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.
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.
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.