Beyond Stereotypes: The Outsiders – Book Analysis

Book analyses are essays which closely and critically examine specific characters, relationships, topics or themes in a book.

Spoilers

Read my spoiler-free review of The Outsiders here.

Content warning: Mentions of classism, child neglect, child abuse, suicide.

The Outsiders is a complex insight into the class system that overlooks, devalues and scapegoats the working classes. It gives voices to the forgotten people that live on the fringes of society and are deemed unimportant. Ponyboy, Soda, Darry, Johnny and Dally are ostricised, stigmatised and labelled “white trash” or “scum” because of the communities they live in and their family backgrounds, both of which they have no control of. They’re villanised by their communities who see them only as caricatures based on their prejudices and societal stereotypes.

You greasers have a different set of values. You’re more emotional. We’re sophisticated-cool to the point of not feeling anything. Nothing is real with us.

In this story, Hinton humanises the people we have a tendency to dehumanise in our society. We can look at the actions of the characters in The Outsiders and say, “They’re terrible people that deserve to be locked up; they’ve lied, fought, killed, committed arson etc.”, but that’s an injustice to those characters because it fails to consider the context and context is always important. Ponyboy, Dally, Johnny, Soda, Darry and Two-Bit are young boys – children – who are impoverished, living in unsafe homes with volatile family units, absent or neglectful parents and communites that are plagued by substance abuse, crime and poverty. This does not justify the characters actions but it does humanise them and that’s important for so many reasons.

I could picture hundreds and 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 stars and ached for something better. I could see boys going under street lights because they were mean and tough and hated the world, and it was too late to tell them that there was still good in it, and they wouldn’t believe you if you did. It was too much of a problem to be just a personal thing.

In our society, we rely so much on boxes and categories and labels. We want everything and everyone to slot neatly into the binaries that we’ve created – male or female, black or white, gay or straight, good or bad, rich or poor – but none of these labels or binaries can ever fully capture the nuances of our lives or what makes us who we are. And that complexity of what it is to be human in a world that repeatedly forces us into various boxes and demands that we conform to those boxes or risk social isolation or loss of identity, is what Hinton achieved with this novel. She took a stigmatised group (young, white, poor males) and a stereotypical situation (crime, murder), and approached it from an angle that deconstructed these things to humanise the characters, without glossing over their awful actions.

Dally is a perfect example of this. He’s multi-layered. On the surface a stereotypical violent, criminal and self-serving jerk. But also a young kid that has lived an unstable life without parental guidance or care, who was forced to physically toughen up to survive in prison and was incredibly vulnerable. He valued self-preservation but was fiercely loyal and capable of selflessness and sacrifice for his friends. His relationship with Johnny encapsulated his vulnerability and reminded us how alone and unloved Dally is. Once Johnny was gone, he could no longer bear to live in the world. This fact alone demonstrates how devoid Dally’s life was of love and meaning, and his fate was heart breaking because of how young he actually was. His backstory and relationships with his friends doesn’t work as an excuse for the dark parts of Dally’s character but it did take him beyond the archetype of his character and deconstructed the stereotypes surrounding him, challenging even Ponyboy’s perception of Dally.

Dally didn’t die a hero. He died violent and young and desperate, just like we all knew he’d die someday.

Words hold so much weight and when we hear a word we immediately attach meaning to it. Labels and categories, in particular, can be very loaded words because they often come hand in hand with biases and prejudices. We categorise and label ourselves and others often based on surface-level information and those labels or categories come with a long history and very little context on an individual level. For example, we might assume that a person that has been to prison is morally corrupt, dangerous and perhaps “less than” someone that hasn’t been to prison. And in the moment when we are making that snap judgement, we fail to account for that person’s individual circumstance and identity beyond the “criminal” label. Once that label has been attached, we struggle to divorce our prejudices from the reality of context of what makes that person who they are, leading us to dehumanise them and perceive them as a living embodiment of that stereotype.

That’s why people don’t ever think to blame the Socs and are always ready to jump on us. We look hoody and they look decent. It could be just the other way around – half of the hoods I know are pretty decent guys underneath all that grease, and from what I’ve heard, a lot of Socs are just cold-blooded mean – but people usually go by looks.

For me, The Outsiders is about challenging these stereotypes. The novel goes beyond what it appears to be on the surface to provide social commentary on the norms and stereotypes that exist in our society and challenges them in a humanist way. It reminds us that despite our differences and the words, labels and categories we use to “other” each other and separate ourselves into subgroups, there’s an essential human connection between all of us, that we should always prioritise. This involves taking the time to focus less on our differences and more on our similarities, to challenge our prejudices and our judgements, to view people with openness, compassion and empathy and to account for the whole person beyond labels. The characters of The Outsiders represent the voices and lives of so many poor children that are abused or neglected, shunned and ostracised from society, that are derogatorily labelled before they’ve even reached adulthood and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ponyboy is the exception to that rule. He is the hope in the book, the one whose eyes are opened to this reality. He sees beyond the limits of his class to connect with Cherry and sees his brothers and friends as people, not just Socs or criminals. Ponyboy is the catalyst for the message about the importance of seeing beyond stereotypes to see the person and enables the reader to connect to that same message.

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.

Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.

The Outsiders – Book Review

✨ Spoiler Free ✨

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Author: S. E. Hinton
Genre: Classic
Publication year: 1967
Audience: 12+
Content warnings: Abuse, neglect, gang violence, bullying, criminal activity, major character death, arson, violence, murder, grief, suicide.

Synopsis

Set in the span of two weeks, The Outsiders, follows 14-year-old Ponyboy Curtis and his friends the “Greasers”. When a gang war breaks out between the “Greasers” and “Socs”, a series of tragic events follow.

What I liked

  • The social commentary
  • Fast paced plot
  • Character development
  • The friendships between the characters
  • The emotional stakes of the story

What I disliked

  • Nothing?

Plot and Structure

As stated in the synopsis, this book is set in a two week period and is structured chronologically. The plot can be best described as a gang war and friendship drama. The main character, Ponyboy and his friends, are part of the Greasers who are enemies with another gang, the Socs. After an altercation takes place between the Greasers and the Socs, a series of dramatic events unfolds with devastating consequences. The gangs are defined by social status and class with the Greasers coming from the working class and the Socs from the middle/upper classes. It’s a fast-paced, relentless plot which keeps building and building, creating high emotional stakes and multiple climaxes. Although I enjoyed the plot and it kept me invested in the overall story, it was the characters, friendships and social commentary which I loved the most.

Writing Style

Since S. E. Hinton was only a young teenager when she wrote this, the writing style is very simple and accessible. It’s a YA book and the writing style is accessible for all age groups and reading levels. I wasn’t in love with the writing style, but it was solid and in-keeping with the overall tone and plot of the story. It wasn’t very descriptive in nature but closely examined the characters’ thoughts and emotions, particularly of Ponyboy as the POV character. But despite the concise writing style, I felt that S. E. Hinton sprinkled in some wonderful quotes and metaphors which tugged on my heart strings. She was also able to convey the complexity of the class issues she was exploring in a beautiful and clear way. Considering just how multi-layered the themes were in this book, they were presented in a relatable and authentic way with little exposition.

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.

Characters and Relationships

The characters in this book stole my heart. Reading this for the first time as an adult enabled me to connect with the characters way more than I think I would’ve if I had read it as a teenager. I was able to put into context just how young these boys were and how awful the neglect, abuse and instability they were enduring was. I immediately felt a sense of love, protectiveness and empathy with these boys who were all lost in their own way and looking for a place to belong. I just wanted to give them a big hug!

Most of them are orphans or have absentee/neglectful parents, no positive adult role models and are school drop-outs (except Ponyboy). They’re living in an impoverished neighbourhood where there’s a lack of opportunity, high crime rates and on-going gang feuds. Although the characters are far from perfect, in many ways they’re victims of circumstance making them incredibly sympathetic. Perhaps the saddest part is that they’re aware that the lives they’re living were unfulfilling, miserable and toxic, but they don’t have the tools to break the cycle and choose a different path.

Each character is well-developed, authentic and has a different way of dealing with their situation. Darry sacrifices his own hopes and dreams to elevate those of his younger brothers (Ponyboy in particular); Soda masks his pain with his “free-spirit” attitude and optimism; Dally is apathetic and hardened to a world that he acknowledges is cruel and unfair; Johnny wants things to change but doesn’t know how to change things so goes along with it because the gang is all he has; and Ponyboy actively challenges their lifestyle and plans to escape by succeeding at school and moving out of the neighbourhood.

Ponyboy as a POV character was so insightful and relatable. Despite only being 14 years old, he has wisdom beyond his years and is able to reflect on situations from a fresh perspective. Where his brothers and friends are blinded by their prejudices, he tries to remain open-minded and optimistic even in the most hopeless of times. Seeing the world through his eyes was equal parts hopeful and heartbreaking. Ponyboy is the future and the potential for him to break the cycle feels close yet so far.

Dally, the typical “bad boy” archetype, had me rolling my eyes at the start. I’m not a fan of this archetype at all but S. E. Hinton exectued it so perfectly by creating a flawed, complex and sympathetic character. Dally being a “bad boy” is not just a mask to hide his vulnerability but part of who he is and a reflection of the philosophy he has developed as a result of the hardships he has faced. At no point is his behaviour or attitude justified, but we do get to see other sides to him and to understand his actions and motivations.

Obviously, it goes without saying that I loved the relationships every bit as much as the characters. They’re kids that have had it tough and deserve a chance, but to the rest of the world they’re delinquents and wasters. Nobody sees or hears these kids and nobody cares. It’s heartbreaking to see how little they matter in the wider world and how aware they are of that. For most of them, all they have to live for is each other. Since many concepts of masculinity are synonymous with detachment from emotion and a lack of intimacy with other males, I loved that the characters were sensitive, emotional and deeply connected to each other. These guys love each other and they might not always openly express it, but their devotion to each other is obvious from their actions. The loyalty, compassion and sacrifice that these guys make for each other made me cry…more than once! It’s a prime example of found family trope done right.

Concluding thoughts

The Outsiders both touched my heart and broke my heart. S. E. Hinton’s achievement in writng this at 17 years old cannot be understated. She captured the complexities of life in the wider context of class, inequality, violence and crime so vividly. It gets to the heart of what it is to be forgotten, side-lined and unloved, and through the stories of Ponyboy and the gang, reflects the lives of many young working class boys who are being left behind by society today. The complexity of the characters and their relationships with each other was palapable, and the heart and soul of the story. As the reader, you form a deep attachment to them because you see how little the world cares about them. Despite how short the book is, it’s so tragic, raw and honest that it makes for an unforgettable read and is one of my favourites. The characters will stay with me for the rest of my life and the injustice and the class inequalities that are explored resonated with me so deeply based on my personal experience and the work I do with disadvantaged young people.

I’d recommend The Outsiders if:

You’re looking for a short, face-paced modern YA classic which is full of drama, friendship and emotion, and explores complex themes surrounding social class and masculinity.

Have you read The Outsiders or are you planning to read it? Let me know in the comments!

Stay safe, my lovelies and keep reading.