Southern Themes in The Outsiders

S.E. Hinton published The Outsiders in 1967 at the age of eighteen. It’s a coming of age story that is widely read within schools and takes place in Oklahoma in 1965. The novel focuses on two rival groups, the Greasers and Socs, who are divided by their social status.

The Greasers are described as wilder, having longer hair, and being poorer than the Socs and the middle class. Ponyboy Curtis, the main character and a Greaser himself, describes his group as “almost like hoods; we steal things and drive old souped-up cars and hold up gas stations and have a gang fight once in a while. I don’t mean I do things like that… I only mean that most greasers do things like that, just like we wear our hair long and dress in blue jeans and T-shirts, or leave our shirttails out and wear leather jackets and tennis shoes or boots.” In a general sense, the Greasers are a lot like southerners, who go against the grain and are less conforming. Would a backwoods moonshiner really be so different from a greasy hood?

The Socs (short for Socials) are more like northerners and are described as the jet-set, West-side rich kids. According the Ponyboy, Socs “jump greasers and wreck houses and throw beer blasts for kicks, and get editorials in the paper for being a public disgrace one day and an asset to society the next…And you can’t win against them no matter how hard you try, because they’ve got all the breaks and even whipping them isn’t going to change that fact.”

Cherry Valance, a female Soc that Ponyboy befriends, states that Socs are also socially different than Greasers:  “It’s not just money. Part of it is, but not all. You greasers have a different set of values. You’re more emotional. We’re sophisticated— cool to the point of not feeling anything. Nothing is real with us.” This is similar to the way that W.J. Cash stated that the southerner sees “with essentially naive, direct, and personal eyes.”

Greasers are also a lot like southerners in that both take pride in being rugged. A constantly recurring theme within the novel are the perceptions of “tuffness.” Ponyboy describes this by saying: “Tough and tuff are two different words. Tough is the same as rough; tuff means cool, sharp— like a tuff-looking Mustang or a tuff record. In our neighborhood both are compliments.”

By far the “tuffest” character in The Outsiders is Dallas Winston. Nicknamed “Dally,” he was arrested at the age of ten, had spent three years on the wild side of New York, and blew off steam in gang fights. Dally loved to rumble, lived in a bar that constantly played Hank Williams, and was intensely loyal to his friends. This archetype is much like the typical southerner that W.J. Cash described, whose goal was “To stand on his head in a bar, to toss down a pint of raw whisky at a gulp, to fiddle and dance all night, to bite off the nose or gouge out the eye of a favorite enemy, to fight harder and love harder than the next man, to be known eventually far and wide as a hell of a fellow.”

Although Greasers in general loved fighting, they were not the healthiest or most well built individuals. Ponyboy described his group physically by saying: “Most greasers don’t have real tuff builds or anything. They’re mostly lean and kind of panther-looking in a slouchy way. This is partly because they don’t eat much and partly because they’re slouchy.” That picture is similar to W.J. Cash’s portrayal of poor southern whites, which he described as having “a distinctive physical character — a striking lankness of frame and slackness of muscle in association with a shambling gait, a boniness and misshapliness of head and feature, a peculiar sallow swartness…”

Ponyboy also explained that many Greasers were considered simple, unintelligent brawlers: “l doubt if half of them can read a newspaper or spell much more than their names, and it comes out in their speech…I knew Shepard’s gang were used to fighting with anything they could get their hands on— bicycle chains, blades, pop bottles, pieces of pipe, pool sticks, or sometimes even heaters.” This is almost identical to W.J. Cash’s southerner that “ran spontaneous and unpremeditated foot-races, wrestled, drank gargantuan quantities of raw whisky, let off wild yells, and hunted the possum…because of a primitive and naive zest for the pursuit in hand.” Other authors, like Elliot Gorn, have written about “rough and tumble” fighting, where poor men in the backwoods often gouged, scratched, and bit during fights over honor.

The largest theme that connects The Outsiders to the south is Gone With the Wind. Ponyboy and Johnny begin reading the book together when they were on the run. The two had to go on the lamb because Johnny killed a Soc while defending Ponyboy from an attack (again, similar to how southerners are quick to fight and defend their honor). Reading the book forms a stronger bond between the friends, and Johnny was “especially stuck on the Southern gentlemen– impressed with their manners and charm.”

After hiding out in an abandoned church together for days, reading Gone With the Wind, Ponyboy stated that: “I had almost decided that I had dreamed the outside world and there was nothing real but baloney sandwiches and the Civil War and the old church and the mist in the valley. It seemed to me that I had always lived in the church, or maybe lived during the Civil War and had somehow got transplanted.” The boys had identified with the book so much that it became a part of their reality.

The last part of Gone With the Wind the boys read together was about Sherman’s siege of Atlanta. They never got to finish reading it because the abandoned church caught on fire, and Johnny was gravely injured trying to save young children that were caught flames. In the end, after Johnny’s death, Ponyboy decided to not finish the book because he would “never get past the part where the Southern gentlemen go riding into sure death because they are gallant. Southern gentlemen with big black eyes in blue jeans and T-shirts.” The book reminded him too much of his friendship with Johnny. Even though the boys were Greasers from Oklahoma, they greatly admired the swagger of the Rhett Butler, gentlemanly sort.

Also inside of Gone With the Wind was a note left from Johnny to Ponyboy, encouraging him to “stay gold.” After reading the note, Pony becomes inspired to begin writing his story. This shows that Gone With the Wind came to represent friendship, creativity, and memory within The Outsiders.

Finally, it could be argued that The Outsiders could be a metaphor for the Civil War itself. Written around the time of the centennial, it talks about two groups who are socially different, but linked together by their location and education. The Greasers and Socs are just like the south and the north. Even though both sides were culturally different, they were both American and had a lot in common. Both sides liked to fight, drive flashy cars, go to the drive in, and drink. They merely expressed it in different ways. The real tragedy was that they had to constantly be in conflict to realize what the important things in life were.

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