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Johnny Tremain

Esther Forbes

Chapter V: The Boston Observer

Chapters III–IV

Chapters VI–VII

Summary

Johnny is still desperately trying to find a job, so he decides to sell his silver cup for money to tide him over. He believes that he can ask the highest price from Lyte, since Lyte would want the cup to round out his set. When Johnny approaches Lyte, however, the crooked older man tries to have Johnny arrested again by claiming that Johnny has just confessed to him. Lyte’s elderly clerks agree to testify that Johnny privately confessed his crime. Johnny hurls insults at Lyte before frantically fleeing arrest.

Johnny returns to the Observer and asks if there is still a position available. On Rab’s recommendation, Uncle Lorne, the owner of the print shop, hires Johnny on the spot. Rab offers to share his living quarters above the print shop with Johnny. To deliver newspapers, Johnny must learn to ride a horse. Unfortunately, the only horse the newspaper owns is Goblin, who is beautiful but extremely timid, and therefore difficult to ride. Rab gives Johnny one riding lesson and then leaves him to learn on his own. In almost no time, and with no help, Johnny expertly learns to ride the nervous horse. When Lorne praises Johnny for this near-impossible feat, Johnny uncharacteristically hides his pleasure, because he thinks that Rab would behave the same way.

Riding Goblin forces Johnny to use his crippled hand, so he is no longer worried that his right hand will atrophy from lack of use. Johnny learns to write with his left hand, because Rab gives him papers to copy, taking it for granted that Johnny will find a way to copy them. To earn extra money, Johnny begins delivering letters, but Johnny uses most of his free time reading the books in Mr. Lorne’s ample library. Mrs. Lorne, Rab’s aunt, sometimes asks Johnny to watch her baby, and Johnny begins to feel a strong attachment to the child. He attempts to hide his tender feelings, but Mrs. Lorne can see through his scornful exterior to his sweet and lonely true self, and she treats Johnny like a son. As a part of the Lorne household, Johnny quickly becomes an ardent Whig. Not only is the Boston Observer a rabid Whig paper, but the Boston Observers, a powerful secret club dedicated to resolving issues of British tyranny, holds its meetings in Johnny and Rab’s loft, and the two boys are often allowed to sit in on their meetings.

Johnny continues to model his behavior on Rab’s example and explicit advice. When Rab suggests that Johnny try to tame his temper, Johnny vows not to act so rashly. Soon afterward, Samuel Adams’s slave accidentally splashes dishwater on Johnny, and he suppresses his natural instinct to lash out angrily. The slave girl apologizes profusely and dries Johnny’s clothes, while he eats some of her apple pie. As a result, Adams treats Johnny as an equal and hires him to ride for the important Boston Committee of Correspondence, which will later become the Continental Congress.

Johnny runs into Cilla and Isannah at the water pump one day. He is surprised by how little he has missed the girls who were once his two best friends, and he thinks about how much he loves his new life and his new best friend, Rab. Johnny’s one complaint is that Rab is too self-contained and refuses to divulge any personal information or be influenced by others. Johnny promises to meet the girls at the pump every Thursday and Sunday, but then he fails to keep his promise.

On two occasions, Johnny sees Rab veer from his normally taciturn manner. First, at a party, Johnny sees Rab become wildly animated as he dances with all the girls. The next time he sees Rab similarly animated is during a fight. The local butcher’s son bullies Uncle Lorne’s young apprentices, the Webb twins, and Rab and Johnny fight to rescue the twins and their cat. Johnny observes that on certain occasions, such as when he is dancing at a party, people fail to notice his crippled hand. Rab explains that people only notice the hand when Johnny draws attention to it.

Analysis

As Johnny finds meaningful activities to fill his time and his thoughts, his injury becomes less important to him and to the plot of the novel. The narrator hardly talks about Johnny’s handicap in these chapters, except to mention that the hand is not bothering him. Johnny’s work, reading, and riding leave him little time to brood over his misfortune. Once he stops worrying about his hand, its physical condition starts to improve. Johnny unknowingly saves his hand from atrophy by using it while he rides instead of hiding it away in shame. He manages to resume all of his old activities, like writing, and even picks up new ones, like dancing, by realizing that, with effort, he can overcome his disability.

Rab insightfully points out that whenever Johnny stops fixating on his handicap, no one else seems to notice it either. In other words, Johnny’s attitude toward his hand affects the way other people react to it. This seems to be true not only of his physical handicap but of his psychological one as well. As Johnny ceases to wallow in childish self-pity and selfish anger, the people around him stop treating him like a child and start treating him as a trusted confidant. Under Rab’s influence, and with the emotional support of a caring family, Johnny learns the value of modesty, quiet confidence, and patience. The Whig leaders of Boston notice these qualities and induct Johnny into their underground operations. Johnny views himself as a young man rather than a boy, and, as a result, the leaders trust him with the secret knowledge of a colonial conspiracy.

By attending the meetings of the Boston Observers, and through his reading in Mr. Lorne’s library, Johnny is becoming acquainted with the philosophy behind the political turmoil in Boston. Before, he was a Whig simply because Rab and Mr. Lorne were Whigs, but now he is intellectually convinced. Johnny’s Whig allegiance transforms from a personal, emotional attachment to a political and ideological stance. This change also signals Johnny’s emergence from childhood to manhood. At first, a child’s loyalties are forged purely out of familiarity or habit, and emotion. Ideally, a man gives his allegiance to groups and ideas that he believes in rationally.

The Enlightenment philosophy behind the revolutionary sentiment is based on the idea of the natural rights of man: each human being has the same rights, regardless of class, religion, or race. Ironically, many of the prominent leaders of the American Revolution who advocated the natural rights of man also owned slaves. Esther Forbes does not hide this fact, and slaves belonging to John Hancock and Samuel Adams appear in the novel. Many leaders of the American Revolution were uncomfortable with the hypocrisy of preaching against English tyranny while owning slaves. Others, however, did not even recognize their hypocrisy, much less feel guilty about it. During the colonial period, the rational ideals of the Enlightenment did not change all of people’s deeply ingrained cultural and racial biases. Only in later decades was the rhetoric of human rights extended to include people of all races and both genders.

Slaves were a tragic exception to what was otherwise a strikingly egalitarian society, although women also did not have rights. Almost all white American males, and even some free black men, were farmers with small plots of land. In the cities there was a growing class of skilled artisans, like Mr. Lapham and Paul Revere, as well as an emerging class of wealthy merchants, like Hancock and Lyte, who had become wealthy during the armed conflicts of the 1690s and early 1770s. While this latter group frightened some colonists with the prospect of the “Europeanization” of America, the colonies did not have a ruling nobility or a pauper underclass. In America, social stratification was minimal, and social mobility was high. Unlike in England, it was relatively easy for an ambitious farmer or servant to rise to a position of wealth and influence.

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