This post contains spoilers for The Outsiders. I know it’s been quite a few years since it was published, but I figured I’d post a warning.
I first read The Outsiders when I was in the seventh grade. And I hated it. I thought it was the worst piece of literature that I had ever read. I remember talking to my mother about it, being so upset about the fact that these boys seemed to not have a choice. How could someone write something so terrible?
I’ve read it again recently and I have an entirely different opinion of the book. I think I finally understand. As a twelve-year-old, I thought myself wiser than the fourteen-year-old protagonist. But I didn’t recognize the socio-economic factors at play or the fact that the boys didn’t really have parental supervision. I didn’t spend time thinking about the culture that they had grown up in. And most of all, I realized that I dwelled on something that was so close to the theme of the book but at the same time the opposite.
When I was twelve, I thought that these boys had no choice and the book was showing that we have no choices. But that’s not the point. At the end of the novel, Johnny tells our protagonist, Ponyboy, to “stay golden.” This is in reference to a poem that Ponyboy shares with Johnny earlier in the novel:
Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
The entire point of the book is that you can choose your own path, that you can choose to be better, to break free of what you’ve been born into. The entire book is about choices! Dally is a character who is about as bad as they come. He’s mean and rude and as “tuff” as any of the worst greasers. Ponyboy is convinced that he doesn’t love anyone. But he loves Johnny. And Johnny wants him to be better. Instead, when faced with Johnny’s death, Dally chooses to go out as a greaser, to steal something with the intention of getting shot down. He chooses that for himself.
Meanwhile, Ponyboy chooses to focus on school, to be better than what he could be. He realizes that he doesn’t like fighting, never has, and that he can change. In the narrative, it’s suggested that he writes the entire narrative trying to show how important it is to him, how he’s changed, and yet how he’s stayed the same.
He’s still the same kid who loves sunsets and watching movies. He’s still the same kid who would run into a burning church to save the kids trapped inside. For everything that he’s been through, he doesn’t let it toughen him up or make him bitter. He chooses to stay golden.
I think alongside the theme that there is always a choice, there is also the theme of enduring adversity and growing from it. For as much as Ponyboy hates his brother at the end, he comes to realize that Darry is just doing the best he can with what he has. That despite the fact that he’s had to give up on his own college education, he still works hard and really loves his brothers. By the end of the book, Ponyboy realizes that he has more in common with his older brother than he previously thought.
I can honestly say that I like this book now. I understand it’s purpose and where it’s coming from. It still makes me sick to think that there really are kids out there who live these kinds of lives, but that just makes it all the more important to talk about these issues. Twelve might be a bit young but I do think that it’s an important read in the young adult literature arsenal. I also think it has some very important morals that are crucial for today. Even in the midst of adversity, strife, polarization, and so many sides fighting against each other, we need to remember that we’re all human. Whether we are the greasers or the socs. We all have choices to make, and we can choose to stay golden.