Johnny Cade is a vulnerable sixteen-year-old greaser in a group defined by toughness and a sense of invincibility. He comes from an abusive home, and he takes to the greasers because they are his only reliable family. While Johnny needs the greasers, the greasers also need Johnny, for protecting him gives them a sense of purpose and justifies their violent measures. When Johnny, little and vulnerable, suffers at the hands of the Socs, the greasers feel justified in their hatred of the rival gang.
Passive and quiet, Johnny is the principal catalyst for the major events of the novel. He stands up to Dally at the drive-in and tells him to stop harassing the two Soc girls, Cherry and Marcia. Johnny’s intervention on the girls’ behalf pleases the girls, and they talk and walk with the greasers. This interaction between female Socs and male greasers sparks the anger of the Soc boys and motivates them to attack Johnny and Ponyboy. Ultimately, Johnny’s small acts of courage lead to murder, death, and heroic rescue. But Johnny ends by advocating against gang violence, stating that he would gladly sacrifice his life for the lives of little children. Although a gentle boy, he has a profound impact with his startling, persistent demand for peace. His courage in rescuing the children from the burning church and his subsequent death as a result of injuries sustained in the rescue make him a martyr. Ponyboy’s decision to write the story that becomes The Outsiders ensures that Johnny’s bravery will not be forgotten.