Becoming Well-Read: The Outsiders

“Becoming Well-Read” is a recurring column about finally reading cultural classics you’ve never gotten around to before.

Ashley: I recently read Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl (not included in my quest to become well-read, but highly enjoyable nonetheless). There’s a whole plot point in Fangirl about S.E. Hinton’s young adult classic, The Outsiders. Rowell’s main character, Cath, chides her friend, Levi, for not being able to read such a slim novel for class on his own. At first, of course, she tells him to watch the movie, but he claims teachers always know when you’ve watched the movie. (That’s because movies are always worse!) Eventually, Cath reads the whole book to Levi as they cuddle on her bed.

There were probably metaphorical ties between Fangirl and The Outsiders (maybe? I assume?) that I missed as Cath read about Ponyboy, because I’ve never bothered to read Hinton’s work (or watch the movie), either. Which is fairly strange, considering my affinity for young adult literature. (All the hot YA books get written up by me for a reason. I'm wearing a Katniss shirt in my company photo!) 

Young adult literature often likes to make tons of blatant references to books you were supposed to read in school, a message about the importance of reading, a thematic shortcut, an easily meme-able in-joke. I know exactly what it’s doing, and yet it’s still an effective tactic when I’m not in on the reference. It’s no fun being an outsider. I can only assume that’s what The Outsiders is about.

But I’m done with assuming. Because you know what they say happens when you assume stuff. And if you don’t, well … That’s too bad. Let’s just see the lasting legacy The Outsiders has on the young adult genre, alright?

What I Think It’s About: Well, I mean, Cath and Levi failed to give some spoiler warnings about the context in which “stay gold, Ponyboy” is said, though I have no idea why a character is named “Ponyboy” or what he’s up to. It just goes to show that you were supposed to read this novel long ago and understand that that line is a reference to a Robert Frost poem. (Seriously, how deep does this reference game go?)

What It’s Actually About: Ponyboy (spoilers: that is his real name and I’m still confused about it) is a Greaser, a working-class gang, sort of like in the musical Grease, but without all the fun dancing and singing and a lot more slugging each other in the face. Along with his brothers Darry (fairly normal name) and Sodapop (okay), Ponyboy gets embroiled in class-based gang warfare with the middle-class Socs against his will, with heartbreaking results.

Why You Should Read It Right Now: In the world of young adult literature, where keeping up with the cool kid’s lingo is harder than staying on top of how they use all these newfangled tech contraptions, it’s always interesting to see what books continue to speak to new generations of both the young and the old. This year, The Outsiders celebrated its 50th anniversary, a tangible benchmark to its lasting cultural impact.

S.E. Hinton’s novel certainly shows its age — it’s written and set in the 1960s — but it proudly stands up against the test of time. Though I could make fun of Ponyboy and Sodapop’s names for several paragraphs (I get it! Names are metaphors! And a demarcation of social class! Still, come on!), I got a bit choked up reading this story about male friendships that couldn’t be protected from the ugliness of social class struggle. Inequality has only grown in America since the 1960s, so the message about the tragedies that happen if you don’t tear down the walls between “Us” and “Them” still rings true.

Like much of YA literature, defined by stories taking up a liminal space between the blatant moralistic fairytales of children’s stories and the convoluted mess of adult misdeeds and morality, The Outsiders can sometimes feel heavy-handed with its message and the grittiness of its tale (there’s a fairly high body count for what borders on being a novella). It generally keeps the innocent postulating about the nature of unfounded hatred well-balanced with the grimness of living in an impoverished community, just trying to stay afloat and stand your ground. The Outsiders offers no simple solutions to these problems.

It’s not all fatalism in this story, though. There are some moments where Greasers and Socs come to an understanding, and each of those moments has its own reward. And even more refreshing is the display of empathetic masculine friendship among the Greasers themselves, from Ponyboy and Johnny, the two more innocent members of the gang who get tangled up in some of the worst violence, protected by the others, notably Ponyboy’s oldest brother Darry and the stereotypical bad boy with a heart of gold, Dallas.

It may be tempting to watch the star-studded and beloved movie version of The Outsiders, but the book really lets you into Ponyboy’s head about his hopes, dreams, and his distressing reality. While I definitely teared up at times, there were also moments of humor and bonding over sunrises and sunsets that made me grin like a doofus while reading. I’d share my favorite moment, but then it would ruin the impact when you get to it in the story, which you should start right now

P.S. Or maybe you should read Gone with the Wind first? This reference game goes deep: Johnny and Ponyboy frequently discuss the gentlemanly image found in that classic. Which I also haven’t read. Crap. Next column, perhaps?

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