Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Outsiders tells the story of two groups of teenagers whose bitter rivalry stems from socioeconomic differences. However, Hinton suggests, these differences in social class do not necessarily make natural enemies of the two groups, and the greasers and Socs share some things in common. Cherry Valance, a Soc, and Ponyboy Curtis, a greaser, discuss their shared love of literature, popular music, and sunsets, transcending—if only temporarily—the divisions that feed the feud between their respective groups. Their harmonious conversation suggests that shared passions can fill in the gap between rich and poor.
This potential for agreement marks a bright spot in the novel’s gloomy prognosis that the battle between the classes is a long-lasting one. Over the course of the novel, Ponyboy begins to see the pattern of shared experience. He realizes that the hardships that greasers and Socs face may take different practical forms, but that the members of both groups—and youths everywhere—must inevitably come to terms with fear, love, and sorrow.
The idea of honorable action appears throughout the novel, and it works as an important component of the greaser behavioral code. Greasers see it as their duty, Ponyboy says, to stand up for each other in the face of enemies and authorities. In particular, we see acts of honorable duty from Dally Winston, a character who is primarily defined by his delinquency and lack of refinement. Ponyboy informs us that once, in a show of group solidarity, Dally let himself be arrested for a crime that Two-Bit had committed. Furthermore, when discussing Gone with the Wind, Johnny says that he views Dally as a Southern gentleman, as a man with a fixed personal code of behavior. Statements like Johnny’s, coupled with acts of honorable sacrifice throughout the narrative, demonstrate that courtesy and propriety can exist even among the most lawless of social groups.
As hostile and dangerous as the greaser-Soc rivalry becomes, the boys from each group have the comfort of knowing how their male friends will react to their male enemies. When Randy and Bob approach Ponyboy and Johnny, everyone involved knows to expect a fight of some sort. It is only when the female members of the Soc contingent start to act friendly toward the greasers that animosities blur and true trouble starts brewing. Even on the greaser side, Sodapop discovers female unreliability when he finds out that his girlfriend is pregnant with another man’s child. With these plot elements, Hinton conveys the idea that cross-gender interaction creates unpredictable results. This message underscores the importance of male bonding in the novel to the creation of unity and structure.
Violence drives most of the action in The Outsiders: Johnny is deeply scarred by a past beating from the Socs, the greasers and Socs participate in frequent “rumbles,” and both Bob and Dally are murdered over the course of the novel. Ponyboy explains that their fights are usually “born of a grudge” between two people of different social classes, then growing into a full-fledged rumble as each side bands together. After Bob’s death, Randy tells Ponyboy that he won’t show up at the next rumble, explaining that “it doesn’t do any good, the fighting and the killing...it doesn’t prove a thing.” This incident is one of many moments in the novel when the violent gang members—whether Socs or greasers—briefly recognize that their fighting is pointless.
Violence inevitably results in someone being hurt or killed, which then sparks a cycle of revenge that takes down more gang members. Ponyboy realizes that “Socs [are] just guys after all,” but he doesn’t try to stop the rumble and even participates in the fight, indicating that his loyalty to the fellow greasers outweighs his understanding that violence is futile. When Socs later threaten Ponyboy at the grocery store, Ponyboy immediately busts his soda bottle and holds it out as a weapon. Even though a dying Johnny has just told Ponyboy and Dally that fighting is useless, Ponyboy still can’t quite shake his role in the cycle of violence, and he continues to react to violence with violence.