As he lies dying in Chapter 9, Johnny Cade speaks these words to Ponyboy. “Stay gold” is a reference to the Robert Frost poem that Ponyboy recites to Johnny when the two hide out in the Windrixville Church. One line in the poem reads, “Nothing gold can stay,” meaning that all good things must come to an end. By the end of the novel, the boys apply this idea to youthful innocence, believing that they cannot remain forever unsullied by the harsh realities of life. Here, Johnny urges Ponyboy to remain gold, or innocent. Johnny now senses the uselessness of fighting; he knows that Ponyboy is better than the average hoodlum, and he wants Ponyboy to hold onto the golden qualities that set him apart from his companions.
The quotation also recalls the period of time during which the boys’ friendship blossoms and solidifies—the idyllic interlude at the church. During this blissful time, the two boys read, talk, and smoke, escaping the adult world of responsibility. Like the gold of the poem, however, this idyll is tinged with sadness. Just as the gold in the poem vanishes, the idyll must end, and the boys must face the consequences of the murder.