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Children’s Literature in Education (2007) 38:87–101

DOI 10.1007/s10583-006-9016-2


Institutionalizing The Outsiders: YA Literature, Social

Class, and the American Faith in Education

Eric L. Tribunella

Published online: 13 June 2006

Ó Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006

Abstract The Outsiders if often credited with marking the emergence of YA liter-
ature. It was written by a teenager and was intended to represent honestly the difficult
lives of other young adults. Despite the novel’s audience and purpose and its
potentially provocative acknowledgment of the problems of social class, The Outsiders
was readily institutionalized as part of school reading lists and educational curricula
throughout the United States. Its institutionalization can be accounted for in part by
the way it offers a palliative to the problems it depicts. The protagonist, Ponyboy,
represents the novel itself as an intervention into those problems, but it works to
reaffirm a notion of rugged individualism and a faith in American education. Such
lessons ultimately disarm the novel’s class critique and render it safe for educational

Keywords S.E. Hinton Æ The Outsiders Æ Educational use of literature Æ Social class Æ

In 2001 Publisher’s Weekly reported that S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders ranked second
in its list of all-time bestselling children’s paperbacks, behind only E.B. White’s
Charlotte’s Web. Its relative longevity is fueled no doubt by its frequent inclusion on
summer reading lists and its widespread use in secondary school classrooms. This
raises the question of why the novel has attained such a prominent place in the canon
of instructional fiction. Given that this is a novel written for young adults by a
teenager frustrated with the failure of literature to represent the ‘‘grittier’’ elements of
adolescence, it might be surprising that it is now safely ensconced on approved
reading lists for schools throughout the United States. This fact signals its endorse-
ment by the very adults who embody authority and establishment. What is it about the
novel that lends it to this kind of cultural legitimacy and institutionalization? Some

E. L. Tribunella (&)
Department of English, The University of Southern Mississippi, 118 College Dr. #5037,
Hattiesburg, MS 39406, USA
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might argue that The Outsiders was introduced into secondary schools merely because
of its simple language and plot, its usefulness in exploring the conventions of the
novel, its acceptably sanitary references to sex and violence, or its presumable appeal
to young adults (Wilder & Teasley, 1998, p. 42). These factors alone, however, are not
sufficient to account for why Hinton’s novel has resonated so powerfully in American
culture and with American educators. I want to propose that the educational can-
onization of The Outsiders is enabled in part by the fact that, although it tantalizes
audiences with the relatively rare acknowledgement of social class as a problem, the
novel offers a safe and undisruptive palliative for class inequality and the endemic
malaise of modernity. Its domestication on school reading lists suggests something
about the blunted edge of its class critique. I investigate here how the novel works to
contain its own radical potential in this regard, thereby enabling it to be absorbed
readily into educational curricula.
The Outsiders is considered a landmark publication in the history of the young
adult literature market. The young adult, or teenager, for whom the book was
imagined, has always been related intimately to economic and consumer trends. The
first recorded use of the word ‘‘teen-ager,’’ at first hyphenated before settling into its
more common usage, was in 1941. Thomas Hine notes the connection between the rise
of the teenager and market forces: ‘‘Because youth culture is, in essence, a series of
decisions about personal appearance and entertainment, it can scarcely exist if its
members don’t have money they can spend as they see fit in ways wholly distinct from
how their parents would spend it’’ (1999, p. 226). Hine suggests that in the economy of
WWII and the post-war period, teenagers increasingly took the more marginal jobs
left by adults moving into better-paying, more skilled work. This provided teenagers
with some of their own disposable income, although not enough to allow them to be
financially independent or to start their own families. This minimal disposable income
would be a necessary condition for the invention of the teenager, who was, from the
beginning, constructed as a consumer. The 1940s saw not only the coinage of the term
‘‘teenager,’’ but also the invention of a new market, as clothes, magazines, and music
came to be developed, packaged, and sold specifically for the new teenager. It would
take another two decades for the young adult literature market to crystallize fully,
when in the 1960s publishers would capitalize on the teenager by releasing books
aimed specifically at this group.
From their inception, then, the teenager and teen culture were inextricably linked to
the economy and social class, and so it is perhaps fitting that the 1967 publication of
Hinton’s The Outsiders, with its depictions of class conflict and violence in the lives of a
small group of urban teenagers, has come to be seen as marking the maturity of YA
literature. Michael Cart concurs with other critics in dismissing most fiction read by
young adults—even if not specifically written for them—during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s
as what would now be called ‘‘genre literature,’’ like romances or mysteries. In what has
come to be a popular view of the history of YA literature as a distinct category, Cart
argues, ‘‘I think it is sufficient to say that the real birth of young adult literature came
with its embrace of the novel of realism, the late 1960s’’ (1996, p. 39).
Responding to what she saw as the lack of realism in literature for young adults, and its
failure to grapple honestly with the difficulties faced by young people, Hinton attempted
to write a novel she thought would better represent the experiences of teenagers. That
meant confronting directly some of the problems of adolescence: violence, conflicts with
parents and other youths, and feelings of alienation and isolation. In other words,
focusing on problems and how to deal with them was adopted as a strategy both to
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produce the appearance of realism, as though realism were synonymous with turmoil,
and to distance YA fiction from the romantic and benign writing of the preceding three
decades.1 Since the teenager was, to a certain extent, a product of economic forces, we
might not be surprised that in this landmark publication one of the key problems is
precisely the class status of its teenage protagonists.
This push to represent the realistic problems of adolescents clearly led to YA liter-
ature’s being caught up by the lure of didacticism. It is hard to write a novel about a
problem or problems without being tempted to offer solutions. Thus, the ‘‘New Real-
ism’’ of YA literature also ushered in the ‘‘new didacticism.’’ The Outsiders is
emblematic of these connections. It is not only a key prototype of the new realist novel
for young adults, but also an explicitly didactic one. In fact, as the novel ends we learn
that Ponyboy is submitting it as make-up work for his English class. Hence, the book
refers to itself as the product of an instructional assignment. Ponyboy decides to hand
this in to fulfill the assignment because he feels a moral urgency to share the lessons he
has learned through his experiences, which become the story of the novel. Ponyboy
admits he wants ‘‘to tell people’’ what he has discovered. That central lesson is crys-
tallized for him by his sacrificial friend Johnny, who admonishes Ponyboy in a deathbed
letter to ‘‘stay gold.’’ For Johnny, to ‘‘stay gold’’ signifies remaining innocent and
childlike. Ironically, then, this foundational novel of young adulthood effectively urges
its adolescent readers to turn back, and Ponyboy’s response to the problems represented
in the novel is the novel itself, a literary representation of the lives of poor youth. How,
though, does the novel work as a response to the problems it details? What kind of
response is it? How do the answers to these questions relate to its institutionalized and
canonical status in the United States? And what are the implications of this inducement
to ‘‘stay gold’’ and the construction of the narrative itself as Ponyboy’s homework?
First, we have to clarify the problems depicted in the novel in order to understand the
novel’s response to them. The central conflict in the novel takes shape between two rival
groups. Greasers have long hair, dress in jeans, and have reputations for being thugs.
Their clothes, their reputations, and even the designation ‘‘Greasers’’ mark their
‘‘inferior’’ class status presumably because the ragged quality of their clothes, for
instance, results directly from their poverty. Their rivals are called ‘‘Socs’’ as shorthand
for ‘‘the Socials, the jet set, the West-side rich kids’’ (Outsiders 2). The Outsiders rep-
resents a clash between conflicting models of youth—on the one hand a nineteenth
century and Depression-era model of the child as a necessary economic contributor to
the household, and on the other hand the new teenager of the mid-twentieth century
whose primary job is going to school and spending money on youth culture. In 1900,
26% of boys between the ages of 10 and 15 were employed in paying jobs, and this did
not even include those working on family farms and not receiving wages (Hine, 1999,
p. 123). Hine explains that ‘‘if you were in your teens during the second half of the
nineteenth century, you would likely have been, in one sense, more ‘grown up’ than
either your immediate predecessors or contemporary teenagers. If you were not among
the majority of teens on farms, you would more than likely have been working for wages
at an adult job to help support the family’’ (Hine, 1999, p. 121). Teenage Greasers like

In an article for The New York Times in which she explains her project in The Outsiders, Hinton is
actually critical of the ways realism is represented as simply a collection of problems. ‘‘Adults who
try to write realistically seem to mix up the real with the dirty,’’ she writes (‘‘Teen-agers’’ 1967,
p. 27). Ironically, though, her novel can be seen as fueling precisely this way of coding realism in
fiction for young adults.
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Darry and Sodapop, who work to support the family while not attending school, more
closely resemble this earlier model. The Socs, with their fancy cars and Madras shirts,
are more like the contemporary teenager. The novel, then, represents not simply the
conflict between two class positions, but the tensions that emerge from overlapping
models of youth shaped by economic trends. The class position of the Greasers is doubly
galling, since they suffer not only the difficulties of economic lack, but also the frus-
tration of seeing some of their same-age peers more fully embody the ideals and priv-
ileges of the new teenager.
The same year The Outsiders was released Hinton herself claimed in the pages of The
New York Times that books then being regarded as for adolescents were ridiculously
outdated and unrealistic. She effectively charged writers of young adult fiction with not
honestly depicting the difficult lives of teenagers, whose problems are often much more
troubling and painful than adults often like to think or admit. If The Outsiders was
shocking at the time of its release, that was due in large part to its portrayal of violence
(Sutherland, 1968, p. 34). Decades before the rash of school shootings in the late 1990s
and early twenty-first century called attention to the seriousness of schoolyard bullying,
Hinton was showing the terror some children and adolescents were living with because
of conflicts between rival cliques and between youths who occupy different class posi-
tions. The novel begins with Ponyboy walking home from the movies and getting
jumped by four Socs simply for being a Greaser. The novel shows that this kind of
everyday violence has the potential to be not only physically life-threatening, but also
emotionally crippling. The rather meek Johnny, himself an earlier victim of the Socs,
suffers both physical wounds and the emotional trauma of his abuse at the hands of
these other teenagers and his own parents. Ponyboy describes him as ‘‘a little dark
puppy that has been kicked too many times and is lost in a crowd of strangers’’ (Hinton,
1967, p. 11).
In addition to physical and emotional trauma, the novel points to the more insidious
and overwhelming problems of alienation and malaise as conditions of life in the age of
modernity and capitalism. Alienation involves not only an estrangement from or
inability to connect with others, but also a sense of estrangement from oneself or one’s
potential. For Marx, this latter sense of alienation derives from the process of selling
one’s labor in exchange for capital (working for owners of capital to produce a product
then sold to consumers at a profit to owners), thereby alienating oneself both from one’s
labor (by selling one’s labor to others) and from the product of that labor (the product
one works to create is owned by others).2 Thus, the individual experience of alienation
results from alienation as a process, which cultural critic Raymond Williams describes as
‘‘to part with, transfer, lose to another, while having also an additional and in this
context crucial sense of ‘making external to oneself’’’ (1976, p. 35). Williams goes on to
note that the common use of the term tends to emphasize alienation as a psychological
feeling of powerlessness, isolation and dissatisfaction; however, these meanings elide
Marx’s insight into how these subjective experiences result from historical processes and
formations. If, as Marx suggests, human beings create themselves by creating their
world—that is, through ‘‘work’’—then this transfer or loss of one’s labor and the

As Raymond Williams writes, ‘‘In Marx the process is seen as the history of labour, in which man
creates himself by creating his world, but in class-society is alienated from this essential nature by specific
forms of alienation in the division of labour, private property and the capitalist mode of production in
which the worker loses both the product of this labour and his sense of his own productive activity,
following the expropriation of both by capital’’ (1976, p. 35).
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product of that labor to the owners of capital in exchange for wages also constitutes a
lost means of creating or accessing one’s self. It is perhaps this fundamental loss that
contributes to the psychological experiences that have come to be denoted by the term
‘‘alienation.’’ Work is not then a creative act with the capacity to generate satisfaction
and accomplishment, but a repetitive and tedious task undertaken to collect wages on
which to subsist and survive.
What the emphasis on the psychological dimensions of alienation suggests is the
prominence of malaise, a vague dissatisfaction or unease, as an endemic condition of
modernity. A number of social theorists have approached the problem or phenomenon
of malaise in the modern age from a variety of perspectives. In Civilization and Its
Discontents (1929), Freud theorizes that this condition results from the necessary
repression of instinctual impulses in civilization. The basic desires of one’s id are fun-
damentally selfish, motivated solely by pleasure, and indifferent to appropriateness, law,
or convention. Thus, they are also anti-social, because in a context of limited resources
for the satisfaction of those desires, their unbridled pursuit can only be at the expense of
others. In order for human beings to coexist and collaborate, these instinctual desires
must be controlled through renunciation and repression. These are the tasks of the ego,
guided by the reality principle and the reasoned pursuit of long-term goals, and of the
super-ego, a critical faculty established within the psyche to judge the ego and punish it
with guilt. Civilization thus requires and makes use of guilt to constrain the selfish
desires of the id, and Freud argues that it is this necessary renunciation and repression of
desires and the feeling of guilt that are experienced as a general discontentment or
malaise. If modernity involves the elaboration of government, bureaucracy, and the law
as expressions of the constraining operations of civilization, then this would also result
in an intensification of malaise as an effect, for this elaboration would entail a
concomitantly greater occasion for repression and guilt.
Other aspects of the modern age work to exacerbate this problem. Max Weber’s 1918
lecture, ‘‘Science as a Vocation,’’ proposes that the epistemological trend toward
rationalization and intellectualization has led to the experience of what he calls ‘‘dis-
enchantment.’’ Unlike ‘‘the savage,’’ who must take recourse to magic or spirituality in
order to account for the mysteries of life, one can now seek answers through rational
calculation. Following Tolstoy, Weber contends that although science is useful in this
way, it cannot either lead to happiness or provide an answer to the questions ‘‘what shall
we do and how shall we live?’’ (1946, p. 143). In other words, science is useful for
understanding the operation of nature, but this has as an effect the subversion of reli-
gious faith as a source of solutions to fundamental questions of being and purpose.
Science, or rationalization and intellectualization, might have replaced religion and
superstition as the dominant framework for interpreting the world, but it fails to replace
faith as a satisfying source of solutions to those existential problems. Thus, its super-
session of god results in the experience of disenchantment. This void has not been
replaced adequately by a faith in human progress. The atrocities of the twentieth cen-
tury—two world wars, the use of the atomic bomb, genocide in Europe, Cambodia, and
Rwanda—have worked to undermine such a faith in a notion of historical progress
despite, or because of, developments in science and technology. Notably, Ponyboy and
Johnny temporarily escape the law by hiding in a church, which might indicate to us
their interest in religious belief, or at least a sacred space, as a refuge from the problems
associated with civilized society. That the church in which they hide is abandoned and
later completely destroyed suggests something about the epochal decline of religion as
an available and effective source of sanctuary or comfort in the modern age. This loss of
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religion or superstition as a source of purpose and meaning, the increasing pervasion of

the law’s surveillant gaze, and the alienating nature of capitalist work conspire to
produce malaise as one of the defining features of the modern age.
This seems perhaps like a departure from the concerns of Hinton’s novel, but The
Outsiders makes clear that its adolescent protagonists are dealing with precisely these
issues. The circumstances of the family unit comprised of Darry, Sodapop, and Ponyboy
Curtis ensure that these youths experience a sense of the increasingly inescapable force
of law. With their parents dead and the law establishing that Sodapop and Ponyboy have
not reached the age of majority, the brothers are subject to the intervention and sur-
veillance of the state. This is experienced by all of them as a threat. They desire to
remain together, but they are conscious that any kind of social or legal transgression
could result in the activation of state authority to remove the two underage boys from
the care of Darry, the eldest brother. This possibility looms throughout the novel as a
persistent anxiety for the boys, both intensifying the stakes of even minor offenses like
coming home late and creating the heightened tension between Darry and Ponyboy.
When Ponyboy actually does come home late, Darry is furious: ‘‘I reckon it never
occurred to you that your brothers might be worrying their heads off and afraid to call
the police because something like that could get you two thrown in a boys’ home so
quick it’d make your head spin’’ (1967, p. 50). He becomes so angry and frustrated that
he strikes Ponyboy, and this is the catalyst for Ponyboy’s running away with Johnny. It is
while running away that the two boys are again jumped by a group of Socs, and Johnny
is compelled to use deadly force to defend himself. Thus, the central crisis of the novel,
the death of a Soc at Johnny’s hands, results in part from tensions between the Curtis
brothers, and these tensions are aggravated by the problem of guilt and state interfer-
ence under the critical gaze of the law. Once Johnny kills Bob, a leader among the Socs,
Johnny and Ponyboy then literally go on the run from the law. However, no repre-
sentative of the law directly appears in the text; rather, the law remains a shadowy force
that trails the boys, that pervades the events of the narrative, and that structures the
relationships of these young adults.
As Foucault suggests, starting in the seventeenth century new strategies were
developed for the multiplication of power relations between the state and its citizens.
Evidence of this shift is seen in ‘‘the emergence, in the field of political practices and
economic observation, of the problems of birthrate, longevity, public health, housing,
and migration’’ (1990, p. 140). This new form of power included an evolving focus on
managing the population through observation and regulation: keeping records,
inventing new measures of individual and group health, issuing licenses, multiplying
regulatory laws, creating agencies to investigate and monitor families and households,
imbuing professionals such as doctors and teachers with ‘‘expertise’’ and authority to
scrutinize and prescribe behaviors, and other such practices along these lines. Foucault
continues, ‘‘Hence, there was an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for
achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations’’ (1990, p. 140). He
calls this a bio-politics of the population, or bio-power, and this developing phenomenon
constitutes the elaboration of government, bureaucracy, and the law.
That what is considered a foundational text in the history of YA literature would be
so saturated by and concerned with the law is perhaps no coincidence. If The Outsiders
represents the culmination of literary and cultural trends that lead to the YA novel, it
also documents the culmination of nearly a century of efforts on the part of the law to
penetrate the domestic sphere on behalf of children and adolescents. The first agency
dedicated to the protection of children, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to
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Children (SPCC), was founded only in 1875 in response to the case of Mary Ellen
Wilson, a girl of 9 or 10 who was being abused by the couple with whom she was living.
The absence of laws specifically aimed at the welfare of children compelled a member of
the community who had witnessed the abuse to contact the Society for the Prevention of
Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). This latter organization spawned the SPCC, which brought
legal action on behalf of Mary Ellen against her caretaker. After successfully having
Mary Ellen’s caretaker prosecuted for assault, the SPCC was granted legal authority by
the state of New York and made an official government agency, the first of its kind in
the United States (Dorne, 2002, p. 39). This milestone was coincident with most of the
first laws regarding compulsory education for children 8–14 years of age. Massachusetts
was the first state to pass such a law in 1852, but most other states did not follow suit
until the 1870s. The invention of child welfare in the mid-nineteenth century, the reform
of child labor laws during the first three decades of the twentieth, and the massive
increase in the percentage of youths who completed or attended high school in the 1930s
created new and ever greater opportunities for agents of the state to monitor and
intervene in the lives of children and adolescents.
The Outsiders testifies to the increasingly powerful force of law in domestic affairs.
Clifford Dorne notes the connection between the invention of social welfare and the
management of the poor in particular: ‘‘In Elizabethan England, a poor law was passed
as a reaction to fears of urban disorder and vagrancy. It established the work house as a
place to incarcerate the idle poor. The genesis of American social welfare can generally
be traced to this law’’ (2002, p. 34). This means that from its inception, social welfare has
targeted the poor and working classes in part as a means of control. Although state
intervention can have both benevolent motives and beneficial effects, as in the pro-
tection of children from abusive or negligent parents, its increasing reach can also
deepen a sense of the law as in inescapable and intrusive force, thereby intensifying the
malaise of modernity. Given the ways that the poor and working classes are often more
intensely targeted for such surveillance, we can expect these effects to be experienced
disproportionately by these groups.
The class status of the Curtis boys makes them particularly vulnerable to the expe-
rience of alienation and the intrusiveness of the law. They lack both the funds needed
for specialized legal representation and the cultural literacy to navigate the legal and
social system that threatens to judge Darry unfit and to separate the boys. These vul-
nerabilities, along with the family’s financial difficulties and Darry’s physically
demanding work as a roofer, undermine the intimacy and affection of the relationship
between Darry and Ponyboy. At one point Ponyboy thinks, ‘‘Darry thought I was just
another mouth to feed and somebody to holler at. Darry love me? I thought of those
hard, pale, eyes.... Darry doesn’t love anyone or anything, except maybe Soda. I didn’t
hardly think of him as being a human being. I don’t care, I lied to myself, I don’t care
about him either’’ (1967, p. 18). It is clear that the strain of supporting his two brothers
radically affects Darry’s mood and bearing because of his physical and emotional fati-
gue. Ponyboy describes him a bit later in nearly the same terms: ‘‘He’s hard as a rock
and about as human. He’s got eyes exactly like frozen ice. He thinks I’m a pain in the
neck. He likes Soda—everybody likes Soda—but he can’t stand me. I bet he wishes he
could stick me in a home somewhere, and he’d do it, too, if Soda’d let him’’ (1967, p. 50).
It is clear that the brothers experience estrangement and unease as a result of their
circumstances, which have repercussions for their physical and emotional health.
Ponyboy repeatedly describes Darry, who works two jobs, as looking older than his
years and as having more worries than he should (1967, pp. 6, 17, 43); he identifies with
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Pip from Dickens’s Great Expectations because he can relate to feeling ‘‘lousy’’ about
not being a gentleman (1967, p. 15); and he wonders about the Soc girls who shun and
fear him and his Greaser friends (1967, pp. 15, 17, 21).
This condition also afflicts the other youths in the novel, and both Greasers and Socs
are left to confront the apparently unbridgeable gulf between the two classes. All of the
youths experience varying degrees of anger and resentment because of their class status,
about which they are keenly aware, and this is true for the Socs as well. Cherry Valence
confesses to Ponyboy the habitual insincerity and dissatisfaction that leaves her and her
friends feeling numb: ‘‘We’re sophisticated—cool to the point of not feeling anything.
Nothing is real with us. You know, sometimes I’ll catch myself talking to a girl-friend,
and realize I don’t mean half of what I’m saying.’’ She concludes that these are
symptoms of having too much, but not of what can actually fulfill or satsify: ‘‘Did you
ever hear of having more than you wanted? So that you couldn’t want anything else and
then started looking for something else to want? It seems like we’re always searching for
something to satisfy us, and never finding it’’ (1967, p. 38). The feelings expressed here
are too sophisticated, sincere, and complex to be dismissed as the hormone-driven
turbulence of adolescence. Nor are the feelings of either Greasers or Socs that Hinton
manages to articulate even particular to adolescents. Cherry is identifying precisely what
social theorists like Charles Taylor have described as the malaise of modernity: a vague
discontentment, a sense of unreality, an inability to identify what one wants or needs, a
loss of a sense of purpose and significance. Clearly, both Greasers and Socs suffer under
the prevailing conditions of their society. In some ways, the conflicts between the two
groups distracts from the ways both are caught up in system that adversely affects both
of them.
These youths also have the sense that their situations are inescapable. During the
climactic rumble between the two groups, Darry confronts Paul Holden, a Soc who had
been on the high school football team with him and who has had the opportunity to go
to college. Darry has had to give up on college in order to support his two younger
brothers. When Ponyboy sees them face off, he realizes that the two young men hate
each other because of this difference: ‘‘They shouldn’t hate each other...I don’t hate the
Socs any more ... they shouldn’t hate ... [ellipses in original]’’ (1967, p. 143). Ponyboy is
unable to complete the thought. They shouldn’t hate each other, but he’s not sure why,
or how to get past that hate. At the moment he has this thought, the first punch in the
rumble is thrown, which attests to the hopelessness of altering this mutual animosity.
Randy, a Soc, confronts Ponyboy with the purposelessness of the rumble. He plans to
skip out on it, despite the ramifications to his reputation, because he is tired of the
I’m sick of it because it doesn’t do any good. You can’t win, you know that, don’t
you?...You can’t win even if you whip us. You’ll still be where you were before—at
the bottom. And we’ll still be the lucky ones with all the breaks. So it doesn’t do
any good, the fighting and the killing. It doesn’t prove a thing. We’ll forget it if you
win, or if you don’t. Greasers will still be greasers and Socs will still be Socs. (1967,
p. 117)
Ponyboy does not dispute this observation. He thinks that he would help Randy if he
could, but he also recognizes that there is nothing he can do. The rumble will go on, and
little will be settled because the economic conditions that underlie the Soc–Greaser
conflict will remain unchanged. This recognition is echoed when Ponyboy finally con-
fronts Cherry about her relationship with Bob, the boy Johnny kills while defending
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himself and Ponyboy. Cherry thinks she’s helping by passing news to the Greasers about
her Soc friends, but Ponyboy criticizes her. ‘‘Do you think your spying for us makes up
for the fact that you’re sitting there in a Corvette while my brother drops out of school
to get a job?’’ he asks her (1967, p. 129).
These characters also show evidence of a deep sadness about the separation between
Greasers and Socs. When Darry faces off against his former football teammate, Pony-
boy detects some expression behind both of their eyes that he cannot quite place. He
thinks it might be contempt or pity in the eyes of Paul, and jealousy and shame in
Darry’s, but their initial hesitancy when confronting each other reveals the possibility of
something else: ‘‘He looked at Darry and said quietly, ‘Hello, Darrel.’ Something
flickered behind Darry’s eyes and then they were ice again. ‘Hello, Paul’’’ (1967, p. 142).
This confrontation, which requires them to engage in violence with each other, is a
tragic one. Their quiet hellos, their use of first names, and the fact that they used to
‘‘buddy it around all the time,’’ as Ponyboy recalls, suggest as much. Darry and Paul are
compelled to meet this way, but it seems likely that what Ponyboy detects behind their
eyes is a desire to be buddying it around instead. They must also recognize the
impossibility of doing just that. The evidence of their alienation and malaise is clear.
While these processes have the potential to affect anyone adversely, irrespective of class
status—we see this is the case with Cherry and the Socs—,it is the working class, to
which the Greasers belong, who are perhaps least equipped to defend against or resist
economic exploitation and state intrusion. One of the qualities of the The Outsiders that
no doubt fuels its popularity is the ways it calls attention to precisely this vulnerability,
which is no doubt experienced to varying degrees by the novel’s diverse readership. To
the extent that The Outsiders is a ‘‘problem novel,’’ these, and not merely the fact of
physical violence, are the problems it represents, and these collective, systemic problems
are bigger than the lives of these particular young adults.3
How, then, does the novel attempt to respond to or manage these problems? What
kind of solution does it offer to them? The answers to these questions might point to
reasons for why the novel was so readily institutionalized as part of the YA canon in
American secondary schools. I am arguing that part of the reason for this is that it offers
a palliative to the problems associated with social class. Rather than radically chal-
lenging, calling into question, or disrupting the social systems and processes that pro-
duce, contribute to, or sustain those problems, the novel achieves a kind of sleight of
hand: in representing those problems it seems to be offering solutions to them, but the
solutions it offers—the representation and knowledge of the problem itself—cannot be
seen as constituting adequate or successful responses. In other words, The Outsiders is
not a terribly threatening novel; therefore, it is able to be listed safely on school reading
lists without raising any serious flags about radical social reform or revolution. Of
course, a novel is by no means required (by whom or how would it be required anyway?)
to offer solutions to social problems, but the point is that the novel represents itself, or
at least Ponyboy represents it, as precisely this kind of intervention. Let me be clear. I
am not offering a moral or aesthetic evaluation of the novel and its political project;
rather, I am attempting explain how the novel represents itself as a critique of social

Incidentally, I would reserve the term ‘‘problem novel’’ for those texts in which a single problem or
closely related set of problems more thoroughly dominates and constrains the narrative, plot, and
characterization. Beverly Cleary’s Dear Mr. Henshaw about a boy dealing with his parents’ divorce
and Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret about a girl’s physical development and
choice of religion are examples.
96 Children’s Literature in Education (2007) 38:87–101

class while at the same time it undermines its own purported agenda. We can, therefore,
consider how this intervention works.
As the novel concludes, Johnny and Dallas are dead and the rift between Greasers
and Socs continues even if there is a temporary cessation of group violence. Ponyboy sits
down to complete his late English assignment, and what he composes turns out to be the
novel itself. The idea to write about his experiences for his English class is prompted by
the fact that it is too late to tell Dallas that there is ‘‘still lots of good in the world’’
(1967, p. 179). If he cannot tell Dallas, then he decides to tell others:
Suddenly it wasn’t only a personal thing to me. I could picture hundreds and
hundreds of boys living on the wrong side of cities, boys with black eyes who
jumped at their own shadows. Hundreds of boys who maybe watched sunsets and
looked at stars and ached for something better. I could see boys going down under
street lights because they were mean and tough and hated the world, and it was too
late to tell them that there was still good in it, and they wouldn’t believe you if you
did. It was too vast a problem to be just a personal thing. There should be some
help, someone should tell them before it was too late. Someone should tell their
side of the story, and maybe people would understand then and wouldn’t be so
quick to judge a boy by the amount of hair oil he wore. It was important to me.
(1967, p. 179)
This, then, is the response of both Ponyboy and the novel to the problems described
above. This response takes the form of a textual narrative. The way Ponyboy articulates
this impulse and its rationale is telling. He begins with the recognition that the problem
is not merely a personal one, and hundreds of other boys exist out in the world who
share the problems of himself and his friends. This is a broader, social issue he is
considering. The form of that response has a dual function. It can work as an instance of
personal catharsis, and it can represent and communicate more broadly the fact of the
problem itself. In the first case, the catharsis of Ponyboy or the reader who experiences
it vicariously is precisely an individual response. It might help Ponyboy process his
traumatic experiences and ground his emotional recovery, but this individual catharsis
does not itself address or intervene in the larger social processes at work to produce or
sustain the problem of class inequality and alienation.
With regards to the reader who identifies with Ponyboy, an indeterminate number of
responses are possible, as reader response theory makes clear, but perhaps a few are
most likely. The reader might read the novel, Ponyboy’s witness account, with some
degree of indifference or infinitesimal interest, and do nothing. The reader might read
the novel and, along with Ponyboy, experience the novel as an emotional catharsis.
Again, this cathartic effect might be individually helpful or pleasant, but it alone does
not address the problems of the novel. Emotional provocation and cognitive awareness
seem closer to Ponyboy’s implied intent.4 The reader might read the novel and become
aware of something to which he or she was previously oblivious. This simple awareness,
though,—that Greasers are real people too, that there is still some good in the

There are no doubt examples of readers who have been moved to action by reading The Outsiders.
Michelle Inderbitzen, a sociologist specializing in juvenile justice, has published an account of how
the novel influenced her. ‘‘The idea of justice did not become part of my consciousness until I read
S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders,’’ she writes (2003, p. 357). Evidence of the multiplicity of possible
reader relations is Inderbitzen’s explanation that her sister, who had passed along the book to her
years before, had little recollection of either the recommendation or the story itself.
Children’s Literature in Education (2007) 38:87–101 97

world—still does not alone alter the situation Ponyboy has described. The sleight of
hand of the novel is in its suggestion that representation is an adequate response to a
systemic and structural problem. To produce and consume representation is not itself
sufficient in terms of addressing the problems represented. One can experience the text
and be disinterested in or unmoved by it, or be moved and do nothing. One can
experience the text and be unsure about how to respond effectively, if one is motivated
to do so. One can experience the text and believe that the experience itself is an
effective solution to the problem. Ponyboy expresses his interest in provoking the
imagined readers’ sympathy with the Greasers. Even if we assume that the text is
successful in doing this, we must consider two possibilities: uncertainty about how to
respond effectively and a sense that one’s experience of the text itself constitutes a
solution. These are, I believe, two of the more likely outcomes given the conclusion of
the novel and Ponyboy’s own stated lessons.5
The question is: what sense or impression might readers take from The Outsiders?
The stark image of the concluding pages, irrespective of Ponyboy’s reference to
‘‘hundreds and hundreds of boys,’’ is that of the figure of the individual, fictive author
(Ponyboy), working alone to compose his personal account. This conclusion, inadver-
tently or not, advocates a kind of rugged individualism in the face of systemic, even
epochal, social problems, while suggesting that what Ponyboy desires is the well-being
of all boys like himself, that is, the interests of the community. It is that slippage I am
interested in. The figure of the solitary author–hero presides over the novel, and this
solitary act is his ultimate response to the problems and traumas he has confronted.
Nevertheless, those problems, and the systems and processes that (re)produce them,
require a collective response if any attempt is going to be made to resist or repair them.
The novel at its conclusion elevates the figure of the individual, heroic, authorial sur-
vivor and elides the gang, except as an audience, yet this is precisely the moment when
the collective and communal quality of their lives might be mobilized against those very
The conclusion of the novel, its revelation of itself as the product of an instructional
assignment, ultimately suggests the course of action endorsed in response to the prob-
lems it depicts. This conclusion effectively reaffirms a liberal faith in education. Pony-
boy’s response to his traumatic experiences, which are symptomatic of problems of
social class and class inequality, is to do his homework. His sensitivity and insight is
channeled into an educational pursuit, and the implication is that Ponyboy, perhaps
more so than his Greaser buddies, is a good boy, good citizen, and most importantly,
good student. Unlike Darry or Sodapop, who have dropped out of school, Ponyboy will
eventually escape or transcend some of the problems of the Greasers by getting a good
education. And this might work for Ponyboy, whom the reader gathers is capable of

These limitations are not necessarily unique to The Outsiders, but this text stands in possible con-
trast to one like Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974). The latter novel has proved quite
successful at raising questions (about its appropriateness for young adults, its merit, its desirability
as a representation of the world, etc.) and provoking outrage. This is clear from the fact that it
ranks as one of the most frequently challenged books of the past three decades. It is listed as the
fourth most frequently challenged book of the 1990s, and it tops the list of challenged books for
2004. See At 43rd on the list
of most frequently challenged books of the 1990s, The Outsiders has proved far less controversial,
although it has encountered controversy over its violent content and the fact that the boys come
from broken homes (Gabler & Gabler, 1997, p. 354).
98 Children’s Literature in Education (2007) 38:87–101

being studious—we might even say that he is ‘‘college bound’’—but we are left to
wonder about Greasers like Two-Bit or like Sodapop, who confesses to Ponyboy that he
was never very good at school. Meanwhile, Socs like Paul and Randy are on track to
maintain their status as the social elite by going to college, but Cherry has already
suggested that they are far from immune to the problems of alienation and malaise. In
fact, the pursuit or maintenance of this status, within a particular social–economic
system, might itself be what Cherry finds so toxic.
In The Imperfect Pancea, historian of education Henry Perkinson argues that the
conceptualization of education in the U.S. as a solution to every major social problem is
fundamentally misguided.6 He traces the modern notion of education, which conceives
of education as something that should be available to all, to the sixteenth and seven-
teenth centuries, and he claims that this notion has had as an objective ‘‘to make the
masses industrious workers, loyal subjects, faithful church members. In short, this
education was a process of socialization: the integration of children of the lower classes
into the existing society by having them learn the skills, understandings, sentiments, and
beliefs to keep it going’’ (1991, p. 227). Perkinson traces the American faith in education
to the practical objectives of the socialization concept, which he contrasts with the
humanistic education of the social elite. In the case of the latter, which is a model of
education with a much longer history, the children of the aristocracy would be trained in
classical languages and literature, philosophy, history, and the arts. I would suggest that
although the focus might have been on the humanizing benefits of these subjects for the
individual, there was another objective of constructing a class consciousness of the elite
and of providing cultural capital to them as markers of that status. The objective of this
education of the elite was not simply to make privileged students better human beings,
but to make them aristocratic human beings. While Perkinson accounts for the
American faith in education by citing the justification of mass education as something
practical, I am suggesting that this faith might also come from the earlier association of
education with privilege and cultural capital. In other words, mass education from the
start has functioned to reproduce and maintain the social order, but it has also been
caught up in the vestiges of an educational philosophy that preceded mass education,
one that conceived of education as the privilege of the social elite and as a means of
both initiating the ruling class into their own cultural heritage and preparing them to
lead. Thus, the new socialization concept of education could not help but be imagined
by Americans seeking a better life as a means to access that privilege, and thus as a
solution to the problems associated with social inequalities like class and race.
Perkinson clarifies the flaw in logic that underlies this faith in education: ‘‘the notion
that the school was a panacea for all of society’s problems carried with it the assumption
that people were the root of the problem: they had to be changed; never the existing
arrangements, never the system’’ (1991, p. 229).7 The Outsiders plays on precisely this
confusion. After establishing the problems associated with social class—systemic and

See also, for example, Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis’s Schooling in Capitalist America and
Bowles’s ‘‘Unequal Education and the Reproduction of the Social Division of Labor.’’
One cannot ignore also that what would become the highest-paying occupations, like the practice of
medicine, were professionalizing over the course of the nineteenth century, constituting rules and
requirements for certification and practice, and that lengthy and costly education could be used as one
way to limit membership in these professions. Far from being a solution to the problem of social class,
education could be used to reinforce and maintain distinctions. See, for instance, Paul Starr’s The Social
Transformation of American Medicine for an account of this process of professionalization.
Children’s Literature in Education (2007) 38:87–101 99

generational inequality, alienation and malaise—the novel concludes by offering what it

represents as a possible solution to that problem: Ponyboy’s education and individual-
ism. The point is that, as Perkinson suggests, this solution is not really a solution. It
involves the transformation of Ponyboy, but not the transformation of the system, as
socialization involves transforming people, not social structures or processes. Moroever,
education as socialization can also work to inculcate in the student certain sets of
assumptions and certain ways of thinking—not just simply knowledge itself, but whole
systems of thought that enable and constrain what it is possible to know or not
know—that make it more difficult to recognize and respond to social problems and what
sustains them. Put simply, if through education we learn that what it takes to solve the
problem of social class it to work hard, get a good education, and attain middle-class
respectability, then that education has worked to mystify rather than clarify how social
class and inequality work and how one might act in ways to alter the social order. This is
what I am suggesting The Outsiders does.
In his history of the rise of English as a discipline, Terry Eagleton examines the ways
literature was promoted as a means of ‘‘civilizing’’ the uncultivated middle and working
classes in Victorian England. For the middle class, which was in the process of inheriting
the role of national leadership from the waning aristocracy, instruction in literature was
to be used, in the words of poet and critic Matthew Arnold, to inspire ‘‘a greatness and a
noble spirit, which the tone of these classes is not of itself at present adequate to impart’’
(qtd. in Eagleton, 1983, p. 24). With regards to the working class, the use of literature
had, according to Eagleton, an even more insidious use: ‘‘The actually impoverished
experience of the mass of people, an impoverishment bred by their social conditions,
can be supplemented by literature: instead of working to change such
can vicariously fulfill someone’s desire for a fuller life by handing them Pride and
Prejudice’’ (1983, p. 27). To this end literature would work to ‘‘convey timeless truths,
thus distracting the masses from their immediate commitments, nurturing in them a
spirit of tolerance and generosity, and so ensuring the survival of private property’’
(1983, p. 26). For men like Arnold, literature would replace religion as a source of
edification and would produce a calming effect on the ‘‘masses’’ who were meant to
meditate on the universal truths of the books they read. By reading their national
literature, they would develop a common culture, and so literature would be able to
replace religion as a kind of social glue, although reading itself is a solitary act. As
Eagleton quips, ‘‘If the masses are not thrown a few novels, they may react by throwing
up a few barricades’’ (1983, p. 25). If this seems far-fetched and paranoid, we need only
to note Eagleton’s point that ‘‘English,’’ as opposed to the classics or oratory, was first
institutionalized in England in Mechanics’ Institutes, working men’s colleges, and not
the prestigious universities of the social elite (1983, p. 27). Eagleton’s history of literary
studies shows that literature can be used not simply to educate, in the sense of
expanding knowledge, but also to distract and enervate, whether conspiratorially
deliberate or not.
I began with the question of why The Outsiders has been folded so comfortably into
secondary school curricula, the very purpose of which is precisely the maintenance and
reproduction of the social order. My answer is that the novel is effectively an
endorsement of American education and that the obfuscations of the novel work to
mystify further the problems it seems to expose. It does this by representing itself as a
solution, thereby obstructing inquiry rather than prompting it, which it achieves through
a conclusion that constructs the novel as a closed circuit. It ends where it begins, and it
elevates the work of the solitary author-hero over and above the collaboration of the
100 Children’s Literature in Education (2007) 38:87–101

collective. Its widespread educational use has the capacity to function as the contain-
ment of a potentially oppositional text within the domesticating and de-radicalizing
context of the official school curriculum. What I am calling an obfuscation is indeed
consistent with one of the central lessons of the novel: Johnny’s exhortation to ‘‘stay
gold,’’ or remain childlike, where to be childlike is understood as meaning innocent,
unknowing, and naı̈ve. This novel represents a faith in educational excellence, but the
reader must not forget, as Ponyboy must not forget, Johnny’s warning. If, in fact, this
conclusion mystifies rather than clarifies the problems of social class by re-asserting
education as a solution when this can only work, if it can be said to work at all, for the
exceptional individual, then we must consider the possibility that education itself
involves ignorance. Ponyboy is to know some things and not others, and so must the
reader. The novel itself works to encourage the reader to remain innocent and
unknowing of its own limitations as a solution to the problems of social class, and as long
as U.S. culture is invested in the image of children or young adults as innocent and
unknowing, The Outsiders will continue to be an unproblematized and underachieving
mainstay of the high school reading list.
Ultimately, I want to suggest that this text, as all texts, can be made to do more. Of
course, this novel is not a how-to manual for social reform or proletariat revolution;
nevertheless, we might consider the text’s potential for more liberatory instruction. I
have referred repeatedly to what I call the novel’s sleight of hand. One effect of magic
tricks is that they tend to inspire the question, ‘‘How’d you do that?’’ That is, the very
success of the trick promotes a suspicious investigation into precisely how the trick
works. Here, perhaps, is the potential of The Outsiders to provoke a more oppositional
reading that resists the palliative and enervating uses of literature in education. To the
extent that we imagine successful maturation as involving the achievement of a sense of
adult responsibility, and to the extent that getting an education involves preparing
young people to be compliant, productive, adult workers, then we might read Johnny’s
exhortation to ‘‘stay gold’’ as suggesting a resistance to precisely this developmental
trajectory.8 In other words, if becoming an adult means entering the alienating, malaise-
inducing, profit-driven world of adult work, then Johnny might be warning Ponyboy not
to succumb to the dominant ideology of what it means to be a successful adult in a
capitalist society. If this is what Johnny means, it is truly radical advice. The conclusion
then is more ambiguous than I might have suggested earlier. It leaves the reader with
the possibility of a more oppositional reading, even if that oppositional reading is highly
circumscribed by a young person’s encounter with the text in the context of an insti-
tution—the school. It might result, if the reader takes Johnny’s advice, in a refusal to
take one’s place in a system that results in alienation and malaise. Of course, successful
resistance itself requires a knowledge and understanding of the problems or systems that
need to be resisted, and so education is necessary. A more optimistic reading of Po-
nyboy’s return to his homework might understand him as seeking precisely this edu-
cation, even if the form of his education might ultimately defeat his purpose. To take
from traditional education the tools of resistance is possible, albeit difficult, and success
is likely limited only to the most exceptional youth, which is precisely the problem the
conclusion of the novel suggests. Again, The Outsiders provides no plan of action, and
its very implications are obscure and contradictory at best. Still, any text that in some

This alternative reading of ‘‘stay gold’’ was suggested to me by one of the anonymous readers of this
essay. Both readers provided tremendously useful and thorough comments, which I appreciated.
Children’s Literature in Education (2007) 38:87–101 101

way addresses a systemic social problem might work to motivate the reader to seek
more information about the problem, to ask important questions, and to consider
alternatives to the outcomes presented in the novel; it might clarify how the problem
works, what helps produce and sustain it; and it might provoke an affective response
that motivates a coherent, organized, and collective one.


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