Plain Ordinary People: On Finally Reading The Outsiders

One way I disappointed students was not reading one of their favorite books. This was certainly not the only way I disappointed students, but not having read S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders was at the top of the list from the beginning of my teaching career. This proved to be particularly disappointing to one student who I taught for two years and thought that by the second time she was in my class, I surely should have read it and by not doing so I was not only neglecting my duties as an educator, but also personally letting everyone down. 

I promised her some thoughts on it. It’s only taken about a decade. I’m interested in hearing about what the book means and has meant to her.

Overall, it felt like a book that I would have liked more when I was younger, but I was much more interested in Stephen King or Clive Barker. Though I remember the movie, I was too busy watching stuff like ET or The Thing

I also wonder how many kids still relate to the characters, not because they don’t have the same feelings or financial difficulties, but the technological landscape resembles nothing like this. Maybe the YA novels that deal with addictions are similar, but maybe The Outsiders isn’t gritty enough to stand up to these? (And see Ponyboy’s “American Dream” below. How do his dreams match up with today’s kids and their dreams?) I’m not saying kids couldn’t relate to the novel, but I’d be interested in how they relate to it.

This is Hinton’s first novel and she wrote it when she was fifteen. It’s quite an achievement considering the depth she gives some of the characters. Despite their flaws, it’s not difficult to care about the characters. There are hints that the “villains” also have tribulations. I was thinking of similar first novels I like better, but I don’t think any of them were written at the age of fifteen: The Bell Jar, The Neon Bible, Wiseblood. I also read it as a book from the other side of the tracks Ellis’s Less Than Zero–Rodeo Romantics versus Nightclub Nihilists. 

I found the absence of women and the feminine interesting. For one, femininity doesn’t belong with the outsiders and their codes and either notion of being “tough” as described in the book. But I think this plays into the characters’ lack of parental supervision and care in some cases, especially Ponyboy’s loss of his mother. In a quote below, He calls her “golden”–a descriptor in the book, associated with Frosts’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and related to innocence and idealism in the novel. I believe the lack of women in the novel makes sense, but I really wanted more scenes with Cherry Valance. 

Below are some quotes I like with bits of commentary.

“It seems like there’s gotta be someplace without greasers or Socs, with just people. Plain ordinary people.”

I can relate to Ponyboy here, of course, in an interpretation writers would argue about who or what are “ordinary people” and about who gets to decide what is “ordinary.” For Ponyboy, I think the “plain ordinary people” relates to having his family back together out in a house in the country as quoted below.

His dreams, with the exception of wanting his parents and family back together, are essentially American pastoral: farms and horses, cakes and cattle.

“I wanted to be out of towns and away from excitement. I only wanted to lie on my back under a tree and read a book or draw a picture, and not worry about being jumped or carrying a blade or ending up married to some scatterbrained broad with no sense. The country would be like that, I thought dreamily. I would have a yellow cur dog, like I used to, and Sodapop could get Mickey Mouse back and ride in all the rodeos he wanted to, and Darry would lose that cold, hard look and be like he used to be, eight months ago, before Mom and Dad were killed. Since I was dreaming I brought Mom and Dad back to life…Mom could bake some more chocolate cakes and Dad would drive the pickup out early to feed the cattle. […] My mother was golden and beautiful…(48)”

I believe this was said by Johnny:

“There sure is a lot of blood in people.” (74)

Most parents can probably relate to Ponyboy’s idea below and I think it plays into these boys having to nurture each other. Small moments like this show that the guys are more than troublemakers. I remember holding my children until they fell asleep and then watching them in their cribs. I still look at them in bed at night and in the morning. It’s hard not to make that connection to when they were babies. The quote resonated with me and the idea of these kids trying to nurture each other in ways acceptable to their codes, but at the same time, it shows that they are still children in difficult situations fending for themselves.

“Asleep, he looked a lot younger than going-on-seventeen, but I had noticed that Johnny looked younger when he was asleep, too, so I figured everyone did. Maybe people are younger when they are asleep.” (104)

I like this next passage. And Ponyboy, you’d have it made today with the e-cigarette craze. I thought kids were wearing cologne that smelled like Fruit Loops and Yoohoo, but it turns out they’re just vaping in the bathroom. 

“All three of us like chocolate cake for breakfast. Mom had never allowed it with ham and eggs, but Darry let Soda and me talk him into it. We really didn’t have to twist his arm; Darry loves chocolate cake as much as we do. Sodapop always makes sure there’s some in the icebox every night and if there isn’t he cooks up one real quick. I like Darry’s cakes better; Sodapop always puts too much sugar in the icing. I don’t see how he stands jelly and eggs and chocolate cake all at once, but he seems to like it. Darry drinks black coffee, and Sodapop and I drink chocolate milk. We could have coffee if we wanted it, but we like chocolate milk. All three of us like chocolate stuff. Soda says if they ever make a chocolate cigarette I’ll have it made.” (104-5)

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