The Outsiders is narrated by the main character, Ponyboy Curtis. The story is placed in Oklahoma during the 1960s.
In the first chapter, Ponyboy introduces himself and gives a brief history of his family. He also describes the relationships between his gang members, and the relationships within his own family. Ponyboy's parents were killed in an automobile accident, leaving him and his two brothers on their own.
Ponyboy is the youngest at 14, Sodapop is 16, and Darry is 20. The authorities allow the three brothers to stay together as long as they "behave." Ponyboy resents Darry and the total control that he attempts to wield over his life; he views their relationship as adversarial and looks to Sodapop for understanding and love.
The brothers consider their gang members — Steve Randle, Two-Bit Mathews, Dallas Winston, and Johnny Cade — to be family. All of the members come from dysfunctional homes and need the gang relationship as a substitute for what is missing in their own families.
As Ponyboy walks home alone after going to a movie, he realizes the inherent danger of doing so. He explains to the reader that he is a greaser, a term "used to class all us boys on the East Side," which is the poor side of town. Greasers are known for their long, greased hair. Walking home alone is dangerous because the rival gang, the Socs, could easily attack him. The Socs, short for Socials, are "the jet set, the West-side rich kids," who are from upper-middle-class families. Ponyboy explains that the gangs are "just small bunches of friends who stick together, and the warfare is between the social classes."
As if foreshadowing Ponyboy's own poor decision to walk alone, a carload of four Socs arrives, and one pulls a knife on him. As he attempts to fend off his attackers, Ponyboy hears the pounding of footsteps and the attack turns into an all-out fight as his gang arrives to rescue him from the Socs' attack. Ponyboy's two brothers, Darry and Sodapop, along with their four other gang members, chase the Socs away; Ponyboy escapes with cuts and bruises.
The narration of this story by a 14-year-old boy allows for the novel to be written in an easy-to-read format.
The first chapter introduces three major themes immediately.
An outsider's view. Many of the characters feel like outsiders and believe that life isn't fair to them, but the novel shows that the reality is a matter of perspective. Whether someone defines himself or herself as an outsider or insider depends on his or her personal perspective or viewpoint. Life from an outsider's perspective is not only one of the main themes, but the one for which the novel is named.
An outsider sees things differently than someone who is directly involved in a way of life. The East Side greasers are "outsiders" to the West side of town, the "rich" side. To an outsider, West-side life can look very appealing, but it is unappreciated by the Socs who live there. Ponyboy says of the greasers, "We're poorer than the Socs and the middle class. I reckon we're wilder, too. Not like the Socs, who jump greasers and wreck houses and throw beer blasts for kicks. . . ."
Someone who always feels like an outsider may conclude that life is unfair. Pony and the rest of the greasers must deal with the hardship in their own lives, while the Socs enjoy all the advantages of class privilege. This "life isn't fair" theme is prevalent throughout the book and concerns the issue of inclusion versus exclusion, of fitting in. The idea that life is not fair is a matter of perspective.
In this chapter, Ponyboy analyzes the Socs' lives through his own eyes, an outsider's perspective, which can only see and understand one view. After the Socs attack Pony, he thinks, "I had just as much right to use the streets as the Socs did, and Johnny had never hurt them. Why did the Socs hate us so much?"
Realistic family love. Family love and the intricate relationships that are forged therein is another theme touched on in Chapter 1. During adolescence, many people begin to examine their own roles in their family structures. Ponyboy's relationship with his two brothers symbolizes the traditional dual-parent relationship. Darry has taken over the role of the father, the disciplinarian and the rule maker; Ponyboy even notes a physical resemblance between his real father and Darry. Sodapop has become the nurturing mother; he always sticks up for Ponyboy and tries to explain Darry's love for him.
Also an issue within any family is an individual's own expectations of other family members. For example, in the novel, Darry wants Ponyboy to get all A's and expects nothing less. However, Ponyboy wants Darry to be supportive, regardless of the grades he receives.
Colors in a black and white world. This theme focuses on a teenager's tendency to see only the extremes of an issue, not the gray areas. This idea underscores many issues that affect an adolescent's life.
The third theme of colors in a black and white world is important in building the depth of the novel. Teens often see only two sides — black and white — of every issue. The author's use of colors not only helps the characters begin to see the middle range, but also enables the reader to discover the many layers in this book. Describing Dally, Hinton alludes to the color range: "The shade of difference that separates a greaser from a hood wasn't present in Dally."
Hinton descriptively stresses the colors of the characters' eyes, hair, and even clothing, as well as their environment. Generally, she associates warm colors with the Socs and cool colors with the greasers. Warmth usually is equated with inside and cool is associated with outside, and the colors reflect the characters' positions in society: The greasers view the Socs as insiders and themselves as outsiders.
The cool colors representative of Ponyboy's gang emphasize that they are continually forced to be outsiders looking in.
In Hinton's original descriptions of Ponyboy's gang, she uses primarily cool colors. Ponyboy's eyes are greenish-gray, Darry's eyes "are like two pieces of pale blue-green ice," Dally's hair "was almost white it was so blond" and his eyes are "blue, blazing ice, cold with a hatred," and Two-Bit Mathews has gray eyes. However, in describing Soda, she acknowledges that his hair color changes in the summertime. "He's got dark-gold hair that . . . in the summer the sun bleaches it to a shining wheat-gold." This description shows change, and the color combinations that are in the middle, not the extremes.
By giving readers such extreme details of hair and eye coloration, the author suggests that perhaps the greasers primarily see the world through a filter of chilling inequity.
A minor theme prevalent throughout Western literature and established here in Chapter 1 is the power of three. This is a dominant theme found in many fairy tales and much folklore, and thus it makes sense that it would also appear in the narration of a story told by a 14-year-old boy.
Hinton introduces the theme here with the three brothers. Together they have the strength to be a family and face the challenges that the world offers. Note that as the novel opens, Ponyboy, one of the three brothers, is alone and thus more vulnerable than if he were with his two brothers.
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