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The Obvious....To Begin With
Look at the title of the novel. The idea of being different, or unacceptable, is a theme of The Outsiders all in itself. The "greasers" in the novel certainly feel this way -- they feel like the deck is constantly stacked against them. In truth, tragedy has come to call on Ponyboy's family, in the death of his family, in ways that do not affect most children. Ponyboy's brother Darrell has to give up his dream of playing college football so that he can support the younger brothers by working two jobs. The middle brother, Sodapop, drops out of school to work at a gas station.
If you add this to the idea that, based on the way he dresses, Ponyboy is vulnerable to random attacks by the "Soc" group -- the rich kids who use their spare time in getting drunk and looking for "greasers" to fight. If you add this socioeconomic warfare to the tragedy that has entered Ponyboy's life personally, you can see how he starts to feel like life is set up against him.
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Another one of the themes in The Outsiders centers on the difficulty in family relationships. The families in the novel range from the horrific (Johnnycake's home is so abusive that he regularly sleeps outside) to the nonexistent (Dally doesn't appear to have any significant adult relationships in his life). In comparison to many of the other "greasers," Ponyboy's family is actually fairly harmonious, as Darrell provides the structure that most parents try to instill, although he has not yet learned the nurturing side of parenting.
If you look at Ponyboy's perspective on this, he realizes that Darrell requires him to do well at school and to let him know where he is at all times, but he also sees that Darrell yells at him a lot more than his father had done. Family relationships are difficult every time a child hits the teen years, but the death of Ponyboy's parents has put him and his brothers in an especially difficult situation.
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Not Everything Is Black and White
In The Outsiders, another theme involves the ways in which adolescents tend to see the world in two shades: absolute right and absolute wrong. An important lesson for people to learn as they pass from the teen years into the adult world is that the world rarely takes those "black and white" forms.
In her writing, S.E. Hinton incorporates colors into the story to help the reader see both of the warring groups in a deeper, richer way. In general, the "Soc" kids appear around warm colors, while the "greasers" appear around cooler colors -- and this matches the view that the "Soc" class is on the inside, having gained acceptance, while the "greasers" are stuck outside, still waiting to be found worthy. Note the cold hatred in Darry and Dally's eyes.
When the color white does appear, it is as a sign of ambiguity. Note Dally's hair -- blond to the point of whiteness. Dally is the meanest of the "greasers," but he gives Ponyboy and Johnny money, a gun, and a coat when they need to run. He tries to help the two of them when it's time to pull the children out of the church fire. So clearly, Dally is not all cold inside.
Themes From The Outsiders for Middle School Language Arts Class
This is a series of articles designed to help students of middle-school age who are reading The Outsiders.