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Johnny, the meekest member of the Greasers, is slightly built, with big-black eyes in a dark tanned face and long, jet-black hair heavily greased and combed to the side. He has the appearance of "a little dark puppy that has been kicked too many times and is lost in a crowd of strangers." He always seems to be cringing and uncertain of himself, largely because he is a battered child. His father frequently beats him, and his mother ignores him except to scream at him about something. As a result, the Greasers are always trying to protect Johnny. Dally, in particular, watches out for him, and Johnny, in return, idolizes him; therefore, it is very surprising when Johnny tells Dally not to bother Cherry Valence. Obviously, Johnny has the moral courage to stand up for what is right.
Before the novel begins, Johnny has been beaten up by the Socs for no reason. As a result, he is constantly nervous, afraid of being hurt again. By nature, Johnny is not prone to violence; in fact, he is a very mild and decent teenager, just like Pony. But he now carries a switchblade for self-defense. When he and Pony are jumped by the Socs in the park, Johnny uses his switchblade to defend himself. In the fighting that ensues, he stabs and kills Bob. Pony is in shock to see Bob lying dead on the ground, knowing that Johnny has killed him. After the murder, Johnny, who is usually meek and mild, takes control, for Pony is paralyzed with fear. He suggests that they go and find Dally to get help. Johnny then follows Dally's instructions, taking Pony with him to jump a freight train to Windrixville. During the train trip, it is Johnny who stays awake in the boxcar and gets Pony up when it is time to jump off the train. Even when they reach the comparative safety of the abandoned church, Johnny is the one who ventures out to purchase supplies; he is also the one who thinks of cutting their hair in order to disguise their appearance. Though Johnny is as frightened as Pony, he becomes the provider and comforter.
During their hide-out in the abandoned church, Johnny and Pony become very close. They spend their time reading Gone With the Wind aloud, discussing life, and admiring sunsets. When Pony recites a poem by Frost, entitled "Nothing Gold Can Stay," Johnny is sensitive enough to understand that beauty and innocence are transient and must be guarded like gold. Johnny also displays a lot of courage and grit when he arrives at the decision to surrender himself to the police. He has carefully analyzed the situation and decided that he does not want to endanger the innocent Pony any longer; neither does he want to stay on the run for the rest of his life. Also, since he has no police record, he feels he will be given a light sentence, especially since he killed Bob in self-defense.
Johnny proves that he is heroic when he immediately, with no thought of self, goes into the burning church to save the children trapped inside. During the rescue effort, a burning timber falls on him. He is horribly burned and his back is broken. In the hospital, it is obvious that he is close to death. Before he dies, he writes Pony a letter in which he says that it is worth dying to have saved the children. He also encourages Pony to guard the gold, remember the good in the world, and rise above being a Greaser. Johnny's words of encouragement positively and dramatically change Pony's life.
Throughout the book, Johnny longs to receive love from his parents, who do not really care about him. He tells Pony that he is lucky to have Darry and Soda for brothers, for "I ain't got nobody." But Johnny never gives up hope about his mother and father. When Dally comes to visit him and Pony at their hide-out in the church, he wants to know if his parents have been worried about him. Dally has to tell him that they have not even made an inquiry about his whereabouts. Then when Johnny is admitted to the hospital after the fire, he again wants to know if his parents have asked about him. When his mother finally shows up at the hospital, shortly before he dies, Johnny thinks it is too late and refuses to see her. He is convinced that she will simply yell at him for being an inconvenience, for he has been treated as a bother throughout his existence.
Out of the tragedy of Johnny's death, there emerges a positive hope for Pony. Because of his dying friend's words of encouragement, Pony promises to become a better person and reach out to help underprivileged children.