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Johnny Tremain

Esther Forbes

Chapter X: ‘Disperse, Ye Rebels!’

Chapters VIII–IX

Chapters XI–XII

Summary

In April, the Whigs sense that the British are planning to take some military action. Paul Revere and Doctor Warren arrange to warn the outlying Massachusetts towns of the British troops’ movements by using lantern signals from the spire of Christ’s Church. While Johnny listens to Revere and Warren hash out their plan, he drifts off to sleep and has a frightening dream. In his dream he sees himself boiling lobsters with human eyes and beside him are John Hancock and Samuel Adams. Hancock looks away, pitying the pleading lobster eyes, but Adams relishes every moment. That evening Revere leaves by horse to spread the warning throughout the countryside that the British troops might advance.

Rab is convinced that fighting will break out before the week is over, so he also leaves Boston to report for duty in Lexington. He explains to Johnny that once fighting begins, the British will not allow any man to leave the city of Boston for fear that he will join the rebel forces. Rab seems to feel no grief and only excitement about leaving, but Johnny is devastated by his friend’s departure. Johnny offers to accompany Rab to Lexington, but Rab gently reminds him that he is more useful as a spy in Boston than as a soldier who cannot shoot a gun.

Johnny takes his job as a spy seriously, and he spends all day hanging around the Afric Queen, the inn where Colonel Smith sleeps. On April 18, two days after Rab leaves Boston, Dove lets slip that Colonel Smith asked him to polish his campaign saddle rather than his usual saddle. By subtly prodding Dove, Johnny pieces together enough information to surmise that the British are planning an expedition to Lexington and Concord. He runs to give this news to Doctor Warren. Doctor Warren sends Johnny out into the soldier-filled streets to repeat this message to the various players in the elaborate relay system. First Johnny alerts Billy Dawes, who will ride across land to warn the rebels in Lexington and Concord. Next, he alerts Paul Revere who will travel to the same towns by way of the Charles River. Finally, he summons the parson and instructs him to hang two lanterns in the spire of Christ Church.

When Johnny returns to Warren’s place, Revere and Dawes are in the doorway. Revere is urging Warren to accompany him across the Charles River. Once the fighting begins, they assume that the English soldiers will round up colonists suspected of treason and hang them. Warren, however, wants to stay in Boston and keep watch on the British movement until the last possible minute. At dawn on April 19, while Johnny sleeps in Doctor Warren’s place, the first shots of war are fired on Lexington Green.

Analysis

Rab’s departure is cataclysmic for Johnny because it forces him to reevaluate his own identity and his relationship with Rab. Until now, he has not been forced to think for himself and instead has depended on Rab for guidance and support. Without Rab, Johnny must become his own man: instead of modeling his behavior after Rab’s, he must use his own thoughts and ideas. Rab’s casual attitude as they part ways hurts Johnny by reminding him how unequal the relationship has been all along: Johnny has always needed Rab, but Rab has never needed Johnny. Rab, as Johnny noted soon after they first became friends, is self-contained—he knows who he is and how he wants to behave. However, Rab’s self-containment reminds Johnny of his own lack of a strong identity, and also reminds him that he will never be as important to Rab as Rab is to him.

Johnny’s dream about boiling lobsters with human eyes highlights his personal feelings about the conflict between the British and the colonists. He feels pity for the British soldiers, known as “lobsterbacks” because of their red uniforms, and is unable to think of them as merely enemy targets. However, because his best friend is in a precarious position as a Minute Man in Lexington, it seems strange that Johnny is dreaming of dying British soldiers instead of dying colonists. Perhaps the idea of Rab’s death is too frightening for Johnny to think about directly, so instead he contemplates the deaths of Rab’s battlefield enemies.

Johnny’s dream also draws attention to the different attitudes toward and motivations for war among the major Whig players. While Hancock seems to view war as a necessary evil on the path to independence, Johnny suspects that Adams wants war for the sake of war. Hancock, like Otis in his rousing speech, has lofty ideals at the heart of his rebelliousness. Adams, the dream suggests, might simply have revenge in mind when planning the war. In fact, Adams did have very personal reasons for disliking the British. His father had been a principal stockholder of the Land Bank organized in Massachusetts in 1740, and when the British Parliament destroyed the bank, his father was financially ruined. In addition, Adams’s personal history suggests that he was a born agitator, always eager for controversy and conflict. Adams’s rebelliousness might derive from the sort of petty pride and quick temper that once motivated Johnny to swear revenge on Dove. Supporting this suggestion are Otis’s parting words to Adams at the last meeting of the Boston Observers. “You’ll play your part,” Otis tells Adams scornfully, “but what it is really about . . . you’ll never know.” Otis clearly insinuates that Adams is an integral part of the revolution, but does not really know what the Americans are fighting for—namely, freedom, independence, and choice.

Finally, Johnny’s dream explores the complex moral situation concerning the sacrifice of lives for individual rights. The lobsters look up with their pitiful eyes, wanting their lives to be spared. The lobsters have done nothing wrong, but are being sacrificed to satisfy the hunger of Adams and Hancock. Similarly, the British soldiers have caused no offense to the colonists, but they will be killed because of a war started by the rebel leaders. Hancock may have loftier reasons for starting a war, but it is debatable whether his motives justify the loss of thousands of British and colonial lives. It seems almost hypocritical to sacrifice so many individual lives to achieve individual rights for all.

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