This is a book review of The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. No spoilers, so no worries.
Ahh, this book. I had no idea what I was getting into when I began reading this young adult novel from 1967. I actually hadn’t heard of it before or even realised it was a cult 80s movie. Little did I know it would become an instant favourite of mine and a book I insist on sharing with all who browse my collection. Although the movie not so much, but that’s another story.
What is it about?
To quickly recap, the story follows Ponyboy Curtis and his “outsider,” working-class Greaser friends and their run-ins with the Socs (short for Socials), the preppy upper-class kids who seemingly have it all. Things go from bad to worse as the Greasers fend off attacks by the Socs, resulting in fatalities on both sides. It’s a classic coming-of-age tale that, while written so long ago, remains relevant to this day.
A Simple Binary of Haves vs Have-Nots
The story itself is perhaps a little simplistic. It tends to find the easy way out of wrapping up the plot and resolving issues. For example, it reduces the theme of class struggle into a binary of haves vs have-nots, wealthy vs poor, upper class vs working class through the rivalry of Socs vs Greasers.
The Socs vs The Greasers
The Socs have everything– nice clothes, cars, money, education – while the Greasers suffer at the bottom of the social hierarchy and struggle to get by, often coming from broken homes. The Greasers envy how easy the Socs have it while the Socs want some release from the pressure of living up to painfully high standards. They then proceed to take their frustrations out on one another. The ensuing gang violence stems from the two sides only seeing their differences, rather than points of commonality.
In the end, with the characters harbouring the greatest resentments conveniently dead, Ponyboy realises that “we see the same sunset, and that while we are the ones who create the divides between ourselves, we can also be the ones to challenge them.” Cute! Lesson learned.
How The Book Relates to Today’s Society
Although, actually, it’s a lesson we could really take another look at these days. From my perspective, this is like what is happening with so many of today’s social movements. #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter and #LoveWins are all about challenging discriminatory divides and trying to create a more equal society where no matter of race, gender or sexual orientation, people are treated the same.
Of course, I am simplifying these complex issues. But perhaps through finding the truth at the heart of them, like Hinton did all those years ago, the issues may be easier to approach and overcome. We made up these bullshit notions of who is good or bad, desirable or undesirable, normal or abnormal. As such, we can also be the ones to undo them. All we have to do is recognise that, underneath it all, we are all the same. If only it were so simple. Unfortunately we can’t all “stay gold”. It’s naive to believe this could happen in real life, but it does make for a very endearing story.
Analysing Ponyboy Curtis
Speaking of endearing, Ponyboy is a character I keep close to my heart. Like many before me, I fell in love and couldn’t help but feel for him as he struggled with the poor hand he’d been dealt in life. Ponyboy comes across as quite innocent, despite his greased hair, ratty clothes and the crowd he hangs out with. He gets embarrassed when his friends swear, gets good grades, doesn’t drink and generally tries to do the right thing. Ponyboy challenges the notion of what makes a person good. Even though he’s in a bad situation running away after being involved in a stabbing, he is completely devoted to his best friend Johnny and even saves the children from the burning church.
This is a theme that many authors tackle and Hilton’s point of view seems to be that what makes a person good is their actions, rather than their social class. As I’ve said, it’s simple. But looking back to when the book was written, I think this may have been kind of revolutionary. Characters that are meant to be “bad” because they’re anti-establishment, slouch when they walk, smoke and drink, carry guns, get into fights and curse, are actually “good” because they care intensely for people, are deeply loyal and value education and family. It’s classic. And incredibly enjoyable to read.
Hinton’s Writing Style and Maturity
Another factor that impressed me so much was that Hinton was just 16 or 17 when she wrote it. For someone so young, I felt that she wrote with exceptional maturity. Despite the unchallenging, teenage-drama storyline, the characters are deep and nuanced. They all struggle with identity on some level. We see them choosing to act and dress in certain ways and associate or distance themselves from certain other characters so they can establish and maintain their sense of belonging and personal identity. The Soc Cherry Vallance encapsulates this issue when she tells Ponyboy not to be offended if she ignores him at school. Brutal, yet quite realistic, and perhaps something that many of us better understood only after we’d left high school.
Moreover, Hinton saw with great clarity the futility of class struggle, felt the frustrations of being judged by how one looks and realised how the desperation of poverty can drive people to do bad things. I am in awe of her. It’s amazing she was able to be published at such a young age. She then went on to use the funds from her book sales to put herself through university. All of this was done in a time when things were far more difficult for women as well. Reading her backstory actually made me like the book even more.
So, in sum, this is a delightful book to read. It’s surprisingly relevant and relatable on many levels. You can easily find yourself siding with Ponyboy and the Greasers who get by living outside of the law. Or you might see yourself more as a Soc, fighting against only seeing the worst in those less fortunate. If you haven’t yet read this novel, go get a copy and enjoy.
5/5 stars forever and ever