There were dozens of us on the set, bit players, with a gesture to make and a line or two to recite. A few were young and had nice bosoms; but I knew they were different from me. They didn’t have my illusions. My illusions didn’t have anything to do with being a fine actress. I knew how third- rate I was. I could actually feel my lack of talent, as if it were cheap clothes I was wearing inside. But, my God, how I wanted to learn, to change, to improve. I didn’t want anything else. Not men, not money, not love, but the ability to act.
This quotation comes from Chapter 8. As Ponyboy sits in the hospital and watches Johnny dying, he muses on the fragility of group cohesion. It seems obvious that Johnny needs the greasers—he is small, passive, and poor, which makes him an easy target of Soc violence. Less obvious is the gang’s need for Johnny. The greasers need a vulnerable friend to give them a sense of purpose. Telling themselves that they exist to protect people like Johnny lets them avoid thinking about the fact that their poverty and vulnerability leave them no choice but to band together. Ponyboy comes to this conclusion at the end of the novel, as Johnny is dying. He understands Johnny’s value only when he is about to lose Johnny, which amplifies the pain of the loss.