I never thought I would enjoy a novel like The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. All I could see when I looked at the cover and read the blurb was sameness. A story that would no doubt be exactly the same as like West Side Story. Now, although I love West Side Story I just couldn’t get it out of my head that The Outsiders just probably wasn’t worth reading simply because it would be the same. There would be gang fights, and some sort of forbidden romance which would only end in tears yadedahdedah. Oh so typical.
Well if I had a hat, I would eat it.
It took me a year to actually buy this book and read it, and now I wish I’d read it sooner. Yes there are similarities between a lot of other things like West Side Story and a little bit of Grease but this novel stands out on its own. It’s quite simply put awe-inspiring.
Knowing first and foremost that this book was written in the 60s by a 17-year-old girl did at first give me more doubt. How could someone not involved have any idea what she was talking about? Could a 17-year-old actually have enough maturity to write a novel like this and really would I find any relevance in the novel today? To these questions Hinton smashes it. Basing the two rival gangs of her book The Greasers and The Socials (Socs) on actual rival gangs of the same names that she watched clash during her high school years, Hinton was able to give this book credibility and realistic qualities. She may not have been part of the gangs she used an inspiration but she certainly seems to get the general gist of gang ‘warfare’ from what she potentially saw. Being 17 also didn’t stop her, and I should know better then thinking a teenager can’t pull off such a serious topic because Hinton, just can. And worrying about how accessible the book would be to me was just unfounded. It’s seemingly timeless. What Hinton explores in her book is, sadly just the same as what a lot of people, young people especially see and experience today.
Hinton creates the character of Ponyboy Curtis, a 14-year-old Greaser from the East Side who within about two pages of the beginning of the book is jumped by The Socs, a gang from the more blue-collared well-to-do West Side who drive around in their flashy cars jumping Greasers. All very typical stuff I would say for a novel about gangs. This sort of theme is the book, and it continues throughout; Socs jumping Greasers, Greasers retaliating, until one night a fatal stabbing of a Soc occurs forcing Ponyboy and the stabber Johnny another Greaser into hiding.
Up until this point in the novel we learn about how Ponyboy, the youngest Greaser comes to terms with being raised by primarily his oldest brother Darry whilst his middle brother Sodapop is the pendulum in the middle of the two’s turbulent relationship. Their parents having died in a car accident a short while before this book is set, give the appearance of a family who were almost broken by tragedy. Being six years older than Ponyboy Darry, must give up his dreams and desires to raise his younger brothers which leave him often seeming hard and uncaring. Through Ponyboy’s eyes we develop a feeling of hardness towards Darry as it seems he simply doesn’t seem to care about Ponyboy; grounding him, always nagging about his Greaser behaviour (although Darry himself is a Greaser) and staying out late. As an older reader it was all too clear to see how Darry’s care of Ponyboy is his way of showing how much he wants Ponyboy to have a life out of the East Side and how his inexperience at parenting and raising a child being only 20 impacts the way he and Ponyboy react to each other. Hinton’s development at such a young age of this brother-to-father relationship is one that astonishes me. We’ve all, as teenagers had problems with our parents nagging, being exasperated at us for not living up to our potential but we only really understand why our parents act like this as we get older. Hinton seems to have worked this out long before I ever did and she writes their relationship so well, that you can’t help but get caught up in how you felt when you were younger and your parent was nagging. This relationship is a perfect side-story to Ponyboy’s rapidly changing life in The Outsiders and provides heartbreak as well as happiness throughout.
One of the other things that I am probably going to go on for too long about is Hinton’s way of expressing how the divide between the two rivals; the Socs and the Greasers is only one of many problems and how each social group suffer. Using Ponyboy as a tool to deliver the realisation that although Greasers are financially worse off, they have no breaks and their lives are pretty much set in an unbreakable stone of poverty Socs have their own demons they have to fight. Being rich, although it’s quite clearly helpful doesn’t solve life’s many problems. Ponyboy’s original attitude of how unjust the system is changes with introductions to new characters such as Soc girl, Cherry Valance (no romance, woopie) and as he learns more about the Soc who is killed and other potentially typical Soc problems he learns that no one’s life is perfect. Nobody can control the accident of where they were born, and who they were born to. The Socs who fight The Greasers are almost as damaged by some social impacts as The Greasers are. Whilst Greasers are born into believing their will fail Socs are not allowed to. An unjust and unfair situation of what makes a person better. Hinton’s language and words are riveting during the course of this book.
As we learn to love each of The Greasers separately and begin to understand the meaning of friends who are also family we are drawn deeper into a world which cannot seemingly end happily. As we lose characters that we actually bond with there is a sort of realisation of a deeper meaning of how a life is significant not by what you achieve but the choices you make and the fear of doing what’s right versus what you’re being pressured into doing by someone else.
Hinton’s book is a masterpiece of peer pressure and teenage rebellion. And as you begin to figure out what is happening in the book, you are thrown one last twist at the end which leaves you smiling through tears.
In this book there is an important poem by Robert Frost which is constantly referred to. It’s lovely little poem and it really does define this book. So here it is: