The Outsiders is a modern classic was written by SE Hinton in 1967. She was 15 when she wrote it, and it was a Young Adult novel, but also a coming of age story that anyone could relate to. During that time, popular teenage books were mostly about the perfect high school girl meeting the perfect high school boy, a spat occurred, they split up, and it was a will-they-or-won’t-they-get-back-together story. Okay if you like those kinds of stories, but The Outsiders changed all of that.
The Outsiders is a gritty story told by 14-year-old Ponyboy about teenagers on the wrong side of the tracks being left to their own devices. This group of friends practically raised themselves, with the help of older siblings. There wasn’t much parental guidance, and neglect, abuse, and juvenile delinquency abounded. But you forgave and forgot all of that once you got close to the characters, each drawn perfectly and with yearning vulnerability by SE Hinton, who was a female writer under the impression that her book would be more accepted if readers thought she was a male writer—hence the initials.
The book is full of pathos and angst and violence—things that readers were aware of—maybe even lived—but had never been represented so honestly and ruggedly before.
Finally, a new generation had a voice.
The book’s characters leap off the screen, and you root for all of them—even Dallas, the bad boy. Hinton plays fair with all of the characters, even the rich kids, who reveal that they don’t necessarily like playing the part of the bully snob but do so because it’s a role that’s expected of them.
Hinton’s writing is colorful and simple. She places you in a scene and carries you through each chapter with sympathetic dialogue and situations of conflict and angst. Her emotional writing connects easily to Young Adult readers everywhere, generations after the first printing of the book.
The book spawned sequels and a movie adaptation directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Who better to direct a movie about a family of baby softcore gangsters than the Godfather director?
Some critics say that Hinton’s story is a little sappy, but perhaps that’s because they’re looking back at it through modern eyes. In the late Sixties, it was peeling back the canvas of teen culture to take an honest look. The relationships and situations ring real for most people. Who wouldn’t want friends who cared enough about you to fight for you, die for you, or protect you? It’s easy to see how wayward and misguided stick together in a gang-like mentality. They look out for one another, and it’s total acceptance.
The characters try to do the right thing, from Sodapop to Johnny, and Hinton does a good job making you feel for them, even understanding why they’re motivated to do some of the less savory activities—“They don’t know any better—it’s their upbringing—they have no guidance.” Abused children often grow up in the juvenile court system. Jails are full of people who may or may not have gotten the good breaks. Abused children often turn out to be abusive toward others. And even when a bad boy does good things, the negative often outweighs the positive. The book even delves into the division of social and economic classes, meaning “The Greasers” which were the poor boys, and “The Socs”, which were rich high-society boys. These two gangs were rivals, and the book shows what happens when things go over the edge between the two sets of kids.
These are the ideas that aren’t exactly spelled out so much in the book. These are ideas you think about as an adult thinking back on the book, or reading it with an adult mindset.
The story is told from Ponyboy’s point of view, a kid just trying to get along in a household ruled by his older brother, who works too hard but tries to do his best for his brothers.
The story is propelled forward when Ponyboy is jumped by some rich kids, and revenge always follows. There is an intermingling between The Greasers and the Socs at a movie theatre, and both sides see the similarities in each other. Ponyboy doesn’t come out and say it, but you know he’s thinking, “If we could all just find more things in common, we wouldn’t fight so much.”
One revenge fight leads to another.
Some critics say that Hinton’s characters are too simplistic, but I find them to be well-rounded. You have the antagonistic Dallas, the quiet Johnny, the popular Sodapop. But in a way this makes the story engaging. The nuances are actually there if you read close enough. Hinton’s breezy style carries you through scenarios with just the right amount of angst and fairness. She doesn’t overdo it, she lets the characters and scenes tell the story.
Things get tougher when Ponyboy runs away after an argument with the oldest brother and guardian Darrell go too far. Ponyboy meets up with his good friend Johnny, an abused boy who can’t take it anymore, and they run away from home.
Several darker scenes follow, and please skip if you don’t like spoilers, but Johnny stabs a Soc when they jump him, Dallas (played by Matt Dillon in the movie) is shot and killed by the police, and Johnny dies.
Because of the violence and gang-related themes, this book was banned in several schools and libraries and is considered controversial in some literary circles, but is still a favorite and is often taught in the classroom as literature.
Some critics in educational circles refuse to teach it because they don’t want to condone or encourage violent tendencies in their students, and others think that their students won’t connect with the characters or find much in common.
Should this really be how a book is judged? A student can’t read a book because they aren’t in a gang? A student can’t relate to a character who is rich/poor? What does a student have in common with a shark hunter, yet readers connect with the book Jaws. Does this make sense? Has education and literature gone too PC?
I can see the concern if the book were about a school shooter, or glorifies gang violence. But The Outsiders does a great well-balanced job of presenting the consequences of violence. If anything, this book is a deterrent to violent behavior.
Some teachers see the positive aspects of the book. They find students of all backgrounds relating to the characters, and this is one book that students want to read above many others on their reading lists. The fact that the book is deemed banned and off-limits in some circles is actually enticing kids to read.
It’s safe to say that the kids won’t be disappointed, as this is one book that is recommended from generation to generation.
Adult fans who read the book when they were young say that the stories and characters have stayed with them through the years, and have re-read the book many times. They also have a few complaints about the movie version, which does an admirable job sticking to the book, unlike a lot of book-to-film projects.
It’s probably wise to note that the gangs of the Sixties-era were a little tamer than those of today. They fought with fists and boots mostly, and a chain was crossing boundaries. They were fair fights most of the time. Today’s gangs are completely different, where guns and drugs rule.
There are many lessons to be learned from The Outsiders: That everyone hurts no matter which side of the track you’re from, friendships are precious, the family is sometimes unavailable or non-existent, and bad things can happen to good people, and vice versa.
Hinton is great at writing about relationships, families, tensions, and heartache. Her descriptions make you feel as if the characters could walk off the page and walk around the room talking to you. If you’ve ever had siblings, friends, and the conflicts of growing pains, you can relate to this book. Even though these were supposed to be “at-risk” kids or kids from the wrong part of town, they had more heart and integrity than most of the Socs and adults around them. You can really learn about yourself and how you feel about the world when you read this book. You can learn not to be non-judgmental, tolerant, and fair.
When it comes to the characters, they’re multi-dimensional and have realistic ups and downs. They face trials, tragedies, and good times together. They also at times realize that they follow the norms in their lives because it’s expected of them, and they really are aware of no other way of being. Ponyboy does see a way out, and there is immense hope that he can escape the self-imposed role of us-versus-them.
If you read the book, make sure you give it some breathing time afterward before you watch the movie.