Ponyboy Curtis, the narrator, begins the novel with a story: he is walking home one afternoon after watching a Paul Newman film, and his mind starts to wander. He thinks about how he wants Paul Newman’s good looks, though he likes his own greaser look. He also thinks that, although he likes to watch movies alone, he wishes he had company for the walk home.
Ponyboy steps back from his story to explain that walking alone is unsafe for greasers, the East Side gang of friends to which he belongs. When they walk by themselves, greasers attract the harassment of Socials, or Socs, the rich West Side crowd. Ponyboy says that greasers are poorer and wilder than the Socs, whom the newspapers condemn one day for throwing parties and praise the next day for good citizenship. Greasers wear their hair long and put grease in it. They dress tough, steal, and get into gang fights. They often carry switchblades, mainly to help them stand their ground against the Socs.
Ponyboy says he does not participate in typical greaser mischief because his oldest brother, Darrel (known as “Darry”), would kill him if he got into trouble. Ponyboy’s parents died in a car crash, so the three Curtis brothers live together by themselves, an arrangement possible only as long as they stay out of trouble. Twenty-year-old Darry acts as head of the family. He is strict with Ponyboy and often yells at him. Despite his intelligence, Ponyboy lacks common sense, which frustrates Darry. Ponyboy feels great affection for his sixteen-year-old brother, Sodapop, whose charm and cheerfulness he admires.
Ponyboy returns to the story of his solitary walk after the movies. As he walks, he notices a red Corvair trailing him. He quickens his pace as he remembers how badly the Socs beat his friend Johnny Cade. The Corvair pulls up beside Ponyboy and five Socs climb out and surround him. One of them asks, “Need a haircut, greaser?” and pulls out a blade. The Socs begin to beat up Ponyboy, who screams for help. Ponyboy’s brothers and the rest of their group appear on the scene and chase away the Socs. Darry starts to scold Ponyboy for walking home alone instead of calling for a ride, but Sodapop tells him to stop nagging.
The brothers and the other greasers make plans for the following night. Ponyboy decides that he and Johnny will go to a double feature at the drive-in with their friend Dally. Dally begins to talk about his ex-girlfriend, Sylvia, and Ponyboy thinks about the girls that socialize with the greasers. He wonders what it would be like to spend time with an upper-class Soc girl.
At home, Ponyboy, who loves to read, reads Great Expectations and thinks about how his life resembles the life of Pip, the main character in Great Expectations. Still shaken by his fight with the Socs, Ponyboy climbs into bed with Sodapop. The brothers talk about Sodapop’s girlfriend, Sandy, whom Sodapop hopes to marry one day.
The next night, Ponyboy and Johnny go with Dally to a double feature at the drive-in movie theater. They sit behind a pair of Soc girls, and Dally begins to talk dirty in an attempt to embarrass the girls. The girl with red hair turns around and coolly tells him to stop, but Dally continues to make suggestive remarks. He goes to buy Cokes, and Ponyboy talks to the red-haired girl, Cherry Valance. They talk about the rodeo and about Sodapop, whom Cherry describes as a “doll.” She asks what became of Sodapop, and although the admission embarrasses him, Ponyboy says that Sodapop dropped out of school to work in a gas station. Dally comes back and offers a Coke to Cherry, but she throws it in his face. Dally tries to put his arm around her. When he will not listen to Cherry’s protests, the usually quiet Johnny stuns Dally by telling him not to bother the girls.
Dally stalks off, and Cherry and her friend Marcia invite Ponyboy and Johnny to watch the movie with them. Two-Bit, one of Ponyboy’s friends, comes to announce that Dally has slashed Tim Shepard’s tires and is going to have to fight him. Tim Shepard is the leader of another greaser gang. Two-Bit explains the greasers’ two main rules: always stick together and never get caught.
Cherry and Ponyboy go to get popcorn, and Ponyboy tells her about the time the Socs beat up Johnny. The leader of the gang that beat him, Ponyboy says, wore a fistful of rings. Cherry looks distressed and assures him that not all Socs are violent like the Socs that beat Johnny. She also tells him that Socs have problems just as the greasers do, but Ponyboy does not believe her.
The Outsiders’ primary concern is to explore the effect of social class on young people. The novel begins by detailing the differences between the poor greasers and the rich Socs and sketching the treacherous world in which they live. When the Socs jump Ponyboy in the opening chapter, it suggests that Ponyboy lives in a place where even an innocent walk is fraught with danger.
Hinton defines her characters as she thinks people should be defined in life—not according to the group to which they belong, but according to their individual characteristics. For instance, she introduces Ponyboy not as a tough street youth but as a boy who likes to read and watch sunsets. Ponyboy is something of an anthropologist, a natural role for a narrator, and he observes and records the group dynamics and individual traits of his fellow greasers. Darry is presented not as the natural leader of the gang, but as a struggling young man who has had to forgo an education so that he can support and raise his two younger brothers. Hinton suggests that greasers, despite their exclusion from the mainstream, have moral grounding and sense of decency as strong as—or stronger than—the kids from the privileged classes.
Hinton shows the constant conflict between the greasers and the Socs, but she also shows that the two groups are not as different as they initially appear. After meeting faceless, cruel Socs, we meet Cherry Valance, a Soc who is also a sympathetic, warm girl. She and Ponyboy discuss how greasers and Socs deal with their problems differently. Greasers feel their distress keenly, while Socs pretend their problems do not exist. Ponyboy’s and Cherry’s discussion reveals that, despite different methods of coping, both Socs and greasers must deal with difficulties. The conversation between Cherry and Ponyboy exemplifies the rare civil negotiation that would alleviate the tensions between the Socs and greasers far more than violent conflict. The flirtation between Two-Bit and Marcia demonstrates the social compatibility that could exist between the warring groups.
Hinton suggests that male-female friendships are the friendships most likely to result in peace between the groups. In the first half of the novel, all encounters between male greasers and male Socs result in violence, whereas encounters between male greasers and female Socs sometimes end in laughter and flirtation. This difference suggests that gang rivalry stems from male hatred of other males. Conversely, the strongly masculine nature of the rivalry means that internal group bonding is also strongly masculine. Female greasers essentially do not exist in this novel; they are discussed, but they never appear as characters. Their absence emphasizes the intense male bonding among the greasers.
In the Young Adult fiction genre, The Outsiders is unique in its early suggestion that the rival groups are not that different from each other. By establishing this commonality at the beginning, Hinton throws us off balance. That Hinton raises the possibility of resolution between gangs so early but delays resolution for so long keeps the focus on the individual issues that Ponyboy and others face.