to me that the sunset she (Cherry) saw from her patio and the one I saw from the back steps was the same one. Maybe the two different worlds we lived in weren’t so different. We saw the same sunset” (p. 50). In addition, through the character of Dally, Hinton communicates to readers that although Dally is the toughest and most brutal member of the Greaser gang, he too is capable of kindness. This is revealed through Dally’s soft spot for the abused and vulnerable Greaser Johnny Cade, and in his willingness to do anything to help a fellow Greaser.
Dally helps Johnny and Ponyboy get away after Johnny kills bully Soc Bob Sheldon. Dally practically gives Ponyboy the shirt off his back when he hands Ponyboy his leather jacket to help him keep warm on his journey to hide-out in the abandoned church in the countryside (p. 74-75). Johnny, Ponyboy and Dally also refute their stereotypical role as Greasers when they bravely rescue children from the raging church fire (p. 112-113). Through their actions, they demonstrate to readers that regardless of a person’s background, everyone is an individual capable of doing noble deeds.
In fact, after the church fire, Hinton reveals an even more important message to readers, being that it is vital for even the most hardened person to retain some innocence and to have hope. As Johnny lies dying in a hospital bed from the injuries he sustained in the church fire, he says to Ponyboy: “Stay gold, Ponyboy. Stay gold… ” (p. 181). Johnny was referring to the Robert Frost poem that Ponyboy recited to him when they were hiding out in the abandoned church after Bob’s death (p. 5). One line in the poem reads: “Nothing gold can stay” (p. 95). This signifies that everything in life changes, which is why Johnny urges Ponyboy to remain gold, which means innocent, because Johnny knew he was going to die and that his death would change Ponyboy’s and Dally’s lives. Following Johnny’s death, Dally had himself purposely shot by the police, because Johnny was the last thing in Dally’s life that represented good and innocence, and without him, he felt he had no hope.
This emphasised to readers that surviving a tough life is difficult without some innocence or hope. Ponyboy also started to lose his way following Johnny’s and Dally’s deaths, doing poorly at school and threatening to stab one of the Socs with a broken bottle (p. 205-207). Nevertheless, Hinton shows that unlike Dally, Ponyboy’s innocence was not completely lost with Johnny’s death, because after the broken bottle incident subsides with no-one hurt, Ponyboy picks up the broken glass to prevent anyone getting a flat tyre (p. 207).
This proves Ponyboy’s innocence is still intact, but Hinton’s message that even the most hardened need to have hope, does not end here, for she uses the final chapter of her book to really drive her point home. In the final chapter of the novel, Ponyboy finds a letter Johnny had written to him while in hospital. Part of the letter states: “… that poem, that guy that wrote it, he meant you’re gold when you’re a kid, like green. When you’re a kid everything’s new, dawn. It’s just when you get used to everything that it’s day. Like the way you dig sunsets, Pony.
That’s gold. Keep that way, it’s a good way to be” (p. 216). Through his words, Johnny urged Ponyboy to hold onto the golden qualities that made him different from the other Greasers, to retain his innocence regardless of what society would throw at him. In his letter, Johnny also asks Ponyboy to show Dally a sunset to help him see that there are good things in life (p. 216). Sadly, Dally had already died when Ponyboy found the letter, but Hinton cleverly has Ponyboy do something that will help give all the hardened Dallys in the world a chance.
Ponyboy writes about the past two weeks of his life with his fellow Greasers. By Ponyboy writing his school English assignment about the recent events in his and the Greasers’ lives, which becomes obvious is the novel itself, Hinton makes it clear to readers that Ponyboy has finally become comfortable with who he is and is no longer bothered by society’s stereotyping of him. Through this, Hinton cleverly makes readers question society’s shallow stereotyping of others based on their backgrounds.
This is particularly evident when Ponyboy states: “Someone should tell their side of the story, and maybe people would understand then and wouldn’t be so quick to judge a boy by the amount of hair oil he wore” (p 217). With Ponyboy moving on with his life and telling his story, Hinton also makes Ponyboy become the official ‘hope of the hardened’, the one able to ‘stay gold. Hinton deliberately leaves readers, who themselves may be experiencing hardship, with the positive message that it is possible for them too to retain their innocence and to have hope for the future.