Greasers and Socs Duke It Out: The Outsiders

theoutsidersI’m not sure who recommended S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders too me, but a quick Google search reveals that this book is frequently taught in middle and high schools across North America. After reading it, it is quite easy to see why this is so. The novel features two rival youth gangs, the greasers (lower class and socially marginalized kids) and the Socs (the upper-class kids who jump greasers for fun) and the battle that ensues because of the brutal beating of Johnny, one of  Ponyboy Curtis’s gang members. The novel touches on a number of different themes from violence, gang membership, difficult family situations, and class politics. The Outsiders follows a modified hero’s quest formula with Ponyboy, the protagonist, coming through adversity to discover some new self-knowledge. While I stayed up quite late finishing this book, I am not sure how I feel about it.

On the one hand, The Outsiders presents a shallow depiction of class and character with the distinctions between greasers and Socs not really fully developed beyond a case of one side is poor, the other is not. Hinton hints at deeper social issues but does not really explore them in any depth. Then again, she wrote most of this novel while she was 15 and had it published by the time she was 18. Expecting a deep social analysis might be asking too much of the book. However, given that the centre of narrative tension lies in the perceived unfairness of the greasers’ being forced to work for a living and the Socs getting everything on a plate, the failure to speak to class politics seems like a letdown. I guess I found the ending a little too contrived and unsatisfactory. *Spoiler alert* After reading Johnny’s note to him and reflecting on Johnny’s death, Ponyboy decides to write the novel that we have just read as part of an English assignment. While this ending creates a convenient Mobius strip effect, sending readers right back to the start of the narrative, I found it left something to be desired. After all of Ponyboy’s travails, he is content to just play the system and try to get ahead through hard-work and the eventual absorption into the middle class (which remains largely on the peripheries of this novel).

On the other hand, The Outsiders is a great book for young readers. In some ways, I reveled in the simplicity of the narrative, the lack of deep analysis and heavy sophistication. There is something refreshing about this book that stopped my pseudo-Marxist literary analysis from coming into play until I wrote this review. The Outsiders ticks many of the boxes for a high-school English course and I’m certain that I would have loved it had I read it back then. It is an anti-hero story of losers that works and has aged remarkably well unlike say Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower which suffers from too many cultural references and a faulty narrative structure.

So, if read as a young adult novel, The Outsiders is a good read. If you look for more depth, you might be surprised at the shallowness you find.

I would recommend this book to readers looking for a classic young adult read that sparked the YA genre into existence.

Hinton, S.E. The Outsiders. 1967.  Toronto: Viking Press, 2007. Print.

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