Outliers Literary Elements


Nonfiction, sociology and cultural theory (appropriate for non-specialists)

Setting and Context

Emphasis on the 20th and 21st centuries, but considers information from other time periods

Narrator and Point of View

Written in a standard journalistic and essayistic voice by Malcolm Gladwell; mostly third-person with some passages of autobiography

Tone and Mood

Informative and generally accessible to non-specialists

Protagonist and Antagonist

Protagonists: the subjects of Gladwell's case studies in success; Antagonists: individuals who present cultural and economic barriers to success

Major Conflict

Gladwell considers how random factors (e.g., birth date, age, opportunities for practice) can determine the success of an individual. The people profiled in his book must often struggle against large socioeconomic forces, such as income equality and national culture, in order to succeed.


Arguably none. A typical Gladwell's chapter culminates in an intense and revealing consideration of the forces behind an individual's success. It is possible that the final section, "A Jamaican Story," is meant as a point of high drama in the narrative, since this section chronicles Gladwell's own family history in a revealing way.


Gladwell frequently introduces individuals who are known to be successful (e.g., Bill Gates, the Beatles) and then walks the reader through how they achieved success. Sometimes (as in the case of Joe Flom) he describes an individual's career successes, and then explains how those successes were achieved.






Gladwell will often, though not always, provide descriptions that allow readers to firmly envision the scenes that he is describing. This technique is especially prominent in his discussions of the New York garment trade, airline accidents, and his own family history.


Several paradoxes and ironies are present in Gladwell's analysis of success. Below are a few of the most prominent.

- Intelligence does not guarantee success.
- Cultural stereotypes sometimes contain a grain of truth.
- Genius is a product of practice, not inspiration.
- Politeness can be a destructive influence.


Gladwell groups his case studies into two groups of similar individuals: people whose successes are linked to opportunities, and people whose successes are linked to cultural legacies. In some cases, he also pairs off individuals (such as Chris Langan and Robert Oppenheimer) who have similar talents but radically different levels of success and recognition.

Metonymy and Synecdoche

In his different accounts, Gladwell shows how a few individuals have benefited from factors such as the opportunity to practice and the presence of assertive parenting styles. Presumably, the same factors could benefit people whom Gladwell does not consider in any depth. Thus, Gladwell's chosen individuals stand for a larger group of people.