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Symbols and Motifs from "The Outsiders"

written by: Peter Boysen • edited by: Patricia Gable • updated: 2/14/2012

"The Outsiders" is a richly written novel for middle school readers, many of whom may struggle to interpret the symbols and motifs present. This article provides an explanation for some of those elements.

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    Symbols

    The Outsiders symbols, motifs and similar elements help in expressing the novel's rhetorical argument. One of these is the automobile. The Soc's have them, not because they've bought them independently, but because their parents can buy them. This gives the Soc's the ability to move around more quickly and safely. The greasers must walk everywhere, which makes their movements more dangerous. Interestingly, though, Sodapop, Darry and Steve work on cars, which means that, ironically, they are more familiar with cars than the Soc's who get to drive them. This expresses how the Soc's have a closer connection to reality, specifically the "down and dirty" realities out there. The fact that the greasers work on what the Soc's own, though, shows the power that the Soc's possess.

    Two-Bit's knife is another interesting symbol. It's a switchblade, and so it's illegal. This makes it an expression of the general disdain for rules that the greasers treat as a main ethic. The switchblade also gives its possessor the power to take life. The power of the switchblade is limited, though -- inferior, for example, to a pistol. This symbolizes the limited power that the greasers can attain.

    The greaser hairdo is an important symbol to them. It is a countercultural statement against the typical short haircuts conventional for men in that time period, and it is a look that makes the greasers unique.

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    Motifs

    In The Outsiders, several motifs are at work in the story that parallel the book's main idea. One of these is the continual references to great works of literature. In the first chapter, Ponyboy compares himself to Pip, the protagonist in Dickens' Great Expectations. Pip and Ponyboy have several experiences in common: both are orphans, both are poor, and neither can really understand the way that the world works. Later in the book, Ponyboy and Johnny spend time discussing "Nothing Gold Can Stay," one of Robert Frost's poems. This poem demonstrates the impermanence of youth and of innocence in our imperfect world. When the two boys are hiding out at the church, they read Gone with the Wind. When Johnny compares Dally to one of the Southern gentlemen in the novel, he can comprehend why Dally is the way he is.

    It may seem odd that Ponyboy, a greaser, is so familiar with such difficult works of literature. This serves to tell the reader that greasers are just as difficult to label as everyone else. One might look at Ponyboy's greaser haircut and assume that he wouldn't get within a mile of a thick novel, but he loves them. People, then, are more complex than their outward appearances.

    Look at the different shapes and colors that each character's eyes have. The characters that seem coldest to Ponyboy, or most emotionally distant, are Dally and Darry, and their eyes are a frosty blue -- and Dally's are thin. Narrow, blue eyes suggest to Ponyboy a hard personality. Contrast these eyes with the thick, black eyes of Johnny Cade. He is still young -- and still soft. This doesn't mean he's not a hero -- look how he charges into the church to save the children. He hasn't, however, become hardened to life like Dally has. This is why Dally breaks down and begs Johnny to stay out of prison and not turn cold like he did.

    In The Outsiders, symbols, motifs and other devices serve to express S.E. Hinton's ideas about the things that make people more alike than they would like to think at times. Helping your students identify and analyze these devices will only enrich their love for this novel.

Study Notes for S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders

This is a series of articles designed to help students of middle-school age who are reading The Outsiders.
  1. Themes From The Outsiders for Middle School Language Arts Class
  2. Important Quotations from "The Outsiders"
  3. Symbols and Motifs from "The Outsiders"

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