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The Enduring Fascination of S.E. Hinton’s ‘The Outsiders’

S.E. Hinton’s novel about two warring gangs continues to offer poignant lessons about injustice, even five decades after its first publication.
The cast of the 1983 film adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, featuring Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, and Tom Cruise. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

The cast of the 1983 film adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, featuring Emilio Estevez, Rob Lowe, C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, and Tom Cruise. (Photo: Warner Bros.)

Life is messy, bruising, but also full of intoxicating adventures. Which might explain why I still love reading The Outsiders — a book that I first came to love as a kid — and why so many others are still reading it five decades after it was first published in 1967. Set in the 1960s, S.E. Hinton’s gritty coming-of-age story follows the greasers — narrator Ponyboy Curtis, his protective older brothers Sodapop and Darry, their skittish friend Johnny, arch-cool bad boy Dallas, and their other low-class gang pals — as they navigate teenage angst and class warfare in Tulsa, Oklahoma. All the while, they’re fighting the Socs, a wealthier rival gang. The novel’s tension comes to a head after Ponyboy and Johnny are jumped one night by a group of Socs and Johnny fights back the only way he knows how. “I killed him,” Johnny says, slowly, holding a bloodied switchblade and sitting near the corpse of a Soc.

As a 12-year-old reader, I found in Hinton’s tale a thrilling narrative of freedom. Ponyboy and Johnny skip town after the murder, hiding in an abandoned church. They cut and dye their hair to disguise themselves and read literature to pass the time. Later, things take a turn for the worse when the church catches fire and Johnny, true to tragic-hero form, dies from injuries he sustains while rescuing a group of children from being swallowed up in the flames. The rest of the novel is essentially a postmortem — the greasers consider Johnny’s weighty imprint on their own lives, which careen toward catastrophe with ever-greater velocity without Johnny’s quiet gravity.

The novel centers around a barbed vision of American prosperity.

Fifty years on, north of 10 million copies of The Outsiders have been sold, and it’s a favorite in middle-school and high-school classrooms. What explains its enduring, canonical power?

Maybe it’s the novel’s uncommon character names. I mean, when was the last time you met someone named Ponyboy, Sodapop, or Two-Bit? Or it could well be its memorable dialogue. As he’s dying, Johnny tells Ponyboy to “stay gold,” a reference to a Robert Frost poem that Ponyboy recites aloud when the two boys are tucked away in the church. (The main musical theme of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 film adaptation is “Stay Gold,” sung, enchantingly, by Stevie Wonder.)

Yet there’s more, I think. That so many people can read The Outsiders like this five decades later is evidence of how compellingly the novel constructs its world. In an interview with Us Weekly, Hinton reflects: “Everyone everywhere can identify with the in group and the out group and even feel like an outsider in their own group.” She continues: “In Ponyboy’s group, no one liked to read books or see movies by themselves like he did. The character Cherry felt the same way, but she couldn’t tell her friends how she felt because it wouldn’t be cool. Teens still identify with those emotions. That and raging against injustice. That’s just the way you feel at that age.”

It’s worth slowing down that last bit: raging against injustice. The novel — from its attention to material trappings like cars and rings to the explosive rumble between the greasers and the Socs toward the end of the story — centers around a barbed vision of American prosperity, one flanked by the reality that this country takes more from some than it does from others.

Of course, the subtext of The Outsiders is very specific. It reflects a certain type of Americana — whiteness — and the sense of entitlement, the right to power, that being white in America affords. Ponyboy at one point proclaims that “Darry didn’t deserve to work like an old man when he was only twenty.” This is true — the Curtis brothers’ parents have died in a car accident, so Darry holds two jobs to support his younger siblings — but it also prompts a question about who’s deemed deserving and undeserving in this country, a distinction that often falls along racial lines. So for me, a black American, the novel serves as a healthy reminder that, even when a novel has no characters of color, it can still, certainly, be about race (a point that speaks to how critical it is for schools to offer students reading across a full, non-monochromatic spectrum of literature).

But while the novel doesn’t directly mirror my own experiences, this hardly means that it doesn’t run on familiar emotions, ones that become quite visceral through the characters’ dealings with inequality and crippling social hierarchies. For instance, the greasers have to stitch together an ad-hoc network — a family — to survive their poverty, vulnerability, and, well, outsider-ness — something probably familiar to any marginalized group. Hinton’s narrative reflects the greasers’ humanity with remarkable poignancy, such that readers aren’t left feeling like we’re somehow breaking bad with the charismatic but usually delinquent greasers; they, like the rest of us, didn’t do anything to determine the randomness of their birth. “We aren’t in the same class. Just don’t forget that some of us watch the sunset, too,” Ponyboy says to Cherry, a Soc, a sentiment that highlights Ponyboy’s understanding that, despite the two gangs’ differences, they’re equals.

And speaking of birth, The Outsiders had a subversive one for its time. Hinton began sketching out the story of Ponyboy and his gang when she was 15 years old, and her publisher convinced her to use her initials instead of her name, Susan Eloise, because, as she told Us, “they wanted to fool the first reviewers.… It’s because they thought first reviewers were going to see this book, see the subject matter, and decide a girl wouldn’t know anything about it.” So the novel itself is a push-back against injustice — the kind of sexism that might otherwise have dismissed Hinton, today credited for creating the whole young adult genre, for entering a “man’s realm.”

On publishing The Outsiders 50 years ago, Hinton conjured a magic that many writers of fiction can only dream of: making readers identify with a story that moves us to imagine some sliver of ourselves in the characters’ charms and challenges. At least, that’s what The Outsiders has done for me — and it looks as though its gold will stay.