Friday, September 2, 2011

Adventure classics -- Healing through violence

The Outsiders

by S.E. Hinton


I read a news story about a woman firefighter/EMT who was outraged by the refusal of her male colleagues to discuss their feelings after harrowing episodes at work. Instead, the men wound down by watching violent movies.

They probably didn’t understand why depictions of violence helped heal them of the trauma they had encountered. But Aristotle would have understood. And S.E. Hinton understood also, even if not always conscious of the healing the artful use of violence -- I emphasize the word artful -- can bring.

While reading The Outsiders, I lost track of the number and variety of injuries and deaths Hinton catalogued in her depiction of gang violence. The predominantly male cast of characters are so deeply committed to violence that Susan Eloise Hinton’s publisher suggested using her initials to keep reviewers from using her gender to dismiss the novel. Maybe they didn’t believe a good girl could, or should, know bad stuff.

Writing in “Poets & Writers,” Benjamin Percy and Aaron Gwyn quote Flannery O’Connor, calling her “our dark-hearted godmother,” on the uses of violence.

“With the serious writers, violence is never an end in itself. It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially, and I believe these are times when writers are more interested in what we are essentially than in the tenor of our daily lives.”

In a world where gore is available freely and instantly online, Percy and Gwyn offer suggestions on the legitimate uses of violence: it’s a catalyst for change, not the answer to the problem; and imagined violence has more power than witnessed violence. In all cases, the readers must be emotionally invested, not simply titillated.

The initial confrontation of The Outsiders begins: “‘Need a haircut, greaser?’ the boy confronting protagonist Ponyboy Curtis asks. “(He) pulled a knife out of his back pocket and flipped the blade open.

“I finally thought of something to say. ‘No.’ I was backing up, away from that knife. Of course I backed right into one of them.”

But by the end, Ponyboy can say more than no. He can say, “I could see boys going down under street lights because they were mean and tough and hated the world, and it was too late to tell them that there was still good in it. . . It was too vast a problem to be just a personal thing.”

(Percy and Gwyn’s article in the May/June 2011 issue of “Poets & Writers” is available for purchase through “archives” at )

(Next Friday -- At least Ponyboy’s brothers had his back. Lucy Pevensie won’t be so lucky, in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.)


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