Johnny Cade is "the gang's pet." The novel describes Johnny as a "lost puppy" and a "puppy that has been kicked too many times." He is only 16 years old, but has already been beaten down by the cruelty of life. Johnny had been severely beaten by a group of Socs before this story begins. This beating puts him almost over the edge; in fact, the Socs scared him so much that he even carries a switchblade in his pocket. Johnny vows that, "He would kill the next person who jumped him."
His parents abuse him both physically and verbally, and Johnny often opts to go anywhere but home. The theme of family love is clarified by Johnny many times, because his eyes have seen what family love isn't. Ponyboy tells the readers, "If it hadn't been for the gang, Johnny would never have known what love and affection are."
Johnny idolizes gang member Dallas Winston. Dally is living proof that one can survive without parents or family. Johnny needs to follow in the footsteps of someone in his life and Dally, his hero, is the one he chooses.
The relationship between these two boys is very interdependent. Just before Johnny dies, his relationship with Dally is clarified when Dally tells Johnny that he is proud of him: "Johnny's eyes glowed. Dally was proud of him. That was all Johnny had ever wanted." And Dally needs Johnny as much as Johnny needs Dally. Ponyboy realizes this truth after Johnny's death. When he tries to make sense of Dally's reaction to Johnny's death, it dawns on him, "Johnny was the only thing that Dally loved."