That Was Then, This is Now

That Was Then, This is Now Themes


In That Was Then, This is Now, the main characters Bryon (the narrator) and his best friend Mark are like brothers. Bryon even says so explicitly at the very beginning of the story while he was describing their appearances: “He was my best friend and we were like brothers” (pg. 13). When Mike in the hospital mistakes them for being actual brothers, Bryon does not bother to correct him, and says that even “For a minute I really felt good about Mark’s telling this guy we were brother” (pg. 33). Bryon feels not only a pride in being “related” to Mark specifically, but also a security in being bound to another person in such an intimate fraternal relationship. Bryon and Mark try to figure out and understand this feeling and how it has worn off over the years with their other friends: “We were like brothers, not just you and me, but all of us together. We woulda died for each other then. And now everybody’s kinda slipped away, and then we woulda died for each other. Really, man, remember? It was great, we were like a bunch of people makin’ up one big person, like we totaled up to somethin’ when we were together” (pg. 68), says Mark. This explains the difference between brotherhood and other forms of friendship. ‘Being brothers’ means being family, and Bryon’s eventual riddance of Mark is like ridding himself of a body part.

Reality and perception

Throughout the entire story, Bryon’s first-person narration comments extensively on people—that is, he shares with readers his perceptions of the other characters and of the situations around him. These comments are both on characters’ physical appearances as well as on their internal qualities. As astute as Bryon’s observations often are—and as much as he now has the advantage of writing this story from a future point-of-view and looking back, with understanding—he realizes that his observations are all and only from his personal, subjective perspective. For example, he is startled when Cathy defends M&M as a wonderful, beautiful person, since he has hitherto only viewed M&M as kind, but strange. He is struck by a realization, when he goes to school without Mark, that his rich classmates haven’t actually viewed him as he views himself—as “friendly, wiseguy Bryon” (pg. 71)—but that they have actually been judging him all the time, and using his amiability to show off to him. The most powerful realization Bryon has about the truth of a person is his realization of Mark: that Mark is not whom Bryon has always perceived him to be. Although Bryon knows that Mark steals and does thing in his free time which are definitely not legal, he does not know to what extent Mark has taken it—he also realizes that selling drugs is not just a one-time job for Mark, but rather that Mark, as a person, has no conceptions of law or morality.

Morality and human law

That Was Then, This is Now raises serious questions about the way morality and law are related and should be handled. As disadvantaged kids living in a violent and poor neighborhood, Bryon and Mark face constant restriction by the law. Their boundaries of activities are always running against the edges of the law, whether these are police and authority figures (as despised by Bryon), or pushing moral and technically illegal boundaries (as Mark often does when he talks himself out of situations, or even out of guilt, such as with Charlie’s death and with dealing drugs). As Bryon grows up and grows more serious, especially about school and girls, he realizes that rules are important. Mark on the other hand, has no respect for social and legal laws—or human morality at large. The only two people he cares for in the world are Bryon and himself. He believes that laws and restrictive boundaries can be bent and shaped. Mark does just this, using his words and persuasion to talk himself out of anything, even from hotwiring the principal’s car. However, Bryon gradually comes to realize that Mark’s lawlessness is unstable and unhealthy, and that what Mark is doing is “wrong” (pg. 147). Before M&M’s hospitalization, Bryon had never considered that there were hard rules for what was “right” and what was “wrong” in the world, but he hopes that turning in Mark will finally be something “right.”

Possibilities (and "What if?" considerations)

One thing that holds Bryon back as he continues to grow is how often he entertains past possibilities. Many of his ruminations on “What if this had happened instead?” are spurred on by Mark’s actions. This shows a fundamental difference between the boys, whereas Mark simply acts, and Bryon is the one who reflects on these actions afterwards; Mark is decisive, and Bryon deliberates. This is part of the reason why Bryon’s calm, quick decision to turn Mark in is so surprising and almost out-of-character. Although Bryon ends the entire novel with one last passage on “What if these things had happened instead?” it is an impressively powerful testimony to the permanence of history—as well as the varied possibilities of human interpretation of permanent history. Even though these “what-if” considerations seem to be looking backwards at what has already happened, they are actually looking forward, towards whatever Bryon still has left to look forward to; in this way, they are another commentary on the passage of time.

Socioeconomic backgrounds

A common thread throughout almost all S. E. Hinton’s novels is the subjective treatment of youths from bad backgrounds. Hinton drew inspiration from the harsh realities in which she grew up, and her often violent and realistic depictions have drawn controversy. However, her work also exposes a side of society that was not often written about, at least for young people, up until her time. In That was Then, This is Now, a character’s background is something that is real and important. More often than the opposite, it leads to certain restrictions, whether this is in the police being extra hard on them—like the time they beat Bryon up and threw him on the side of the road—or resorting to stealing and illegal means of making money—like Mark’s petty thieving and eventually turning to pushing drugs. Hinton never lets her readers forget that a person is very much defined by his or her history and the environment in which him or herself. Hinton helps readers understand that Mark’s decision to turn to selling drugs is first and foremost a result of his socioeconomic situation—he wants to help pay Mrs. Douglas’s medical fees—and not just because he wants to break the law. In this regard, there is an element of tragedy in all of these characters that have grown up in such situations. However, despite the brokenness of the neighborhoods, love within families can make up for this hardship.

Influence of the past on the present and the future

The story of That was Then, This is Now is all centered around growth and what coming of age really means. Hinton referenced Updike, saying that his idea of “growth as betrayal” helped frame the character arcs in this book. In considering growth, readers have to consider the movement of time. Every occurrence within this story carries causation and effects, and the awareness of the narrator of his maturation allows readers to really digest how things lead to other things—often without purpose or control from the human agents involved. The very title references the passage of time, and breaks this passage of time into the sharp divide between two points. This sharp divide mirrors both the “cause and effect” modeling of events, as well as the sharp divide that results between Bryon and Mark, one which Bryon even describes as being as wide as the Gulf of Mexico. Things that happened in the past often come back to haunt characters in their present. For example, Cathy’s middle school appearance is immediately referenced when Bryon first sees her upon her return. For Bryon, his relationship with Angela constantly comes up in his mind even when he is dating Cathy. Bryon’s bad experience with the police shapes his whole ideas and responses to authority. Subconsciously, Mark’s experiences seeing his parents kill each other also makes him more okay with Charlie’s death than Bryon is.

The effect of historical context

Set in the 1960s when social and political movements were reaching intense and pivotal points, That was Then, This is Now very much carries the weight of the larger historical narrative going on around it. This is one thing that marks it as a more mature book than The Outsiders. For example, the presence of hippies and the racism against black people are pervasive and recurrent elements of the book. Even those these elements mark it as a very timely book—that is, one that is restrained to this particular time period and location in America—it also actually makes its timeless message of growth and betrayal even more powerful.