Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Outsiders

Recently I read about some little kiddies at some local middle school putting on a production of The Outsiders, which gave me the impetus to check it out. Can't figure out why I hadn't read this book 15 years ago. Too much Baby Sitters Club and Nancy Drew, probably.
The Outsiders is juvenile fiction, written by S.E. Hinton in 1967, at the incredibly young age of 16. (people talk about Carson McCullers being young when she wrote Heart is a Lonely Hunter, but it looks like Hinton has her beat!) In the book the character Ponyboy retells his involvement with several rumbles and spats between his gang, the Greasers, and the Socs, who are the wealthier gang from the other side of town. In the retelling, Ponyboy's friend Johnny kills Bob, a Soc, and then Johnny himself dies from fire wounds. While Johnny is dying, the Outsiders fight in a rumble against the Socs and win. Ponyboy and many of the other characters reflect on death and question the sensibility of their gang involvement.
In the Outsiders Hinton says that all people are the same regardless of their background, appearance, or where they come from. Ponyboy strikes up an unlikely friendship with Cherry Valance, the girlfriend of Bob (who was killed) and the two discover that they both like to watch sunsets, and Cherry informs Ponyboy that "life is just as hard on the other side of the tracks" (Cherry lives in the wealthy part of town).
It is difficult to tell whether or not Hinton had an agenda in writing the book--ie in the same way that the moral of Go Ask Alice is "Don't do hallucinogenic drugs", is the moral of The Outsiders, "don't join a gang, no matter how badly you want to be a punk-ass piece of shit, dying on the street or watching your friends die it just isn't worth it"? There are some pretty telling lines that lead towards this conclusion: Bob's best friend Randy says "I am sick of rumbles because they don't do any good. You can't win." And Dally, an Outsider, says, "Sixteen years on the street, and you can learn a lot. But all the wrong things. not the things that you want to learn."
I am inclined to think, however, that Hinton's main objective was to write a beautiful story, which she has done. Although The Outsiders has some cheesy, overly sentimental lines, ie "that was the only time I saw him without that defeated, suspicious look in his eyes", and "maybe people are younger when they are sleeping", most of the writing is quite good, and she tries to give the characters depth by analyzing their domestic lives and how it has impacted the individual they have become. Also, towards the beginning of the book Johnny recites a poem by Robert Frost, and at the end he gives a clearer interpretation of the poem to Ponyboy in a letter. From this, Hinton demonstrates that she is more focused on beauty and not on an agenda.
Hinton has a very clever ending to the book, where Ponyboy is given an assignment to write a theme, and so reveals that the entire book is the theme that he turns into his English teacher. However, I think that writing The Outsiders in first person limited the development of certain characters. For example, we never really know what motivated Dally to surrender to the police and be shot. Ponyboy leads us to think that it was grief over Johnny's death, but then this leads to the question, why was Johnny so significant to Dally? Additionally, what led Cherry, a popular wealthy girl, to say that her life was difficult? We will never know, and will have to eternally remain the dark about these issues. Had Hinton written the book in third person, she might have been able to reveal the reality of these characters and their circumstances, and also have better achieved her objective of demonstrating the similarities between people regardless of their status and background.

Now I am really looking forward to seeing the movie, directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Look at those guys. It brings you back. Which brat pack movie have you most recently seen?
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