The Outsiders is a novel of conflicts—greaser against Soc, rich against poor, the desire for violence against the desire for reconciliation. Dally and Johnny do not battle against each other, but they are opposites. Johnny is meek, fearful, and childlike, while Dally is hard, cynical, and dangerous. As they near the ends of their lives, however, Johnny becomes strong and Dally becomes weak. Once-meek Johnny faces death with calm determination. He writes a strong, commanding note to Ponyboy, and he also transcends his meekness by refusing to see the mother who has always neglected him. Dally, on the other hand, is weakened by grief. He runs from Johnny’s deathbed in a fit of uncontrollable sadness. In Ponyboy’s view, Dally commits suicide by baiting the police and then showing them a gun, thus forcing the police to shoot him. Dally sheds his tough, cool exterior and reveals the fear that actually rules his behavior.
In Ponyboy’s life, Dally and Johnny represent the qualities of innocence and strength that Ponyboy must reconcile. Dally and Johnny need one another. Johnny worships Dally’s toughness and savvy, and Dally loves Johnny’s vulnerability and openness, which remind him of the qualities he has lost after a lifetime on the street. Ponyboy realizes that he cannot become wholly naïve or wholly tough. He cannot stop being a greaser in order to retain his innocence or sacrifice his ideals in order to become a toughened gangster. He must learn how to be like both Dally and Johnny.
2. Discuss Ponyboy’s evolving conception of the Socs. How does his opinion of the Socs at the end of the novel differ from his opinion at the beginning?
Over the course of the novel, Ponyboy’s opinion of the Socs shifts. As his understanding of them changes, Ponyboy sees the Socs either in a negative light or more sympathetically. At the beginning of the novel, Ponyboy, like all of the greasers, hates and fears the Socs. He thinks of them as dangerous enemies. After he meets Cherry at the movie theater, however, Ponyboy begins to realize that Socs are human just like greasers. He sees that he and Cherry appreciate many of the same things, like sunsets. His empathy for the Socs suffers a setback, however, after a group of them attacks him and Johnny in the park.
When Ponyboy rescues the schoolchildren from the burning church, it opens him up to the idea of a human compassion that transcends gang loyalties. Later, Ponyboy talks with the Soc Randy about the rescue, and the two come to a peaceable understanding. Still, Ponyboy does not miraculously shed his animosity toward the Socs, not even after Johnny pleads with him to stop fighting. His traumatic experiences have scarred him. As the story ends, gang tensions still exist, and Ponyboy still feels anger. Yet he is about to embark upon an intelligent exploration of his tragedies by writing about them.
How is “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” the Robert Frost poem that Ponyboy recites to Johnny at the church, relevant to Ponyboy and Johnny’s story?
“Nothing Gold Can Stay” offers Ponyboy and Johnny a way to understand their lives; it gives the boys a framework for the traumatic events of their story. The poem likens the inevitable loss of innocence that the boys experience to the wilting of flowers. Sunrises transform the night into day, flowers wilt, and paradise is destroyed. In the poem, the conditions of existence dictate that everything loses its initial innocence. This loss of youth and purity does not have to be devastating, however. By using a metaphor from nature, Frost suggests that the loss of innocence is as natural as the death of a flower. Both losses must be accepted as an inevitable part of the cycle of life. Because of their poverty, the greasers will inevitably suffer losses and sacrifices. In citing the poem, Johnny and Ponyboy acknowledge that this loss is unavoidable but not that the loss of beauty is inevitable. Before he dies, Johnny urges Ponyboy to “[s]tay gold,” to hold onto those ideals that will outlast his loss of youth and innocence.
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