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The Outsiders, from the beginning to the end, is centered on the gang rivalry between the underprivileged Greasers from the east side of town and the rich Socs from the west side. In particular, the plot is about the development of one of the Greasers, Ponyboy Curtis, as he journeys down a path of self-discovery. The story unfolds in classical form. Chapters 1-3 serve as an introduction; the main characters are described and the conflict is established. Chapters 4-11 present the rising action, including Bob's murder, Pony and Johnny's flight to Windrixville, the rescue of the children from the burning church, Johnny's death, and Dally's death. The climax occurs late in the novel, during the last and final chapter. After reading Johnny's letter written to him before his death, Pony at last accepts that his friend is gone and decides to follow his advice and rise above a life of gangs and violence. The falling action is very brief, with Pony pledging to spend his time and energy in teaching other people about the problems that underprivileged children must face, hoping to find them help. He begins his mission by writing his semester theme for English class on the subject.
The novel is unified by time, place, and character. Only a few weeks pass in the book, from start to finish. Most of the action takes place within a small town in or around Pony's house, with the only exception being the time spent in Windrixville. Most importantly, the book centers on the development of Pony Curtis, the main character and narrator of the novel. Since he tells the story, Pony is always present, and everything is seen from his point of view. Additionally, Johnny, Dally, Darry, Soda, Two-Bit, and Cherry are repeatedly woven in and out of the narrative like a thread holding the story together. Finally, the emphasis on the futility and tragedy of gang violence throughout the story further unifies the plot.
Even though Pony's plot ends as a comedy, most of the story is tragic, almost from the first page of the novel. As Pony walks home alone from the movie theater, he is jumped by the Socs for no reason. From this point forward, one needless act of violence is followed by another. After the Socs see Johnny and Pony talking to some of their girlfriends, they vow revenge. They follow the two Greasers and jump them in the park. In the fight that follows, Johnny stabs and kills Bob in self-defense. Then Pony and Johnny feel compelled to go into hiding. When their hide-out catches on fire, Johnny is seriously wounded while trying to rescue some children trapped inside. Pony, Johnny, and Dally are all taken to the hospital, but Pony is quickly released, and Dally escapes. The two of them participate in the rumble that has been scheduled between the Socs and the Greasers. Because the Greasers get help from the Brumly and Shepard gangs, they easily defeat the Socs. But the tragedies are not yet over.
Johnny soon dies as a result of his severe burns and his broken back. Dally goes absolutely crazy in response to his death; he leaves the hospital, robs a store, and points his unloaded gun at the police. He is then shot to death in front of his friends. Pony faints at the sight and is delirious for three days. Even after he regains consciousness, he cannot concentrate, do his schoolwork, or accept that Johnny and Dally are really dead. It seems that he will never recover; fortunately, the story ends happily for Pony when he finds the letter from Johnny that encourages him to make something of his life. Pony follows the advice and decides his mission will be to help underprivileged children. Because of Johnny, Darry, Soda, and others who care for him, Pony is able to turn his life around and rise above the life of gangs and poverty that he has always known.