It is all another way of saying—God’s way of saying—that pride goeth before a fall.
Fourteen-year-old Johnny Tremain is a silversmith’s apprentice in Revolutionary-era Boston. He lives with an elderly master silversmith, Mr. Lapham, and two other apprentices. Rounding out the bustling household is Mr. Lapham’s daughter-in-law and able housekeeper, Mrs. Lapham, and her four daughters.
Johnny has a special status within the Lapham house because he is considered the most talented young silversmith in Boston, and his skill brings in enough money to comfortably support the family. Johnny’s time is deemed so valuable that he is not forced to take part in the menial chores that the other two apprentices, eleven-year- old Dusty and sixteen-year-old Dove, are expected to perform. Proud and arrogant, Johnny lets his special position in the household go to his head: he insults the other boys for their clumsy mistakes and orders them around as if they were his servants. Mr. Lapham, a pious Christian, disapproves of Johnny’s arrogance. One day at breakfast he asks Johnny to read aloud some Bible verses regarding the sin of pride. Johnny acknowledges the rebuke but fails to rein in his arrogance.
Johnny’s relationship with Dove and Dusty is strained, but he is on friendly terms with the four Lapham daughters, particularly the two younger girls, Priscilla and Isannah. Mrs. Lapham wants Johnny to marry one of her daughters so that the silver business will stay within the family when Johnny takes it over. Priscilla, known as Cilla, is considered the most appropriate match, because her two older sisters, Madge and Dorcas, are too old, and the youngest, Isannah, is too sickly. Fourteen-year-old Cilla and Johnny interact primarily through good-natured insults, but these reveal a mutual fondness. The lion’s share of Cilla’s affection, however, is reserved for the ethereal-looking eight-year-old Isannah, whom Cilla loves and protects with a fierce passion.
In an exciting turn for the Lapham silver shop, the wealthy and powerful merchant John Hancock orders a sugar basin to match an existing tea set. Though Mr. Lapham was the original craftsman of the tea set, he is now old and doubtful that he can duplicate the skill of his youth, and so is reluctant to accept the job. Johnny, eager to work with such a beautiful design, accepts the job on his master’s behalf. Johnny struggles to design the handles for the sugar basin, but is continually dissatisfied with his attempts. After one particularly grueling session at the kiln, Cilla approaches Johnny in the middle of the night and asks him to accompany her to the wharf with Isannah. Isannah, she explains, is feeling sick and can only be soothed by the cool, fresh sea air. While they sit alone in the deserted night, Johnny feels intense intimacy with the girls, and reveals a secret he has never before told anyone. He explains that he is related to Jonathan Lyte, a wealthy Boston merchant. Before his mother died, he tells Cilla, she gave him a silver cup marked with the Lyte family coat of arms. Johnny’s mother told him to keep the cup hidden and never to approach the Lytes unless he was in serious trouble and had no other recourse. Johnny shows the cup to Cilla, but only after she promises to keep it a secret.
Johnny Tremain is not only a coming-of-age story, but also a work of historical fiction that provides a vivid portrayal of pre-Revolutionary Boston. We immediately learn that education was not compulsory in colonial Boston, nor was it common except among the upper classes. Although the literacy rate was higher in the colonies than in England, a person outside the upper class was considered highly educated with only the ability to read, write, and perform simple arithmetic. Johnny is deemed extremely well educated because he can read without stumbling. Unless a child came from a wealthy family, his or her labor was needed to support the family financially. For example, the son of a shopkeeper or a skilled artisan would enter into his father’s trade as soon as he was capable of carrying out simple tasks, and a daughter would begin helping her mother with housework as soon as she could walk. Families without a business of their own would pay skilled artisans to take their sons in as apprentices. In return for the valuable training that the apprentice received, for seven years all products of his labor belonged to his master. After those seven years, the apprentice became a master and could set up his own shop.
Johnny Tremain illuminates the characteristics of the institution of marriage in colonial America. The customs regarding marriage were less rigid among the middle and lower classes, but class and economics still heavily affected marriage rituals. For example, Mrs. Lapham is eager to marry one of her daughters to Johnny because, as the most talented apprentice, he will inevitably inherit the silver shop. Whether Johnny actually loves one of her daughters, or any of them love him back, is not really an important consideration in this economic arrangement. Johnny takes it as a matter of course that his mistress wants him to marry one of her daughters, as it is a common occurrence for a good apprentice to marry into his master’s family and business.
Religion played an integral role in colonial American society and law. A person could be punished for not observing religious dictums such as the prohibition against working on the Sabbath. However, during the time period of the novel, some of the religious restrictions on colonial society were becoming more relaxed. Near the end of the eighteenth century, the Congregationalist Church of Boston, like all the colonial churches, began losing much of its power over the people. The church’s loss of power was the result of many factors, including the increasingly cosmopolitan character of the colonies, a trend toward clerical intellectualism that alienated most laypeople, and a creeping liberalism within lay thought. The downward shift in religious fervor is portrayed nicely in the divide between Mr. Lapham and the younger members of his household. Mr. Lapham’s family regards his piety as somewhat old-fashioned. They react to his breakfast Bible readings with amused tolerance, and, in the next chapter, they even violate the Sabbath that he holds so holy.
The pre-Revolutionary world that Johnny lives in is characterized by rapid change and shifting attitudes. While Johnny navigates the precarious obstacles of adolescence, the colonies undergo a similar turbulent coming-of-age. The growing cultural, political, and economic conflicts with Britain throw the colonies into a reckless race to redefine their identities and differentiate themselves from their parent country. Johnny comes into close contact with key figures in the American Revolution, such as John Hancock, Samuel Adams, and Paul Revere, and his coming-of-age coincides with the coming-of-age of their revolutionary ideas. Johnny’s maturation is a metaphor for the maturation of the colonies into an independent nation with its own unique politics and culture.
We can see from the very first scene that Johnny’s pride is both an obstacle and an asset. His arrogance invites potentially dangerous animosity from those with whom he must work and live. His arrogance also drives him to rash actions, such as his impetuous decision to accept the Hancock order on behalf of his master. However, Johnny’s pride also motivates him to work tirelessly. He is not satisfied with anything less than perfection. Johnny is still a child at this point in the story, and his tendencies toward arrogance have yet to solidify into a rigid adult personality. At this point his development can take one of two courses: he can draw on the positive side of his pride to become self- motivated and self-possessed, or he can indulge in the negative aspects of his pride and turn into an arrogant, impetuous man. The story of Johnny’s maturation, which is the primary story of the book, is largely the story of how he develops an adult personality during the events of a developing nation.