World War II sparked a shift in the economy, causing an increase in economic resources and social self-sufficiency among the adolescent. This new freedom garnered creative liberalism, and is the origin for young adult literature. In the decades following the wartime, realism, the practice of fidelity in literature to nature or to real life, became more prominent in the young adult genre, and by the 1960’s new realism, “an opposition to the romanticized stories that had been considered appropriate for children,” took effect (Donelson and Nilsen 113). The Outsiders (1967), by S.E. Hinton, played a key role in developing the literary criticism of young adult fiction by introducing realistic characters, their combative conflicts, and ambiguous conclusions. The Outsiders surrounds a greaser gang of misfits as they battle the social status assigned to them by the construct of a small-town enthralled in the 1950’s way of life. The narrative focuses on Ponyboy, an orphan, raised by his brother and gang leader, Darry and Sodapop. Each member of the Greasers, and rival gang, the Socs, has their own complex reasons of being as realistic asHinton portrays them, but Ponyboy is unique in that he battles with wanting an identity outside of the gang. Unlike his brothers, Ponyboy has the most potential of becoming something much greater than anything the other gang members have achieved. Hip-hop artist, Kendrick Lamar paints a similar picture of realism in his latest album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (2013), a semi-autobiographical look into the life of crime and violence he experienced in his adolescence. The album follows K. Dot, one of the many misguided youths of Compton, California, a city recording artists refer to as “Murder Capital of the World.” K. Dot is strung along by peer pressure to perform the same violent acts as his gang affiliated friends, but like Ponyboy, K. Dot has the potential to reach better opportunities for himself. Lamar’s album emulates the character development and progression of a literary masterpiece. Every other track on the album is a cadence of lyricism that paints a portrait of each chapter –animating the linear storyline of the evolution of K. Dot, with the latter tracks being a rationalization of his choices in life. The similarities, from a literary and literal viewpoint, between Ponyboy and K. Dot are almost mirrored – both succumb to peer pressure, struggle with an identity and the way their society perceives them, and both witness the death of a friend. The parallel between Ponyboy and K. Dot could not be understood without analyzing the aspects of realism incorporated in The Outsiders and Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City – it is through realism that their resemblances are the most convincing.
In The American Novel and Its Tradition (1957) the characteristics of realism are defined according to the elements in young adult fiction. The first characteristic is the protagonist’s role in the narrative. The central character is more important than the action and plot of the surrounding setting. For emphasis, in The Outsiders Ponyboy had two older brothers, Darry and Sodapop, but Hinton never focused on how the parents’ death affected Darry and Sodapop mentally or emotionally. The only thing the reader grasps is what Ponyboy is directly affected by – Darry is the pseudo parent and takes care of the family’s finances, but often patronizes or yells at Ponyboy, and Sodapop is the compassionate brother who can relate the most to Ponyboy. In K. Dot’s story, the listeners follow his every move, from his bad decision of hooking up with the hoodrat, Sherane, to his awakening of himself and a realization of the severity of living the thuggish lifestyle that his friends lead. Along K. Dot’s journey he reflects on his past decisions, but never focuses on or blames anyone other than himself for the path in which he takes. Narratives within realism also present complex ethical choices between the plot. The Outsiders and Good Kid, M.A.A.D City are an issue of ethics because the majority of characters are adolescents, yet no matter the content, the protagonists are never romanticized – they are exposed to the real world.
Ponyboy is allowed to smoke cigarettes and drink beers, and permitted by Darry to hang out with the Greaser gang although he knows that things can get violent between the Greasers and the Socs. During a heated argument with Darry, Ponyboy storms out of the house and runs to the park, only to bump into his best friend, Johnny. As they make their way to the park’s fountain, some of the members of Socs show up, on Greaser territory, and begin taunting Ponyboy and Johnny. Johnny has been attacked by the Socs before and suffered from a concussion, and has a permanent scar on his face – Johnny is seemingly petrified when the Socs begin dunking Ponyboy’s head in the fountain in an attempt to wash the grease out of his hair. Just as Ponyboy is about to fade out, from the lack of air, the hands holding him down disappear, and he drops to the ground. In an instant, a Soc is stabbed in self-defense by Johnny, but in the essence of realism, Ponyboy finds it necessary to feel as if he broke the law as well, and the duo decide to jump a train to the next town. Ponyboy never stops to think how unethical and illogical it is to flee a crime which could have been explained, and the narrative is from his prospective so, the reader is not made aware of Johnny’s take on ending someone’s life, although his responses to Ponyboy’s outbursts were almost robotic.
K. Dot’s complex ethical choices are similar to Ponyboy in that it involves some gang activity and the death of several people. An analysis of the album title, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City,is the first indication to the claim of complex ethics. The second half of the title gives the notion that some complications come into K. Dot’s plot. The “M.A.A.D” acronym has two meanings: My Angry Adolescent Divide and My Angels on Angel Dust. The first interpretation of the acronym is to be taken in a literal sense, meaning K. Dot is at the point in adolescence where he is trying to define himself as an individual, but is having a harder time because of his environment. The first interpretation also portrays the fact that the album is an actual division between K. Dot’s adolescence and awakening. The second interpretation of the acronym is in relation to Lamar’s experience with cocaine in his adolescence. The first time K. Dot smoked marijuana it was laced with cocaine, also known as “angel dust,” and experienced a negative reaction. After overcoming the issue, K. Dot vowed to never smoke marijuana again, making him an angel, due to angel dust - at the end of the album he promises the listeners that he will speak against violence and drug use. Most of the complex ethical choices K. Dot makes are within the first six tracks of the album. For example, during “The Art of Peer Pressure” K. Dot is exposed to the habits of his delinquent friends, smoking, drinking, and stealing, and admits to only doing so because he is with “the homies.” The track picks up as K. Dot and his friends make their way across town to Westchester to kill time before they burglarize a house they had been staking out for two months. Once K. Dot and the group break in, they realize that someone is in the house, and they must get out before the police are called – a chase ensues but the group manages to escape. Later on in K. Dot’s plot, it is revealed that even after he gets a job as a security guard, at an attempt to better himself, he helps stage a robbery after his third week on the job. Despite the constant warnings from his mother, K. Dot chooses to go against her advice and fall subject to peer pressure – the same issues in ethics arise within Ponyboy’s story line.
The second aspect of realism is the appearance of the protagonists’ complexity of temperament and motive. Ponyboy and K. Dot are aware that they are different from their groups of friends. Ponyboy is more intelligent and intuitive than his brothers – he is able to decipher the roles of each gang member and rank their importance. Ponyboy is quiet in manner and enjoys reading in his free time. Most of the Greaser gang either dropped out of school, or are doing poorly. After Ponyboy and Johnny leave town after following the killing of the Soc, it is revealed while attempting to read Gone with the Wind (1936), that Johnny cannot read at an appropriate grade level – a product of a dysfunctional environment. Ponyboy’s brother, Darry, presses that he stay on task in his studies and get good grades, unlike Johnny, whose parents are verbally and physically abusive to him. Although Ponyboy has sympathy for some of the Greasers, he hates the Socs, in the beginning. The altered take of hatred and gang rivalry make Ponyboy’s narration biased, which is a direct example of his complexity in temperament. In the beginning of Ponyboy’s narrative, an overall goal is not sensed - he has no plans for the future and only talks about the gang, yet towards the end, Ponyboy manages to convince the reader that he will go on to develop goals for himself to become someone better. The lines, “stay golden,” refer to Ponyboy’s promise to himself to be an individual. After the death of Johnny, Ponyboy has matured enough in his development to forgive the Socs – seeing the similar struggles within both gangs’ journey in finding an identity.
At the beginning of the album, K. Dot’s goal is to hook up with Sherane, but because of his trip on angel dust and the death of his friend, Dave, he awakens from his adolescent stupor and his motives change completely. K. Dot’s temperament and motive make an apparent shift after he is beaten up by Sherane’s gang affiliated cousins. In the track entitled, “M.A.A.D City,” K. Dot speaks out against gang affiliation despite his friends’ gang affiliation – this biased narration follows Ponyboy’s subjective narration in The Outsiders, and can be linked to a complexity of temperament. K. Dot begins the verse:
If Pirus and Crips all got along
They’d probably gun me down by the end of this song
Seem like the whole city go against me
Every time I’m in the streets I hear
Lamar mentions rival gangs that are prominent in Compton for emphasis into K. Dot’s setting, and insinuates that because he preaches against their violent lifestyle, they are out to kill him. K. Dot’s parents do not allow him to affiliate with gangs because his father was involved in gang activity while growing up in Chicago, and was forced to move to California. K. Dot has developed a hatred for gangs, as well as the police because they harass black males through racial profiling. K. Dot warns his attackers:
Crawl your head in a noose
You wind up dead on the news
Ain’t no peace treaty,
Just pieces BG’s up to pre-approve
K. Dot means that if the people are involved in gangs, then they are better off committing suicide because eventually they will meet their demise. There is no possibility of peace between rival gangs because guns held by adolescent gangsters, result in nothing more than death and violence. Like Ponyboy, Kendrick manages the complex task of “staying golden,” of defeating the odds of becoming a product of their environments. K. Dot vows to make something of himself, so that he can educate the adolescents who do not have the same opportunities.
The last characteristic of realism is the protagonists’ realization that class is important. From Ponyboy’s perspective, the Socs wealthier status gives them an upper hand at a better education and more opportunities to gain employment. These advantages are important because they would help improve the Greasers if they were allotted the same courtesies. At the rumble, Ponyboy has the thought that if Darry were not responsible for him and Sodapop, he would have been a Soc. In admitting to Darry’s potential role in society, Ponyboy acknowledges that the rank in class is important. In a literal sense, Ponyboy’s statement could be determined insulting because superficially, Darry is not a Soc, but metaphorically, Darry has the potential and wits to be a Soc, much like Ponyboy.
Gang conflicts like the one depicted in The Outsiders is the main theme in Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. “Good Kid” is the first track on the second half of K. Dot’s journey. At this point, K. Dot is recovering from being jumped by Sherane’s cousin and realizes the negative effects of gang culture, but because of his place in society, cannot escape its grasps:
But what am I supposed to do
When the topic is read and blue
And you understand that I ain’t
But know I’m accustomed to
K. Dot means that although he has no gang affiliation he still understands the proper protocol when called on by your peers. In the terms of society and the police, K. Dot gets no sympathy because they categorize him as a gang banger:
I heard them chatter:
He’s probably young but I know that he’s down
Step on his neck as hard as your bullet proof vest
K. Dot means exactly as he says - the police disregard his young age and racially profile him by assuming that he is gang affiliated. In an attempt to start a gang file on K. Dot, the police rough him up much like the gang members do in his neighborhood. The police are therefore, just another gang in Compton, forcing the adolescents who share K. Dot’s class status, to pick a side.
Realism is an imperative part of literature because it gives an in-depth point of reference to people of the future on how life is, and leaves an impression of how society functions. In the cases of Ponyboy and K. Dot, their way of life is defined by multiple factors of complex ethical choices, motives and their class status. Without the analysis of Ponyboy and K. Dot’s choices, their characterization would not be as concise. Realism gives a fictional character a three-dimensional personality that makes them relatable and easier to learn from.
Chase, Richard. The American Novel and its Tradition. Baltimore: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1957.
Donnelson, Kenneth L., Nilsen Alleen P. Literature for Today’s Young Adults. New York: Addison-Wesley Longman, Inc., 2001.
Habegger, Lisa. “Why Are Realistic Young Adult Novels So Bleak?: An Analysis of Bleak Realism in a Step from Heaven.” Indiana Libraries 2004: 34-40.
Hinton, S.E. The Outsiders. Viking Press, 1967.
Lamar, Kendrick. “Good Kid, M.A.A.D City.” 2012.
Mitchell, Margaret. Gone with the Wind. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1936.