The Outsiders is an example of a bildungsroman. The German word bildungsroman translates as “novel of education.” It is closely related to the “coming of age” genre in film. Accordingly, a bildungsroman is a novel that focuses on the psychological and social development of the main character. Most definitions of bildungsroman agree that in order for a novel to fall into this genre the protagonist must go through a series of trials and tribulations that then lead to transformation and maturation; some define the genre further as having an ending in which the protagonist leaves adolescence and enters into adulthood. Understanding The Outsiders as a bildungsroman allows the reader to deepen their understanding of the novel and read with more specificity and complexity. Events such as the deaths of Bob, Johnny, and Dallas, the rumble, the encounter with Cherry Valance, and the fire in the Windrixville church become significant turning points in the novel when read with an eye toward transformative moments.
The novel’s protagonist, Ponyboy, has already undergone a sociological transformation due to the deaths of his parents and the remaking of his family. However, the moment that precipitates his psychological transformation, and therefore situates the novel within the bildungsroman genre, is his conversation with Cherry Valance at the drive-in. It is during and after this conversation that Ponyboy begins to wonder about the similarities and differences between the Socs and the greasers. This is a line of questioning he pursues throughout the novel. The moment with Cherry is also the precipitating factor in Ponyboy’s social transformation. Bob Sheldon sees Ponyboy and his friends walking with Cherry and Marcia and then attacks Ponyboy and Johnny in the park. This action sets off the major events in the novel: the flight to Windrixville, the fire in the church, and Johnny and Dallas’s deaths. When Ponyboy flees the city for the country, he is forced out of his familiar social and psychological settings. In the country, Ponyboy begins his social transformation.
When Ponyboy leaves Tulsa as a greaser and returns a hero, it is a significant transformation that marks the novel as a bildungsroman, but it is arguably a superficial change. The deeper transformation—the aspect of the novel that makes it a true “novel of maturation”—is when Ponyboy decides to write the story of his friends and how they lived and died. This is when Ponyboy makes the mature and adult choice to put himself back together after being physically and psychologically broken down by death and violence. He chooses to share his story as an attempt to change his own social standing, to move out of his “lousy” neighborhood, and to change his life someday. Ponyboy is thus choosing to make himself visible to society despite the risks or criticism that may come from being truly and honestly seen by society. The choice to write, rather than fight, is the ultimate sign of Ponyboy’s transformation and maturation.
In addition to being a bildungsroman, The Outsiders is an early example of a young adult (YA) novel. A YA novel is typically defined as one written for readers aged 12-18 that addresses issues such as social difficulties with peers or parents, romance and love, and economic problems. Hinton does not shy away from realistically depicting teenage life in The Outsiders. The violence between the Socs and the greasers, the slang used by the different groups, and topics like death and teenage pregnancy are all either addressed directly or alluded to in the novel. The Outsiders also confronts the darkness that exists in teenage life, and it was one of the first novels to do so. Knowing that The Outsiders is a young adult novel reminds the reader how to position themselves within the story. Readers outside of their teenage years can resurrect memories of their younger years in order to fully appreciate and empathize with the characters. Readers within the 12-18 age range can read with an eye toward truthfulness of representation of teen life as a way of evaluating and experiencing the novel.