Thoughts on S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders...
as part of my graduate coursework in Young Adult Literature.
as part of my graduate coursework in Young Adult Literature.
I wish that I could remove myself from this text, to react in a way that feels fresh, but the truth is I saw the movie a dozen times before I ever read the book, and I've read the book (at least in the context of teaching it to students) roughly 18 times. I read it two times before I became a teacher, once just to read it and once in my Adolescent Lit class as an undergrad at MTSU. So, my reaction to this reading is a mixture of what I've learned and have come to love about it as a teacher.
The novel is framed, quite literally, with exposition about this group of brothers and friends who call themselves "greasers" and get beat up by the rich "Soc" kids from the other side of town. This all, of course, is seen through the eyes of Ponyboy Curtis, a literary figure by this point who becomes, at least for those who read this in middle schools across the country, the first narrator to get under their skin as adolescents and offer them something real to feel. He is a teaching tool, a cautionary tale, a lesson in unreliable narrators, very obviously so..."I lie to myself all the time. But I never believe me" (18). He is an embodiment of teen angst and confusion, the first big one, it would turn out, this side of Holden Caulfield.
But the truth and beauty in this novel is not in the exposition of the first and last chapters, both of which were wisely cut (and brought back again later in "The Complete Novel" version) by film director Francis Ford Coppola, whose original 1983 film version clearly focuses on Johnny and Dally. This, to me, was a smart movie because I've come to see this novel being more about these two tragic figures than about its hero. The story of Ponyboy and his relationships with his actual brothers gets sidelined by the on-the-run plot with his other two brothers, two of three young men who die tragically in this especially sad, if also beautiful, novel.
The other theme is "staying gold" itself, in coming to learn what tragedy there is in following a life of violence and crime. This, of course, coming through the allusion to and discussion of Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay." Ponyboy and Johnny indeed wrestle with its meaning from that point forward, and we, as readers, have to come to terms with other themes within it: the loss of innocence, the fragility of life, the reality of death, the purity of youth. And when Johnny offers Ponyboy that five words of advice on his deathbed, it comes only after Dally, having raved about winning the big rumble with the Socs, gets Johnny's first words: "Useless...fighting's no good..." (148). And this becomes what we focus on and what still takes Ponyboy awhile to figure out. The death scene treats him and us as if we aren't even there. We, like, Ponyboy can only watch as the rest unfolds, the world around us shattering. This is a moment, really, between Johnny and Dally, as evidence by Dally's explosive exit from the hospital room and the novel's ultimate tragedy, the police gunning down a troubled young man in the street, a constant image that still shocks us today, for real.
The inherent flaws we, as adult readers, see in this novel, including the heavy exposition early on (that is actually quite nicely written...see: the description of Sodapop in Chapter 1), the perfect plot structure, and the neat and tidy allusions, are in some way what makes this novel so perfect as a teaching tool. This is a novel, written by a 16-year-old girl, that is indeed literary. It contains a truly clear way of seeing how literary elements work. That is an achievement in itself. Then, there is the depth of feeling such a raw tragedy gives to young readers.
At the very end, when Johnny breaks down the meaning of the Frost poem for Ponyboy in that letter nestled in the pages of Gone with the Wind, we get Ponyboy's narration, juxtaposing Johnny's ability to see you and hear you, and Dally's inability or unwillingness to do the same (178-9). We come to realize what this book does for us. It helps us see the differences within and among our friend groups, it reminds us that yearbook sentiments like "stay cool" or "always be you" are valid and meaningful, and it reminds us, the young and the old, that we should always strive to hold onto the goodness with in us.
It's a powerful piece of literature, and one of my top five favorite novels of all-time. I am blessed to discuss it with 8th graders every single year. I will continue to in some way as long as I can.
"Books for adolescents are subversive--but sometimes only superficially so" (ix).
When I think about the placement of The Outsiders in the history of YA Lit, it seems to really be the one that started it all, or it is at least riding the line between the beginning and the new wave, which has been booming over the past several decades. During the history presentation, I first noted that I supposed YA Lit came from a need for teaching tools more in tune, content-wise, with a younger or even a reluctant reader. There is a need for connection and, quite frankly, young people don't often connect with "the Classics," which is what I was taught in middle and high school. I honestly don't think I was assigned or even offered the choice to read contemporary YA once.
The Outsiders, however, is one of those "classics" that works as YA as we still know it now. It is for a teen by a teen, and that's where Trite's notion of "superficiality" sticks. Reading Hinton's novel is to be in the mind of a teenager, who has clearly learned traditional plot structure (I'm thinking of that map of a plot that looks like a witch's hat that we don't really teach much anymore...) and how to mirror themes through literary allusions (which we do very much teach...a lot!). To a seasoned reader, the novel is almost boringly predictable. You can feel its superficial teaching moments coming from a mile away. However, these are the things that make this a middle school kid's favorite book. It is teachable. I spend a good deal of time on Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay" as we work our way through the novel's second half. We do a silent discussion where students can only note ideas on meaning in relation to the novel. It is highly engaging and effective in introducing the novel's themes that will play out to the end. The ease of its teaching of lessons is firmly rooted in YA history and conducive to the classroom. It is subversive, dealing with tough issues of isolation, violence, and death. It is "didactic" (ix) in the best of ways. This is how it has stood the test of time.
"Without experiencing gradations between power and powerlessness, the adolescent cannot grow" (x).
The Outsiders feels like the perfect candidate for a Marxist lens, a discussion of class struggle and the injustices of inequality. I hear Johnny pleading, "I can't take much more...I'll kill myself or something...It seems like there's gotta be someplace without greasers or Socs, with just people, plain ordinary people" (Hinton 47-8). Ponyboy, through separate conversations with Johnny, Cherry Valance, and, later, Randy, learns a great deal about his place in a world that is unfair, questioning power divides, noticing group dynamics (like "rumbles" and "beer blasts") and how the wealthy on the other side of town are given a pass, while the kids from his neighborhood end up in "the reformatory." Ponyboy's growth stems directly from this divide between power and powerlessness. My students and I discuss stereotypes and inequality at great length, especially in dealing with the early parts of the novel.
"Death serves as a particularly intricate example of how power is deployed in YA novels...death affects the form as well as the function of many novels marketed to teenagers" (xiii).
I discussed the deathbed scene at great length earlier. The three boys who die in this novel, die at perfectly appropriate places (form) to propel and teach the reader about plot itself, the finality of loss, and the idea that death can sometimes set the powerless free (functions). This past fall, we talked about the idea of facing adversity in a comparison between the death of Johnny and the death of Dally. What caused, or led to, their deaths? What do we learn, through Ponyboy, about them from those causes? My kids had a great deal to say about the pasts of both Johnny and Dally and their general attitudes about life, and how their deaths held different meanings. In my notes from the end of the history presentation, I wrote "We use books to learn to read and to eventually read to learn. We also read for fun." Through its tragedies, S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders remains all of these things: a tool for teaching, a tool for learning, and an incredibly fun, if emotional, read. I never get tired of it.