Socs vs Greasers in S. E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders”

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Myra here.

I learned about this book sometime last year when we featured Oddballs and Misfits.  

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While it does portray predominantly White characters, I still consider this as part of our Multicultural theme as it talks about the disadvantaged, the silenced, the outliers, those who are perceived to be in the fringes of the community. As I was wondering about this more, I was struck by the last two pages of the book, as Ponyboy was reflecting about why it was important for him to tell his story, for his silence to finally be broken:

I could picture hundreds and hundreds of boys living on the wrong sides of cities, boys with black eyes who jumped at their own shadows. Hundreds of boys who maybe watched sunsets and looked at stars and ached for something better.

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I could see boys going down under street lights because they were mean and tough and hated the world, and it was too late to tell the that there was still good in it, and they wouldn’t believe you if you did. It was too vast a problem to be just a personal thing. There should be some help, someone should telll them before it was too late. Someone should tell their side of the story, and maybe people would understand then and wouldn’t be so quick to judge a boy by the amount of hair oil he wore. (pp. 127-128)

A Book’s Voice. One of the things that struck me about this novel is that it has its own distinctive voice. I can hear the narrator, Ponyboy, speaking to me as if he is just right beside me, telling me his story. The language clearly demonstrates that this book is from another place, another time, a different community.

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At the same time that it invites you in, it also serves to make you feel that you are forever an outsider, listening in to their travails, their concerns, their anxieties. It is Ponyboy and his friends’ universe, that much is clear. The reader can only sigh in anticipation, cry in commiseration, or be apprehensive for the choices that they make.

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Of Sunsets and Rumbles. The story revolves around the seemingly-neverending struggle between the haves and the have-nots, the “White trash” versus the  “Trust-fund Spoiled Brats” from the other side of the city. Or in Ponyboy’s language – the socs versus the greasers:

We get jumped by the Socs. I’m not sure how you spell it, but it’s the abbreviation for the Socials, the jet set, the West-side rich kids. It’s like the term ‘greaser,’ which is used to class all us boys on the East Side.

We’re poorer than the Socs and the middle class. I reckon we’re wilder, too. (p. 8)

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Ponyboy and Cherry Valance, a Soc girl.

They frequently get into skirmishes, mostly because the poorer kids get ‘jumped’ or bullied by the wealthier ones who seem to have nothing better to do with their time. The teenage Ponyboy, who happens to be a reader, often wonders about the injustice of it all – especially after he gets jumped for absolutely no reason at all. The sense of unfairness became even more keenly felt when he and his friends (who are like family to him) met some Soc girls who turned out to be pretty nice, decent, and interesting.

With this tenuous connection, Ponyboy realizes that despite their seemingly different worlds, they are pretty much the same:

It seemed funny to me that the sunset she saw from her patio and the one I saw from the back steps was the same one. Maybe the two different worlds we lived in weren’t so different. We saw the same sunset. (p. 34)

Nothing Gold Can Stay. This realization, however, was shortlived. An accidental murder (if ever there was one), a dead body, and two unlikely fugitives would attest to this. As Ponyboy and his friend Johnny ran away from the crime scene and camped out in a faraway church in the country, I was struck by Ponyboy’s recollection of Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold can Stay” as they were watching the dawn and the sun rise out of the clouds, touched with gold.

Teenage fugitives Ponyboy and Johnny camping out at the church.

Teenage fugitives Ponyboy and Johnny camping out at the church.

I took a photo of the poem as found on the internet and edited it using an iPhone app.

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Ponyboy has memorized the poem but acknowledges that he does not really understand what it means:

‘…He meant more to it than I’m gettin’ though,’ I was trying to find the meaning the poet had in mind, but it eluded me. ‘I always remembered it because I never quite got what he meant by it.’ (p. 59)

The novel was heartbreaking. I found myself reading it nonstop even after teaching a three hour evening class, unable to put it down to rest and sleep, tears flowing down my cheeks as I finished reading the last few pages. My heart went out to Ponyboy’s oldest brother, Darry, forced to fend for his younger brothers with the death of their parents. He chose to be responsible for Sodapop and Ponyboy, even at the expense of his own dreams.

The Curtis Brothers: Patrick Swayze as Darrel, C Thomas Howell as Ponyboy, and Rob Lowe as the handsome Sodapop.

The Curtis Brothers: Patrick Swayze as Darry, C Thomas Howell as Ponyboy, and Rob Lowe as the handsome Sodapop.

As Ponyboy feelingly stated:

It wasn’t fair for the Socs to have everything. We were as good as they were; it wasn’t our fault we were greasers. (p. 39)

There is bitterness and bile, but there is also hope and redemption: more for others, none for a few who were beyond it like Dallas Winston who was hardened by time, toughened by circumstance. It is a story that needed to be told, as it challenges the invisible boundaries that young people often create – barriers that are immutable and semi-sacrosanct by virtue of its invisibility and its being largely unspoken. What is even more damaging is is if we allow these barriers to define us. Oh the tangled webs we weave, indeed; and the spectres we create for the fun of it, until the comic becomes tragic.

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Teacher Resources. For teachers who wish to use this in their classroom, here is a comprehensive 59-paged pdf lesson plan for 8th graders created by ubc-library that includes activity sheets, assessment plans, and discussion questions. Pearson Education has also created a detailed Teachers’ Booklet with differentiated activities and assessment tasks for each chapter.

The Outcast. As I was creating this review, I have not yet seen the film version of the book; some of the scenes can be seen by the images I shared here from the movie. While typing, the song “Outcast” was playing on my iPod, the version done by Glee. I thought it was a pretty apt song for this novel. Allow me to share the Glee version with you here as found in Youtube. Enjoy, dear friends.

The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton. Published by Macmillan Books, 1967. Book borrowed from the NIE Library.

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Reading Challenge Update: 42 (35)

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8 Comments on Socs vs Greasers in S. E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders”

  1. What a beautiful, well-written, and insightful review! I will definitely check it out!

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  2. I’ve read this so many times, Myra, & taught it, & made sure my students have read it. It is a treasure, hard to believe her story of writing it. I’m thrilled you liked it too.

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  3. I read this book when I was younger than Ponyboy. I didn’t know it was a school text now!

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  4. Emma Nicholson // March 14, 2014 at 10:04 am // Reply

    My writing tutor introduced me to this some years back and I read it regularly, revel in the writing, and sob at various points too. Thanks for a v interesting article, Myra. I shall read it again soon….

    Like

  5. What a fantastic review of one of my favourite books. Watch the movie, but be prepared for large chunks of it to be missing.

    Like

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