Reading from a different angle

Courtesy SparklingAdventures.com

Courtesy SparklingAdventures.com

Our class recently discussed S E Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967), considering it in the light of Erik Erikson’s views (1963) on American identity, which he believes developed under the pressures of various “polarities”: individualism vs. loyalty to the community, hard vs. soft (“better a sinner than a sucker”), etc. If you’ve read Hinton’s breakout novel, published when she was just 17 years old, you know Ponyboy’s struggles as he negotiates the embattled line between the Greasers and the Socs.

It’s a popular book, riffing off of West Side Story, The Wild Ones, Rebel Without a Cause and other outsider/insider texts. Hinton’s novel highlights the lower-class and middle-class divide: what kind of cars the members of the two gangs own, where they live, where they hang out, what they wear. To modern readers, the divide is visible, felt, continually contested. There is no DMZ, only “our turf” and “their turf”.

Which brings me to my point. While Erikson allows us to see Ponyboy’s struggle as a metaphor for every American’s struggle, it’s a monochromatic and monogendered struggle. That is, Hinton’s characters (and Erikson’s examples) are all white and mostly male.

Do modern teens, living in a more integrated country (albeit still haunted by racism and its consequences), notice the missing people? Is it enough to argue that Hinton’s purpose was NOT to address issues of race or gender? Is there any benefit in asking students to consider the novel from the stance of a woman or a person of color?

9780060243647_xlgDown-These-Mean-Streets-9780679781424Because my job requires me to think about diversity – among the teachers in my courses and their current and future students – I read with such questions in mind. It may be that the way to make the omissions visible is to pair Hinton’s book with something like Walter Dean Myers’ Scorpions, featuring African American and Puerto Rican characters. Set in Harlem the 1980s, Myers’ novel is closer to the experiences of students in NYC classrooms. Piri Thomas’ Down These Mean Streets is another, perhaps even more interesting option, since it was published the same year as The Outsiders.

Whichever book I select, it will at least address one part of diversity, helping readers to see and wonder about what’s missing.

-BR

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4 thoughts on “Reading from a different angle

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post, BR. You raise some really interesting questions. The one that was of particular interest to me was: “Is there any benefit in asking students to consider the novel from the stance of a woman or a person of color?” My answer to this question would be yes. I can hardly think of a time when it wouldn’t be a good idea to consider a novel – or any sort of text – from the stance of a woman or person of color. Considering The Outsiders from these points of view might make Ponyboy and the gang’s experience seem more time-, place- and race-specific or, contrarily, more universal than previously thought.

    I also want to thank you for your recommendations of Scorpion and Down These Mean Streets. I had never heard of them before today, but they look great!

    -SD

  2. BR, I think you made an excellent point but while readers can’t connect to it in terms of gender and/or race- they connect to something more important : the financial way of life and the feelings that are so common no matter what color you are or who you are. I see the financial struggles that pony boy went through and I instantly think of my students and the stories they have told me about home. I can immediately draw the connection of a home that is hanging on a thread financially. I also see something that is important about that too. When Ponyboy and Cherry are talking the first time and they both talk about seeing the same moon and their similar and yet different struggle what do you believe Hinton is really saying there (subconsciously or consciously)? I love to focus on books that are extremely diverse and my kids (who are predominantly minorities) can connect to and live through. This book, while having a predominantly white characters, is able to have the reader from any race/socioeconomic status relate to the struggles of the Greasers and the Socs.

    -DML

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