Stay Gold, Ponyboy: Historical Models of Childhood in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders

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.

The Socioeconomic Triggers of Juvenile Delinquency: Analysis of “The Outsiders”

Today, the social structure and class turns highly fragmented based on the socioeconomic background of people. For instance, people who live in high-end suburbs in America cities are found upper-classes and those who live in cities with crumbling infrastructure and low-achieving schools could be classified as lower-classes. Such social divisions have been a source of great experience and tragedy. Case in point is juvenile delinquency, a severe crime fostered through the failure of society to address the issues of poverty, marginalization, failure of social systems such as foster care, and the general lack of empathy among people which ultimately has contributed to the dwindling of morality. In essence, S.E. Hinton in The Outsiders depicts the story of the dysfunction of society based on socioeconomic inequality that has caused sub-divisions among young boys who should normally be living free of the burden of social pressure. Despite the immoral behavior displayed by the juveniles in the story, social relations could be ameliorated when the relevant governmental agencies and concerned stakeholders address socioeconomic challenges faced by juveniles before they mutate into crime.

Social subdivisions should not be treated rashly nor can they be adequately addressed on the short-term; alternatively, stringent mechanisms must be put in place to deal with the shortfalls of the socioeconomic fabric of society. Ponyboy narrates how “mom and dad were killed in an auto wreck” (Hinton 4). The death of their parents has varying ramifications such as their ability to provide for themselves. Most ramifications of the conflict could be children beggars who resort to begging or else others who go to the extreme and steal for a living. The manifestation of the social divisions, in this case, usually occur when teenagers group themselves according to their perception of who embodies the same situation and become rivalries with those who they consider being their opposites. Even in prosaic places such as school, these social divisions trigger as people from underprivileged backgrounds tend to stick together as well as those from wealthy families. In a fight with the other gang members, Ponyboy’s gang was highly cohesive, as they greatly lavished in helping each other. In perspective, “our gang had chased the Socs to their car and heaved rocks at them” (Hinton 9). The statement testifies the deep subdivisions of society that often materialize to children at a young age and if not addressed, they are bound to cause even more problems in the future.

The Outsiders displays the theme that the governmental agencies and concerned stakeholders have the primary role of car-giving orphans or juvenile delinquents. For instance, an act of juvenile delinquency was committed by Johnny, a member of Ponyboy’s gang, who says, “I killed him … I killed that boy (Bob from the rival gang)” (Hinton 49). The tragedy with most juvenile criminals is that they are not thought through in that, the participants like the gangs in the story have no thinking threshold that their actions could be disastrous to their well-being and others. The basis of intervention for the relevant agencies and authorities is to ensure that socioeconomic differences result in needless fighting and loss of life simply because of disagreements resulting from allegiances to gangs. The entities concerned must forestall any kind of negativity that arises out of socioeconomic differences through creating and developing of measures that can help in deconstructing such differences. An ideal example would be to encourage every child to treat each other with respect regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds.

People, disregarding external features or backgrounds, possess the potential in making important, life-changing differences no matter how little they may seem. Even in incidents taken to the extreme, there are always opportunities to ameliorate countless drawbacks in life and take the path to self-fulfillment by engaging in beneficial or positive activities. As for Ponyboy, he decided to tell the world his story by writing “about something that was important to me” (Hinton 153). As a result, it is acceptable to complain about the misfortunes brought about by the state of life we are born into, but we should always have in mind that we have the capacity to change our life to the better.

Socioeconomic differences have caused a large gap in society and if not addressed, often could be translated into conflict. Individuals from each socioeconomic status must be dawned that social backgrounds are superficial differences that can change over time and alternatively work towards creating or developing a society that addresses such inequality for the overall development or betterment of people’s lives.