Ponyboy Curtis is a 14-year-old boy whose world has been turned upside down. His parents were killed in an automobile accident just eight months before The Outsiders story takes place. He lives with his oldest brother, Darry, who is 20 years old and has legal custody of him and his other brother, Sodapop, who is 16.
Darry characterizes Ponyboy as lacking common sense. Pony agrees with this assessment. He readily admits that he is smart at school, but sometimes he just doesn't think. These occasions get Pony into trouble that he could avoid. This is one aspect of his character that readers are able to see evolve throughout the book. Ponyboy learns that his behavior impacts others, and this newly acquired maturity leads to the telling of The Outsiders story.
The brothers are greasers, a class term that refers to the young men on the East Side, the poor side of town. They are known for their long, greased hair. The brothers also belong to a small, tightly knit neighborhood gang. Pony explains, "there are just small bunches of friends who stick together, and the warfare is between the social classes." Pony is the youngest member of their gang, and the other gang members represent extended family members to him. He is able to find security in his friendships with them, and they help fill the void created by his parents' deaths.
Ponyboy narrates the novel, and this narration is a catharsis for him. The reader is able to see the changes in Pony's viewpoints as he is dealing with many issues that are common in an adolescent's life. The most powerful issue is that life is not fair. From the deaths of his parents, to the economic conditions that cast them as greasers, to the deaths of his friends, life is not fair to Ponyboy.
During this two-week period, Pony has to weather three deaths — two greasers and one from the rival gang, the Socs. The Socs, short for Socials, are the "West-side rich kids." By realizing that death at a young age is equally unfair for all of them, Pony is able to not only survive, but to justify his own existence. He takes it upon himself to make their deaths mean something.