The Outsiders was written by a teenager about teenagers. It is told in a first-person narration style, with the narrator being a 14-year-old boy. This story deals with issues that are very close to the hearts of teens, whether in the 1960s when this book was written or today.
Ponyboy Curtis is the narrator of this story, and it is through his eyes that the events unfold. Ponyboy takes the reader through a two-week period that will shape the rest of his life. No adults figure prominently in this novel; Pony and his two brothers are living on their own because their parents were recently killed in an automobile accident. But this story — which was written by a teen and focuses only on teens — touches every adult who reads it because the emotions and struggles the characters face are universal.
This novel is set in the 1960s in Oklahoma. The time period of the story is the same as the actual time it was written. The references that allow the reader to determine the era are cultural: popular musicians, television shows, and models of cars. To know the time period helps readers understand some of the references, but it is not critical to understanding the story. The fact that it is in Oklahoma is not necessarily a strong ingredient for the success of the story either. The author makes multiple references to rodeos and basic horsemanship, but those details are not as relevant as the fact that the story is set in a semi-large city. Walking from the East Side to the West side would take approximately 20 minutes, according to the text, and from that information readers can infer the size.
One of the most important qualities that can help teens establish their own identities is the ability to "fit in." Finding friends who understand their problems and relate to them is paramount for teenagers.
The novel is built around the class division between the Socs, ("the abbreviation for the Socials, the jet set, the West-side rich kids") and the greasers (a term that refers to the "boys on the East Side," who are "poorer than the Socs and the middle class"). The members of many small neighborhood gangs identify themselves as greasers.
The main characters in The Outsiders — Ponyboy Curtis, Darry Curtis, Sodapop Curtis, Two-Bit Mathews, Steve Randle, Dally Winston, and Johnny Cade — make up a small gang of greasers.
Two themes that run throughout this novel are intricately linked with gang philosophy.
Belonging to a gang instantly gives a teen an extended family. And that family automatically understands him, which is usually different from the family into which he was born. Gang membership also means that you are accepted. You are not an outsider; you are on the inside with at least one group.
Life isn't fair. The idea that life isn't fair is based entirely on one's perspective. Whether life is unfair to the greasers (the main characters' perspective) or to the Socs, (the rival groups' perspective) is a question that is recurrent in the novel. Rarely is injustice seen equally by all eyes.
A third theme that runs throughout this novel is one of colors in a black and white world. Hinton does an excellent job of painting verbal pictures. She uses contrasting colors to not only give impressions, but also to add depth to the story. Teens are often quick to see only right or wrong in a situation. But nothing is ever that cut and dried. Using colors, Hinton allows the reader to visualize the extremes and then mix them together to show that there is a middle ground. This theme is not the most important element in the story, but it is a good literary technique that allows the reader to visualize the story and internalize the intensity of the feelings that run strong in adolescents.
The Outsiders can be termed a coming-of-age novel because of the many topics that the story deals with.
Cigarette smoking, like many serious issues, is treated in the novel as part of everyday life. Several reasons may explain the author's approach to smoking: The Surgeon General's report linking cigarette smoking to cancer had just come out in l964 and the implications were not widely realized; the author may have believed that, inevitably, some teenagers experiment with smoking; or perhaps cigarettes were just a prop to help readers better visualize the characters. Whatever the reason, the treatment of the subject did not affect the telling of the story. The importance, or lack of it, was even underscored when the main character, Ponyboy, who is only 14, is surprised when an adult tells him that he shouldn't be smoking.
Suicide, a hot topic among teens, is not glossed over. One of the main characters had often considered suicide, and not until he is dying from other injuries does he regret considering that action. Hinton tries to impress upon readers that teenagers may not have the perspective to understand that life is short enough already and they have so much to see and do in the future.
Teen pregnancy receives attention in the book. The way Hinton handles teen pregnancy may seem outdated. When the girlfriend of one of Ponyboy's brothers becomes pregnant, she is immediately shipped off to live with family in Texas. This consequence undoubtedly still happens today, but it is not the norm. With child-care centers in most large high schools, the social stigma attached to teen motherhood no longer exists as it did in the l960s.
Underage drinking is common throughout the book. An author writing today might treat the issue of drinking and driving differently than Hinton did in the 1960s. In this book, the teens who are drinking are often driving. One character, Cherry Valance, condemns adults and questions their motives when they sell alcohol to minors, but teen drinking isn't meant to be the focus of the book.
The importance of remaining in school and graduating recurs throughout the novel, but that topic is also not meant to be a primary focus.
These issues make the story interesting, and Hinton does a very good job at not preaching at the reader. If this story had been written without touching on at least some of these topics, it would lack realism.
Hinton allows readers to take an active role in this story. She effectively utilizes foreshadowing and almost challenges the reader to anticipate what is coming next. This technique works well because it does not distract readers from the story's action; it encourages critical thought and increases anticipation. The fact that this story ends with the same line that it opens with creates a full circle. This twist prompts the reader to read the book again, this time discovering that the outcome is within Ponyboy all of the time, it just literally needs to be spelled out for us, the reader.