The Outsiders is ostensibly about the animosity that exists between the greasers and the Socs. Almost all of the major incidents in the novel, minus the church fire, are altercations between the two rival groups. Superficially, the novel is a story of rich versus poor with Ponyboy and his friends positioned as the protagonists and the Socs as the antagonists. However, on closer inspection, the major conflict of the story is not necessarily that of the greasers versus the Socs. Rather the major conflict is how the greasers and the Socs resist or respond to the social and economic elements that keep their groups separate. It is social and economic factors that stereotype the members of the groups, stripping them of their individuality and, arguably, their humanity. The novel ultimately explores how greasers and Socs choose to transcend these stereotypes and reclaim their individuality.
The chain of violent confrontations between the greasers and Socs is set off when Bob Sheldon and his friends attack Johnny and leave him for dead. Though seen only in flashback, it functions as the inciting incident in the novel. Johnny is so traumatized by this beating that he starts carrying a knife, one we know he will use later to kill Bob Sheldon. Though Bob seems to be a violent bully who enjoys beating up greasers, we learn from Cherry and Randy that Bob is also smart and a loyal friend. His actions are a way of trying to attract attention from the adults around him who provide him with material goods but no real affection or moral guidance. Because Bob looks a certain way and wears the right kind of clothes, the police, his parents, and his teachers assume he knows right from wrong. Bob’s high social and economic statuses make him inconsequential in the eyes of adult society. Bullying and beating greasers is thus a way of making himself visible—even if it is violent and morally wrong.
Johnny’s killing of Bob, part of the rising action of the story, is Johnny’s way of reclaiming his own humanity. His beating by Bob and his friends reduced Johnny to a victim in the eyes of himself and his friends. When he stabs Bob in defense of Ponyboy, he is simultaneously fulfilling the expectations society has of him while also taking back his dignity and humanity. Johnny knows killing Bob is wrong, he recognizes it is what society assumes he will do, but to Johnny, there is no other path to take. The police were not coming to the greasers’ rescue, and the Socs were not going to stop. Johnny recognizes the social forces working against him and takes the only action available to him at the time. He and Ponyboy flee to the church in Windrixville because they have been conditioned to think the police would never believe a greaser would kill a Soc in self-defense.
Johnny’s death is the climax of the, story and it is particularly poignant because he had finally transcended the labels applied to him by society. When Johnny made the choice to follow Ponyboy into the fire and rescue the children, he did so as Johnny the human and not Johnny the greaser. He followed his instincts and behaved heroically and selflessly, but he was rewarded only too late by a change in social status. In his posthumous letter to Ponyboy, Johnny urges him to not, “...be so bugged over being a greaser. You still have a lot of time to make yourself be what you want.” Johnny realizes too late that he is able to be more than one thing and that there are ways to move beyond the social constructs that define his life. He died a hero and a greaser, a duality the police and teachers and adults would not have thought possible at the beginning of the novel.
The falling action of the novel shows Ponyboy putting himself mentally and physically back together. Ponyboy reconfigures himself as simply a boy rather than a greaser. When Ponyboy decides to write his story, he is deciding to reveal the individuality and humanity of the Socs and the greasers. And Ponyboy is not the only one who chooses to resist the antagonistic social and economic forces that seek to define individuals. Randy, a Soc, decides to not fight in the rumble, and Cherry testifies on behalf of Johnny and Ponyboy, saying they were acting in self-defense when Bob was stabbed. Greasers and Socs come to the same conclusion that they can relate to one another as individuals who have their own dreams and talents. The social and economic forces that separated the two groups are minimized when greasers and Socs begin to relate to one another as individuals rather than as representatives of wealth or poverty.