S.E. Hinton’s seminal first novel, The Outsiders, is widely credited as the birth of contemporary teenage fiction. While J.D. Salinger is often seen as the first writer to truly capture the modern teenage mindset sixteen years earlier (albeit in a work aimed towards adult readers) with his legendary novel The Catcher in the Rye, it was Hinton, a tomboyish high-school student from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who took the teenage voice and presented it in a manner that was even more palpable, visceral, and lifelike, than even the spoiled, whiny Holden Caulfield could ever imitate. She achieves this voice through her characters. Hinton’s greasers are rowdy, downtrodden, and more than a little flawed; they embody a youthful vigor and a powerful sense of poignant world-weariness unheard of in children’s literature before Hinton’s time. And yet, whether it was intentional or through a lack of writing experience, Hinton’s characters, despite their overwhelming modernity, fit squarely into archetypes that had been prevalent in literary reconstructions of childhood for the past several centuries. My goal is to determine how the characters of The Outsiders fit into these traditional historic models of childhood and also how Hinton utilizes these models to both encapsulate and subvert the western canon and create a uniquely modern literature for a new generation of young readers.
Of these historical models, perhaps the most famous is the concept of the “romantic child.” This model revolves around the belief that children are “the embodiment of innocence” (Hintz 15). In terms of The Outsiders, the most obvious candidate for this model is the character of Johnny. Johnny is portrayed as meek, timid, and introverted—quite the opposite of his fellow Greasers. Hinton describes him as “a little dark puppy that has been kicked too many times and is lost in a crowd of strangers” (Hinton 11). Whereas characters like Dally lash out in anger at an unfair world, Johnny internalizes the injustice he has experienced and retreats further into himself out of fear. However, instead of becoming hard and bitter, Johnny does manage to maintain his decency, as illustrated by him rescuing the children from the burning church in Chapter 6. This sacrificial act ultimately leads to his death, upon which Hinton elevates him to almost martyr-like status. It is through his dying plea to Ponyboy to “[stay] gold” – a reference to a Robert Frost poem discussed earlier in the novel – that Johnny fulfills his role as a symbol of lost childhood innocence (149).
On the other hand, the character of Dally functions as an extreme contrast to Johnny. Whereas Johnny comes to embody innate innocence and virtue in spite of the cruelty of the world around him, Dally represents the natural depravity of an undisciplined child, a prime example of the model of the “sinful child” found in Puritan ideology. He is a full-fledged victim of his environment, and is described by Hinton as having “blue, blazing [eyes], cold with a hatred of the whole world” (10). He follows a strict Machiavellian philosophy, stating: “get tough like me and you won’t get hurt. You look out for yourself and nothin’ can touch you [….]” (147). Dally is a rather extreme example of what a child can do when left to his or her own self-destructive tendencies.
Ponyboy Curtis, the novel’s narrator, is a bit more difficult to pin down, but one could argue he fits nicely into the category of the “developing child,” or a child that “[exists] along a continuum of development with the adult” (Freud 39). Ponyboy’s character follows the basic trajectory of the Buildungsroman (or “novel of education”) in that he grows mentally over the course of the novel and reaches a level of maturity and experience commonly associated with adulthood. At the beginning of the novel, Ponyboy is relatively comfortable adhering to the herd mentality followed by the Greasers and the Socs. He initially views the Socs in the same dehumanizing, stereotype-informed way that they view the Greasers, calling them “[w]hite trash with mustangs and madras” (Hinton 55). Through his interactions with Cherry Valance, Ponyboy begins to see the Socs as complex human beings with their own struggles and motivations. He plaintively states, “It seemed funny to me that the sunset she 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” (40-41). Later on, as Ponyboy reflects on the character of Bob Sheldon (the Soc that Johnny kills in self-defense in Chapter 4), Ponyboy remarks: “I looked at Bob’s picture and I could begin to see the person we had killed. A reckless, hot-tempered boy, cocky and scared stiff at the same time” (162).
This newfound sympathy for the Socs gradually grows stronger over the course of the novel, as does Ponyboy’s self-awareness. Toward the end of the book, he says: “Suddenly it wasn’t only a personal thing to me. I could picture hundreds of boys living on the wrong sides of cities, boys with black eyes who jumped at their own shadows. Hundreds of boys who maybe watched sunsets and looked at the stars and ached for something better. I could see boys going down under street lights because they were mean and tough and hated the world, and it was too late to tell them there was still good in it…There should be some help, someone to tell them before it was too late. 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” (179). It is at this point that Ponyboy achieves something resembling adult wisdom. Not only does he become enlightened, he assumes an authoritative position by symbolically and literally becoming the author of his own story. At the very end of the novel, it is revealed that the book the reader has just finished is a work written by Ponyboy specifically to inform his audience of the plight of a group of people previously without a voice: namely the Greasers, but also the “realistic teenager” that S.E. Hinton originally sought to portray in her writing. It is through Ponyboy that Hinton ultimately achieves this goal.
By creating characters that talk and act like ordinary teenagers but still fit into traditional models of childhood, Hinton has essentially reinvented the tradition of children’s literature in the western world. Gone are the days of “Mary Jane Goes to Prom and [… the] horse books” that Hinton spoke negatively of in an interview with the Outsiders Fan Club (“Exclusive Interview with SE. Hinton”). Instead, we have Ponyboy, Johnny, and Dally—symbols of the modern teenager and his or her role in literature and art.