Contrast Bob with Ponyboy. How does the pairing of these characters illuminate larger themes in the novel?
At first, Bob and Ponyboy appear to be opposites, with vast differences in breeding, socioeconomic status, and temperament. But as the story progresses, Hinton underscores the surprising similarities between these antagonists: their often untapped reserves of anger and passion, their distinction among their peers, their vices, and their disappointment in their families. Like Bob and Ponyboy, several other Soc/greaser pairs prove to be doubles of one another. By looking past the superficial differences between Bob and Ponyboy, Hinton emphasizes the sense of frailty and confusion that unites all the teenagers, whether well off or disadvantaged.
Bob begins the novel as the emblem of all things “Soc”—that is, all things rich, smug, entitled, and different from Ponyboy and his friends. The ominous blue Mustang that appears and reappears throughout the novel highlights the economic difference between Bob and Ponyboy; it’s as if Ponyboy cannot see past the beautiful car to the frightened boy behind the wheel. Cherry comments on the sense of coldness and reserve that Bob and the Socs project. This aloofness directly contrasts with the fieriness of Ponyboy, who makes frequent, impassioned displays of scorn and admiration for his brothers and friends. Bob’s identification as a “Soc” connotes the pomp, comfort, and opulence of a social club, whereas Ponyboy’s identification as a “greaser” calls our attention to his dirty, uncut hair. In their bearing and appearance, Ponyboy and Bob could not be farther from each other.
On the other hand, Bob and Ponyboy share a sense of longing and unhappiness that becomes more and more striking as the story unfolds. Although Bob is supposed to be a pillar of restraint, he attacks Ponyboy when he fears that his girlfriend may abandon him. Although Ponyboy is supposed to be ablaze with simple, dramatic emotions, he often fights back tears in the hospital and the church, exhibiting the same kind of reserve that Cherry describes in Bob. Both Bob and Ponyboy stand out from their friends—Bob because he is a natural leader, in Cherry’s estimation, and Ponyboy because he shows academic talent and a literary gift. Both Bob and Ponyboy have silly vices (drinking and smoking, respectively) that are shown to be more dangerous than they at first seem. Most surprising, Bob is just as aggrieved toward his parents as the orphan Ponyboy is toward his own mom and dad. Although Bob can have as much money as he wants, he feels his parents coddle him and wishes they would occasionally show respect for him by turning down one of his childish requests. Despite their surface differences, Bob and Ponyboy have in common feelings of frustration, anxiety, and heartbreaking hope.
Like Bob and Ponyboy, several other alleged antagonists prove to be touchingly similar in The Outsiders. Cherry seems vastly more refined than Sylvia, Edie, and the other greaser girls, but like these girls, Cherry confesses to feeling an admiration for Dally’s manly ferocity. Randy is in part responsible for seriously wounding Johnny, but like Johnny, he has a streak of anxiety and naïve idealism, which leads him to plan to bow out from the climactic fight between the Socs and greasers. Darry has none of the economic or social advantages that distinguish Randy and Bob, but as Ponyboy points out, Darry has a work ethic and an ambition that could easily turn him into a Soc under other circumstances. Natural enemies, the Socs and greasers are both groups of confused, angry children that wish for more guidance and understanding from the adult world.
By drawing out the startling similarities between Bob and Ponyboy, Hinton prepares us for the larger theme of a common humanity that runs throughout her novel. We begin by thinking that Bob and Ponyboy are completely opposed, as Bob’s “Soc” affiliation gives him an insider status while Ponyboy is one of the “outsiders” of Hinton’s title. Despite their identification with different groups, Bob and Ponyboy turn out to share weaknesses, uncertainties, and dreams. Like these two antagonists, several minor characters have superficial distinctions that overshadow their shared sense of passion and vulnerability. With her attention to the secret problems of the Socs, Hinton emphasizes the idea—voiced by Cherry—that “things are rough all over.”