Study Guide

The Outsiders Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By S.E. Hinton

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Sunrise and Sunset

In The Outsiders, sunrise and sunset are symbols of unity and connection. For example, when Ponyboy connects with Cherry at the movies on the topic of sunsets, he begins to realize that all humans are linked through the natural world. When Pony is confused and angry over Cherry's willingness to help the Socials before the rumble and after Bob's death, he uses the topic of the sunrise to diffuse the situation.

The sunrise is associated with a much closer connection between Pony and Johnny. The high point of this connection is when they watch the sunrise together from the top of Jay Mountain, and after Ponyboy recites the poem "Nothing Gold Can Stay" by Robert Frost. (More on that in Johnny's "Character Analysis.")

Johnny tells Pony, "I never noticed colors and clouds and stuff until you kept reminding me about them. It seems like they were never there before" (5.62). Seeing the dawn at this moment is, for Johnny, a truly new dawn, because his eyes open wide to the natural world. Sadly, he doesn't get to experience life through these new eyes for very long.

This is an important moment for Pony, because he's found someone who shares his vision of the natural world. He tells Johnny, "you ain't like any of the gang. I mean, I couldn't tell [them] about the sunrise and clouds and stuff. I couldn't even remember that poem around them" (5.65). This helps us understand just how hard it was for Pony to deal with his friend's death.

Chocolate

Ponyboy is frequently seen eating candy bars, and there's really nothing very symbolic about a kid eating candy. But, when we add chocolate cake for breakfast into the mix, the treat does take on a bittersweet symbolism. When Pony is describing his breakfast-making activities on the morning after his return from Jay Mountain, he tells us,

All three of us like chocolate cake for breakfast. Mom had never allowed it with ham and eggs, but Darry let Soda talk him into it. We really didn't have to twist his arm; Darry loves chocolate cake as much as we do. (7.23)

So, in some ways, chocolate, specifically chocolate cake, becomes a symbol of the Curtis boys' loss of their parents. What kid hasn't thought something like, "if Mom and Dad weren't around, I'd eat chocolate cake for breakfast everyday!"? Well, if it meant the loss of Mom and Dad, chocolate cake for breakfast wouldn't be such a great thing, would it? Pony makes sure we understand that Darry only lets them eat the cake with the more nutritious ham and eggs, and that Darry provides nutritious balanced meals. The cake symbolizes their loss, but also Darry's desire to give his brothers something, anything to take away some of the sting from their loss. The brothers reach for sweetness in an increasingly bitter time in their lives.

Gone With the Wind

Margaret Mitchell's bestselling novel Gone With the Wind (1936) makes several appearances in The Outsiders. Like the sunrise, it's one of the things that connects Pony and Johnny. By buying the book for Pony in the first place, Johnny shows how considerate he is, and how observant. Pony doesn't even remember mentioning that he wanted to read it.

So, what does a novel about the U.S. Civil War have to do with The Outsiders? Well, we can start with a broad definition of "civil war." Basically, a civil war is a huge fight between members of the same country or group. Isn't this what's going on with the Greasers and the Socs? They're all residents of the same city. They even go to the same school. Yet, they're locked in a battle in which one group – the Socials – seeks to dominate and control the other group – the Greasers. Although this is certainly not on the scale of the U.S. Civil War, this gang battle is loosely based on the same principles, and includes casualties, weapons, battles, and other hallmarks of war.

We find it interesting that Pony doesn't finish reading the novel. The book will, for him, be a symbol of Johnny and Johnny's "unfinished" life, a life he gave up in order to do something he considered meaningful and important – saving the little kids from the fire. Johnny is, for Pony, gone with the wind. Still, he's left something behind for Pony, tucked into his copy of the book. The letter (discussed in Johnny's "Character Analysis") inspires Pony to take up a different kind of weapon to fight his battle –his pen, which Pony uses to nonviolently transform his world and to positively shape the worlds of other boys like him.

Newspapers

In "Tone" we suggest that The Outsiders has the feel of an exposé, or a piece of investigative journalism. The frequent references to newspapers contribute to this feel. Before the reporters come to the hospital to interview Pony and his brothers after the fire, Pony seems to think that the papers are somewhat biased toward the Socials and against the Greasers. But, after the fire, Pony observes that the papers actually tell the truth. Like the novel itself, the papers offer a deeper perspective on Greasers by portraying them as heroes, and telling the story of their struggles against the bullying and violence committed by the Socs. In The Outsiders, the papers become a symbol of the media's power to show hidden things and to make a difference in the lives of those whose stories might otherwise remain hidden.