Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Outsiders

Having been published nearly 50 years ago, S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders has become an easy favorite for many young adults and teens. Much of the appeal lies in the novel's central protagonist, Ponyboy Curtis who as the youngest in his gang, struggles to find his own identity and place all the while trying to find approval from the rest of the group so that he may fit in. 

Ponyboy is the youngest of 3 brothers, all now orphans (after their parents died in a car crash) but yet the brothers still maintain some similarity to a family unit. Ponyboy is handled both as a child and as a brother within this family; his 2 older brothers, Darry (the oldest) and Sodapop emulate the now empty roles of mother and father. Early on in the book, Ponyboy decides to walk home alone, and Darry screams at him for this dangerous decision. Ponyboy narrates that there's no proper way for him to act around Darry and that he would be yelled at no matter what: “Me and Darry just didn't dig each other. I never could please him...He never hollered at Sodapop...He just hollered at me” (Hinton 13). Although neither Ponyboy nor Darry enjoy the role the play in the family unit, they both stick to it begrudgingly as if that is the only way it could work. Sodapop's constant stepping in provides a defense for Ponyboy and he consistently plays a nurturing, affectionate, warm, and caring role for Ponyboy. Darry on the other hand seems more concerned with Ponyboy's surface growth. After being scolded by Darry, Ponyboy is comforted by Sodapop much like a mother might comfort a hurt child: “'You cold Ponyboy?' 'A little,' I lied. Soda threw one arm across my neck. He mumbled...'Listen, kiddo, when Darry hollers at you....he don't mean nothin' (Hinton 17). Although Sodapop splits his time and attention between the two brothers, it would seem like Ponyboy would want that affection solely for himself. Darry provides the role of breadwinner, and Ponyboy would say he loves Darry as much as Sodapop, but his love for Darry is more out of respect. In Ross C. Murfin's essay “What is Psychoanalytic Criticism?” he refers to Freud's idea of the repressed mind: “One of the unconscious desires most commonly repressed is the childhood wish to displace the parent of the opposite sex” (504). The relationship between Darry and Ponyboy hints at Freud's idea of eternal strife and perhaps in Ponyboy's mind it would be easier to “remove him” rather than rival him for Sodapop's attention. 

It is also Sodapop who essentially works to unite the two and keep the family together. In order to do this, Sodapop must downplay the roles each plays in the family unit so that they may more properly understand each other. It is through Sodapop that Ponyboy realizes that Darry isn't as unfeeling as Darry pretends himself to be and is somewhat like them: “I suddenly realized that...he wasn't so much older that he couldn't feel scared or hurt and as lost as the rest of us. I saw that I had expected Darry to do all the understanding without even trying to understand him” (Hinton 177). In order for the boys to live peacefully, it is necessary that Ponyboy not see Darry as a rival and authority and instead to acknowledge their similarities. Having lost the sense of rivalry, Ponyboy no longer feels any hatred or fear towards Darry. Murfin explains Freud's position on fear: “A boy...may fear that his father will castrate him” (504). Darry has not necessarily lost the ability to castrate, but Ponyboy at this point has lost his fear of castration and therefore can remove him and his brother from their eternal strife. 

Hinton's book acknowledges that family units often function with gender roles in place, yet the story destroys the function of these roles and downplays their necessity.

1 comment:

  1. So interesting--one of the other posts (Dan's) discusses a transvestite in a kind of slant on the traditional father mother child complex, and you do something similar here. Could see how one might go from here into an interesting gender discussion about how Soda fills certain stereotypical nurturing roles and Darry traditionally male ones...