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The major theme of the novel revolves around the purposelessness of any gang of teenagers. The book centers on the foolish gang rivalry existing between the Socs, the rich kids from the west side of town, and the Greasers, the poor kids from the east side.
Pony, the protagonist of the story, is bitter about the fact that the wealthy Socs have nice cars, fancy clothes, and girlfriends; things are simply easier for them than for the Greasers. Because the Socs are convinced that they are better, they constantly pick on members of the Greasers, who fight back. During one squabble, Bob, one of the Socs, is murdered by Johnny in self-defense. Then Johnny, while hiding out in a church, is killed while trying to rescue children from the burning building. In reaction to Johnny's death, Dally, his best friend, goes on a rampage. He robs a store and points an unloaded gun at the police; as a result, he is shot and killed. Because of the needless gang fighting, three teenagers are killed in the novel, clearly pointing out the negative aspect of belonging to a gang. Hinton is obviously trying to warn the reader against participation in any gang.
Related to the major theme of the book is the theme that a teenager can rise above his circumstances through hard work, patience, and determination. Pony is the proof of this theme. Even though he is born into poverty, loses his parents in a car accident at an early age, and participates in the Greasers, by the end of the book, he is determined to better his plight in life, largely due to the encouragement he receives from the deceased Johnny in a letter. At the close of the novel, Pony wants to tell the world that underprivileged children need to have some breaks in order to get ahead and need to be judged for who they are, not by how they look or how they dress. Hinton definitely convinces the reader that Pony, because of his intelligence and determination, will rise above the poverty and gang life that he was born into.
When the story opens, the mood is bitter and rebellious. Pony and the other Greasers resent the fact that the Socs have lots of money, nice cars, fancy clothes, and many girlfriends. In contrast, they are poor and must work extremely hard for everything they have. In addition, society is prejudiced against them because of their clothes, long hair, and greasy appearance. In the middle of the novel, the mood becomes increasingly angry. The Greasers are tired of the Socs always picking on them, and the Socs are furious about the Greasers hanging out with some of "their girls." As a result, the Socs jump Pony and Johnny. In self-defense Johnny kills Bob, one of the Socs.
The mood then becomes one of terror. Pony and Johnny are scared for their own safety and fear the police. Upon Dally's advice, they hide in an abandoned church and worry about being found. The mood then switches to great sadness, for Johnny, in trying to rescue the children when the church catches on fire, is killed himself. Dally then gets himself foolishly shot by the police, leaving Pony with two less friends. By the end of the novel, however, the mood has some degree of hope. Pony is determined to rise above his past. He adopts a new mission in life, to tell the world about the problems and deprivations of underprivileged children, like himself. It is obvious that in the end, Hinton is very sympathetic towards the plight of Pony and the Greasers.