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The novel deals with the needless pain and violence caused by gang rivalry. The entire book centers on the animosity that exists between the Socs, the rich kids from the west side of town, and the Greasers, the impoverished teenagers from the east side. Because the Socs think they are superior, they jump on the Greasers at every opportunity. Before the book actually begins, they have beaten up Johnny Cade, the meekest Greaser, for absolutely no reason. Then in the first chapter of the book, the Socs jump Pony, the main character, as he walks home from the movie theater alone. Such needless violence leads directly to the death of Bob and indirectly to the deaths of Johnny and Dally.
When Pony, Johnny and Two-Bit befriend two Socy girls, Cherry and Marcia, there is some hope that with increased interaction between the two gangs, their hostility will decrease. In fact, Pony and Cherry find that they can talk easily with each other and have a lot in common, including their love for sunsets. But this friendship is not allowed to develop because the Socs resent their girls fraternizing with the Greasers. As a result, Bob and a few other Socs attack Pony and Johnny to teach them a lesson. During the fighting, Johnny kills Bob in self-defense. Pony and Johnny then hide in an abandoned church in Windrixville. They rise above themselves and heroically rescue some children from the burning church. During the rescue, Johnny is seriously wounded when a burning beam falls on his back; he is put in the hospital and is not expected to live.
In spite of the fact that Johnny is close to death and Dally is injured, the tension between the Socs and the Greasers increase. The Socs want to have a rumble to settle the score about Bob. In the fight that ensues, the Greasers are joined by the Shepard and Brumly gangs; they easily defeat the Socs. But the violence is still not ended. When Johnny dies, Dally goes crazy. He pounds the wall, rushes out of the hospital, robs a store, and points his unloaded gun at the police. As a result, he is shot and killed while his friend watch in horror. Pony is so upset by the violence and the loss of another friend that he is delirious for more than three days. Fortunately, Johnny's letter, written before his death, makes an impact on Pony, and he vows to rise about his life of gangs and violence and promises to help other underprivileged children. Like Johnny, he has realized the pain and futility of gang rivalry.
A minor theme is that dysfunctional families place an unbelievable hardship on the children. Johnny has the look of a kicked puppy, for he has been repeatedly beaten by his father and totally ignored by his mother. Dally has no family that cares about him, and he has spent his life in and out of jail since the young age of ten. Darry has had to leave school and work two jobs in order to support Soda and Pony after the death of his parents. Two-Bit's mother must work as a barmaid to support him and his sister, because his father has deserted them. Steve hates his father, who neglects him. All of these teenagers suffer from neglect and a lack of love; as a result, they join a gang in order to have a sense of belonging.
Another minor theme is the injustice of judging people on appearances. The Socs get by with all of their meanness because they appear normal; they live on the right side of town, have plenty of money, dress nicely, have short hair, and drive expensive cars. As a result, they are never blamed for anything bad. In contrast, the Greasers are considered to be hoods, because they are poor, they live on the wrong side of town, their hair is long and greased, and they wear strange clothing. As a result, they are blamed for everything. In truth, it is the Socs who always start the trouble throughout the book.