There's an appeal to S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders that perhaps isn't much different from the tug teenagers today feel for redeemable bad boys such as Edward Cullen and the like. The difference is this story is told from the perspective of one such bad boy, Ponyboy, so we know he's not really a bad boy, just a kid stuck in the wrong circumstances and with the wrong people. There's an appeal, as well, to the fatalism of Romeo & Juliet and the doomed gang warfare of West Side Story. Some of these kids know better, though some don't, but they don't have an authority figure to guide them how to act better. Hinton's first novel has become a hit in middle school classroom precisely because it touches on things that is familiar to every teenager: cliques, fitting in, and friendship.
The story is told from the perspective of Ponyboy, who lives with his two older brothers: Sodapop and Darry (the only one their parents gave a normal name, I guess). Their parents passed away, so Darry is left to take care of the two, sacrificing a football scholarship to do so. Sodapop is charming, but he's dropped out of school and has no real hopes of moving up in the world, while Ponyboy has good grades and focuses on running track, but the lack of stability in his life is constantly threatening his future. These three are part of a group called the Greasers, kids who put grease in their hair and act real tough. Greaser is a term that is used both as a badge of honor and as an insult to character. Greasers are poor kids from broken homes or uncaring parents. Their natural enemies are the Socs, bored rich kids who like to spend their time tormenting hapless greasers.
The two groups often get into "rumbles," fights that usually involve fists, bloody noses, and battle scars that add to one's reputation as "tuff" (cool). Ponyboy is the youngest in his gang of greasers and feels uneasy because he has yet to prove himself. Others in the group include Dallas (Dally) Winston, a greaser who has actually killed someone; Two-Bits, the group clown; Johnny, a boy who'd grown timid the day a band of Socs nearly beat him to death; and Steve, Sodapop's best friend. One night, Ponyboy and Johnny befriend a Soc girl named Cherry, who is the girlfriend of a Soc, and they find that she isn't so bad. Cherry comes to the same conclusion about these two greaser boys. However, when Cherry's boyfriend discovers these greasers hanging out with his girlfriend, he decides to do something about it. I won't say what happens next, but that it turns the worlds of the greasers and the Socs upside down.
If Hinton has an overarching message, perhaps it's that people shouldn't be so quick to judge one another. The greasers are seen as bad boys, and as such they're looked down upon. Socs are able to get away with the mischief they do because everyone is quick to side with them and blame the greasers. Nobody wants to believe a rich kid is capable of societal harm. But the poor kids are easy targets. The Socs are the type of bullies who end up elected to political offices because they have money, while the greasers are the type to jump in and out of the prison system because they don't know any better. But each group has its flaws. The problem with the Socs is they lack compassion. In fact, they lack any feeling at all. It's as though their wealth has made life so easy they get bored. And just as Ishmael (from Moby-Dick) works off his boredom by knocking off people's hats, the Socs get into mischief by bullying those inferior to them. The greasers, on the other hand, have lots of passion, maybe too much. The two groups could learn a thing or two from one another if they stopped to talk to each other.
Hinton is also taking a look at what happens when there is no adult involvement in the lives of kids. The only guardian Ponyboy and Sodapop have is their 20-year-old brother, Darry, who's just a kid himself. He tries his best to make sure his brothers' lives will be set straight, but he lacks wisdom. He's hardly a replacement for lost parents, who wouldn't be involved in rumbles as Darry is. Johnny has both of his parents, but they don't care about him. He's constantly abused by his father and sometimes prefers skipping out on going home. As for the rest, it's clear there's very little boundaries to keep them on a straight path. The Socs we know even less about, but one can imagine their parents excusing the behavior of their sons with the usual "boys will be boys" line of thinking. The tragedy of Ponyboy's future may be that he will never have an adult role model to help him find a better life for himself. He may be doomed, like his brothers and friends, to be forever a greaser.
A lot of this might sound cliche, and it is, but it's wrapped up in an irresistible package of an irresistible plot. These are good kids, and it's easy to imagine young readers choosing favorite greasers. If this was written today, you'd have shirts saying "Team Ponyboy" and "Team Sodapop" and the like. To be fair, unlike some of the teeny bopper stories today, The Outsiders is engaging and entertaining, precisely because it makes us like some of these kids and gets us involved in their doomed adventures. Perhaps sometimes the story is a little unbelievable, tries a little too hard to jerk on the heartstrings, and uses a gangster dialect that can be grating on the nerves. This isn't a great story, but it's a good one, and it has heart. And that's important.