What is the role of unconsciousness in The Outsiders?
Ponyboy is not only the narrator of The Outsiders but the heart of the story. If Johnny is the gang’s “pet,” Ponyboy is the gang’s stenographer recording all of the important moments in their lives. The events of the novel are often structured around Ponyboy’s conscious and unconscious moments. The act of fainting or falling asleep telegraphs Ponyboy’s sensitivity and also his youth. Ponyboy is a boy dealing with very adult life and death events set against the drama of teenage social structures; fainting allows him to collect his wits during intense moments. But Ponyboy’s unconscious state also highlights the intensity of the violence in Ponyboy’s world by creating places of stillness in the story for the reader to reflect. Ponyboy’s moments of unconsciousness function as a way of understanding his character, the elements that make up his life, and the steps he takes to accept or change his circumstances.
The first time we see Ponyboy fall asleep in an unusual location is in the vacant lot where he and Johnny go to talk about the events at the drive-in. For a brief moment that night, it had seemed that there was a different way to live that didn’t involve animosity and violence between the greasers and the Socs, but the boys’ despair that nothing will ever really change results in Johnny threatening to commit suicide. Johnny says he longs for a place where labels don’t define them. Ponyboy believes that place exists but that it is in the country rather than the city.
He begins to drift off and dreams about the country and how their lives would be different there. This dream foreshadows his time in Windrixville, but it also reveals what Ponyboy desires but can only manifest through his dreams. Thus, falling asleep and dreaming become a space where Ponyboy has premonitions or expresses his hopes and fears. The moments of foreshadowing that pepper the novel often occur in moments of transition between waking and sleeping. For example, when the boys finally make it to the church, Ponyboy has a bad feeling as he is drifting off to sleep. This foreshadows the fire and Johnny’s death.
Sometimes Ponyboy’s dreams are expressions of his hopes for his life, such as being back with Darrell and Sodapop and sleeping in a warm bed instead of on a cold church floor. Ponyboy’s ability to dream so vividly provides him with escape from the grim circumstances of his life. The passages that take place in Windrixville are patterned around Ponyboy’s sleeping and waking lives and the differences between them. Hope—represented by dreams—and reality—represented by being awake—stand in stark contrast until the moment when Ponyboy and Johnny view the sunrise.
This is a rare moment when Ponyboy’s dream life breaks into his conscious life. The sunrise and the emotions it evokes in the boys provides a moment of hope and beauty in an otherwise grim tale. Ponyboy spontaneously quotes Robert Frost, and Johnny shows an innate understand of the poem. Though the sunrise is a temporary moment, it shows the boys that beauty can be found even in the most desperate situations and that dreams can become reality.
Ponyboy’s inability to stay permanently conscious culminates in his fainting spell after Dallas is shot by the police. When he wakes up this time, Ponyboy is unable to differentiate between his dream life and his waking life. He convinces himself that he, rather than Johnny, killed Bob Sheldon. A part of him even believes that Johnny is still alive. When Randy Adderson tells Ponyboy that it was Johnny who killed Bob, Ponyboy becomes agitated and insists he killed Bob. Ponyboy is suffering from a concussion he received in the rumble, which contributes to his confused mental state, but by taking on the responsibility for Bob’s death and by denying Johnny’s death, he is also maintaining his dream life, a place where the impossible is possible.
Only when Ponyboy chooses to put pen to paper and write his story does he emerge from his waking dream. Writing allows Ponyboy to merge his dreams with reality in order to construct a better life for himself. Rather than retreating to his dreams, Ponyboy truly starts using his head. By writing his own story Ponyboy takes his first step toward understanding the elements that make up his life so that he can create a better future for himself.