Search Menu


Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor

The Outsiders tells the story of two groups of teenagers whose bitter rivalry stems from socioeconomic differences. However, Hinton suggests, these differences in social class do not necessarily make natural enemies of the two groups. The greasers and Socs share some things in common. Cherry Valance, a Soc, and Ponyboy Curtis, a greaser, discuss their shared love of literature, popular music, and sunsets, transcending—if only temporarily—the divisions that feed the feud between their respective groups. Their harmonious conversation suggests that shared passions can fill in the gap between rich and poor. This potential for agreement marks a bright spot in the novel’s gloomy prognosis that the battle between the classes is a long-lasting one. Over the course of the novel, Ponyboy begins to see the pattern of shared experience. He realizes that the hardships that greasers and Socs face may take different practical forms, but that the members of both groups—and youths everywhere—must inevitably come to terms with fear, love, and sorrow.

Honor Among the Lawless

The idea of honorable action appears throughout the novel, and it works as an important component of the greaser behavioral code. Greasers see it as their duty, Ponyboy says, to stand up for each other in the face of enemies and authorities. In particular, we see acts of honorable duty from Dally Winston, a character who is primarily defined by his delinquency and lack of refinement. Ponyboy informs us that once, in a show of group solidarity, Dally let himself be arrested for a crime that Two-Bit had committed. Furthermore, when discussing Gone with the Wind, Johnny says that he views Dally as a Southern gentleman, as a man with a fixed personal code of behavior. Statements like Johnny’s, coupled with acts of honorable sacrifice throughout the narrative, demonstrate that courtesy and propriety can exist even among the most lawless of social groups.

The Treacherousness of Male-Female Interactions

As hostile and dangerous as the greaser-Soc rivalry becomes, the boys from each group have the comfort of knowing how their male friends will react to their male enemies. When Randy and Bob approach Ponyboy and Johnny, everyone involved knows to expect a fight of some sort. It is only when the female members of the Soc contingent start to act friendly toward the greasers that animosities blur and true trouble starts brewing. Even on the greaser side, Sodapop discovers female unreliability when he finds out that his girlfriend is pregnant with another man’s child. With these plot elements, Hinton conveys the idea that cross-gender interaction creates unpredictable results. This message underscores the importance of male bonding in the novel to the creation of unity and structure.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Literary references occur throughout The Outsiders, helping us understand how the characters in the novel view themselves and those around them. Ponyboy first alludes to a work of literature in Chapter 1, when he compares himself to Pip from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations. Ponyboy identifies with Pip because he, like Pip, is orphaned, impoverished, and struggling to make sense of the world. Additionally Ponyboy and Johnny put special emphasis on Robert Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” which helps them understand that growing up and facing reality is a necessary part of life. Finally, Johnny likens Dally to a Southern gentleman in Gone with the Wind. Having this idealized vision of Dally makes Johnny able to understand him.

Literature not only creates a bond between Ponyboy and the other characters, as when he discusses books with Cherry and reads to Johnny, but it also creates a cyclic premise for the narrative itself. We find out at the novel’s end that the narrative of The Outsiders is in fact an autobiographical work that Ponyboy is writing in order to pass his English class. This revelation confirms the importance of literature in the story as a means of connecting with others.

Eye Shape and Color

Though Hinton gives thorough physical descriptions of all her characters, she places particular importance on their eyes. Characters’ eyes represent key facets of their personalities. For example, Darry and Dally—the two boys with whom Ponyboy feels the least comfortable—have icy blue eyes. Dally’s eyes, in particular, are narrow. The narrator considers these two characters to be hard, even heartless, and the narrowness and cool hues of their eyes reflect their invulnerability. Hinton repeatedly defines Johnny Cade, on the other hand, by his wide, black eyes. In correspondence with his eye shape and color, Johnny is generally nervous, gentle, and vulnerable to attack.

Ponyboy’s Losses of Consciousness

During the second half of the novel, beginning with the scene at the burning church, Ponyboy loses consciousness multiple times. It might seem strange at first to have a narrator slip in and out of mental clarity and thus miss out on entire spans of plot development. However, it makes sense that Hinton would distance her narrator temporarily in this manner, as this gives us, as well as Ponyboy, a needed rest from the intense action. This device also allows for events to be recounted after they happen, so that Ponyboy can sift through unnecessary details.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Two-Bit’s Switchblade

Two-Bit’s switchblade is his most prized possession and, in several ways, represents the disregard for authority for which greasers traditionally pride themselves. First of all, the blade is stolen. Second, it represents a sense of the individual power that comes with the potential to commit violence. This symbolism surfaces most clearly when Dally borrows the blade from Two-Bit and uses it to break out of the hospital to join his gang at the rumble. It is fitting that Two-Bit finally loses the blade when the police confiscate it from Dally’s dead body. The loss of the weapon, at this point, becomes inextricably linked with the loss of Dally—a figure who embodies individual power and authority.


Cars represent the Socs power and the greasers’ vulnerability. Because their parents can afford to buy them their “tuff” cars, the Socs have increased mobility and protection. The greasers, who move mostly on foot, are physically vulnerable in comparison to the Socs. Still, greasers like Darry, Sodapop, and Steve do have contact with automobiles—they repair them. We can interpret this interaction with cars positively or negatively. On one hand, it symbolizes how the greasers have a more direct and well-rounded experience than the Socs with the gritty realities of life. On the other hand, the fact that the greasers must service and care for Soc possessions demonstrates that the Socs have the power to oppress the greasers.

Bob’s Rings

Bob Sheldon’s rings function similarly to the Socs’ cars. Throughout literature, rings and jewelry have been traditional symbols of wealth. The rings in this story represent the physical power that accompanies wealth. By using his rings as combative weapons, Bob takes advantage of his economic superiority over Ponyboy and the other greasers, using his wealth to injure his opponents.

Greaser Hair

The greasers cannot afford rings, cars, or other physical trappings of power that the Socs enjoy. Consequently, they must resort to more affordable markers of identity. By wearing their hair in a specific style, greasers distinguish themselves from other social groups. Conservative cultural values of the 1960s called for men to keep their hair short, and the greaser style is a clear transgression of this social convention. It is not only distinctive, but, as a physical characteristic, this hair is truly an organic part of the greaser persona. When the Socs jump Ponyboy at the beginning of the novel, they ask him if he wants a haircut and threaten to cut off his hair. By doing so, they would rob him of his identity.

Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

Take a quiz on this section
Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz



In a show of solidarity, what did Dally once do for Two-Bit to show honor among the lawless?
Killed a man
Married his sister
Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

Themes, Motifs & Symbols QUIZ

Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs & Symbols Quiz

More Help

Previous Next
Eye color important!

by jmm0411, September 02, 2012

Eyes represent the way Ponyboy feels about certain characters! For example Darry has icy blue ices because Ponyboy feels least comfortable with him.


204 out of 288 people found this helpful

Good Book!

by harrygirl320, September 13, 2012

For once, I actually recommend really reading this book...its pretty interesting


81 out of 175 people found this helpful

The Outsiders

by Shooby698, May 12, 2013

Sodapop kinda acts like there mom.Darry kinda acts like the dad.


46 out of 128 people found this helpful

See all 29 readers' notes   →