Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
War’s Transformation of Boys into Men
When Johnny Tremain begins, the protagonist is a fourteen-year-old boy. The novel ends less than two years later, and Johnny Tremain is a sixteen-year-old man. His rapid maturation is largely a function of the extreme political climate of his time. As a messenger and spy for the colonial rebel leaders, Johnny is thrust into life-and-death circumstances. To protect himself and those he works for, he must abandon many of the childish proclivities of his past. Working as a small-time spy, he is forced to develop into a trustworthy, patient young man, since he might have to listen carefully to hours of conversation just to glean a small tidbit of information. He must also learn to restrain his quick temper and impetuousness to survive during the turbulent and dangerous Revolutionary period. Most dramatically, Johnny is forced to focus on something larger than his own individual concerns. Because of the war, Johnny must fight and die for the independence of his fellow colonists, and he turns his fervor and passions outward. He leaves behind his callow selfishness and becomes a steadfast, patriotic man, eager to fight and die for his country.
The preternatural maturity demanded of boys in times of war is also clearly exhibited in the character of Rab. When Johnny first encounters Rab, the sixteen-year-old boy is already a man: he is self-possessed, fearless, and ready to die for his beliefs. Rab seems almost unbelievably precocious. His advanced development becomes conceivable only when we realize that he has been involved in the secretive revolutionary effort for years already. Like Johnny and many other children of wartime, Rab is unable to indulge in the vices and luxuries of childhood.
Forbes wrote Johnny Tremain during World War II, just after Pearl Harbor was attacked. She noticed how young men are forced to grow up quickly in times of war, as they are suddenly responsible for the fate of their country and their fellow men, not just for their own goals and ambitions. Forbes fashioned the youths of her Revolutionary War novel on her observations of the young soldiers fighting in World War II. Johnny Tremain, like the young men in World War II, could not control the circumstances in which fate placed him. Instead, he was forced to find his inner courage and become a self-assured adult.
The Revolution as a Coming of Age
Johnny Tremain is a double coming-of-age story. It is not only the tale of Johnny’s journey into adulthood, but also the story of the colonies’ maturation into a nation. When we first meet Johnny, he chooses his battles very poorly. Rash and proud, he lashes out at anyone whom he thinks treats him with disrespect. Johnny, however, does not respect anyone else. He constantly torments his fellow apprentice Dove, and makes an enemy of a boy eager to be Johnny’s friend. He becomes an enemy of the Baltimore silversmith Mr. Tweedie after he hurls an unprovoked barrage of outrageous insults at him. By extension, Johnny also angers Mrs. Lapham by placing her partnership with Tweedie in jeopardy. Finally, and most dangerously, Johnny unleashes his fury and outrage on Jonathan Lyte, one of the richest and most powerful men in Boston. Each of these thoughtless acts of anger eventually comes back to haunt Johnny. His poor relationship with Dove leads to his crippling accident, his provocation of Lyte leads to criminal prosecution, and the ill will that Mr. Tweedie and Mrs. Lapham bear him very nearly gets him hung on the gallows.
As Johnny befriends the Whigs of Boston, he undergoes many transformations. One of these transformations is a shedding of his truculent nature. Under Rab’s tutelage, Johnny learns to control his outrage at petty offenses. Johnny does not suppress his fervor, as the pious pacifist Mr. Lapham would have preferred. Rather, Johnny redirects his passion into a worthy cause. Instead of petty and personal outrage, Johnny begins to feel a deep and meaningful commitment to a battle worth fighting for—a battle for freedom and for the equality of all men.
Johnny’s cause is ultimately the colonies’ cause, as the colonial rebels eventually choose to fight for the rights and freedom of men. Like Johnny, though, the colonists evolve from fighting petty skirmishes to a revolution for independence. After nearly a decade of boycotts and other minor insurrections, the rebel leaders finally conceive the compelling reasons for a war against Britain. Their ideology crystallizes, and the leaders make it clear that their cause is a fight for the equality of all mankind, rather than a small-minded fight for their own pocketbooks. With an understanding of their new ideology, and a grasp of the scale of their fight, they realize that boycotts and other minor rebellions are not the best means for their ends. The colonists realize that they must focus their efforts and fight a war for only one thing: independence. Once the colonists realize what is worth fighting for, they begin the process of maturing into a country.
The Influence of Personal Relationships on Character
Johnny’s transformation from selfish child to selfless man begins when he meets Rab Silsbee. The immediate connection he feels to the understated, temperate Rab signals something deep within his own character that we did not see before. Johnny is drawn to the elements in Rab’s character that are opposite to his own, and he soon finds himself trying to change to become more like Rab. Days after he first meets Rab, he is already comparing his own actions to Rab’s and wondering what Rab would do in certain situations. The new Johnny that eventually emerges, we are led to believe, might never have existed had Johnny not chosen to build a friendship with Rab and Rab’s world.
Johnny is not the only evolving character in the book. Isannah also has a choice of which path to take as she matures into a young woman. She might become gracious, noble, and passionate, or she might continue to build her selfish, arrogant, and conceited nature. As with Johnny, the path Isannah ultimately takes is determined by the choice she makes with regard to her friends. Instead of remaining loyal to her loving, kind sister, Isannah lets herself be seduced by the elegance and glamour of Lavinia Lyte. Under Lavinia’s influence, Isannah’s vices become even more pronounced. She becomes addicted to the fine clothes and food that Lavinia can provide, and she thrives on the doting attention she now receives from important people. When Isannah is asked to choose between Cilla and Lavinia forever, Isannah has already gone too far down a corrupted path to resist the high life that Lavinia offers her, and she leaves her sister behind.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
In the opening chapter, Ephraim Lapham condemns the sin of pride, warning Johnny that “pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” Despite the negative way in which this motif is introduced, the novel does not portray pride as an entirely negative quality. Forbes reveals pride in many variations, and some version of the trait serves as a motivation for almost all of the main characters. The Lytes represent the worst sort of pride—a cruel, arrogant haughtiness that is often expressed as prejudice against the lower classes. They look down disapprovingly on all those of a lesser status, such as Johnny and Cilla. Rab, with his quiet self-possession and sense of purpose, shows the positive side of pride. Rab is proud of his work for the Whig rebellion, and, as a result, he works passionately to help the cause. Colonial rebel leaders such as Samuel Adams and John Hancock also exhibit a useful sort of pride. Their plucky cockiness enables them to declare war on a well-armed empire when they only have a few hundred untrained farmers to back up their threats.
Caught between the two possible paths of pride are two children, Isannah and Johnny, both of whom display tendencies toward excessive pride. Isannah’s pride ultimately becomes haughty arrogance, because of her association with Lavinia Lyte. Johnny’s pride, on the other hand, is recast under the guidance of Rab and the rebel leaders. His pride develops from an arrogant, defensive pride into a more effective, nobler sense of self. Johnny’s final step away from his defensive pride occurs when he allows Doctor Warren to examine his crippled hand. Interestingly, Johnny’s ultimate embrace of the loftier side of pride is indirectly a result of another prideful soul: his father. As a French prisoner of war in Boston, Charles Tremain was too proud to reveal his own name and spent a year responding to an assumed name, Charles Latour. The Bostonians knew this man as Latour, not Tremain. As a result, when Johnny turns up at Lyte’s office claiming kinship, the name Tremain does not sound familiar to Mr. Lyte, and he is convinced that Johnny is an impostor. If Charles Tremain had not been too proud to keep his real name, Lyte may have taken Johnny in as his grandnephew. If Johnny had lived with the Lytes, however, he might have developed like Isannah, letting his pride develop into an arrogant haughtiness instead of a noble self-confidence and sense of purpose.
When Johnny learns of Dove’s malicious role in his crippling accident, Mr. Lapham admonishes him to forgive Dove, declaring, “I say, and Bible says, forgive.” Mr. Lapham, as a pious Christian, seems to believe that every offense, no matter how horrific, should be forgiven. Mr. Lapham’s beliefs not only make him gentle and mild in his personal relationships, but they also lead him to take a pacifist stance toward the conflict with England.
At the beginning of the book, Johnny’s views on forgiveness could not be more opposite from those of Mr. Lapham. He refuses to forgive any offense, no matter how small. Even accidental offenses, such as when Samuel Adams’s slave dumps water on Johnny’s head, stir up Johnny’s wrath. Mr. Lapham’s limitless capacity for forgiveness seems very appealing, whereas Johnny’s inability to forgive seems like a horrible flaw. Forbes, however, raises the issue of forgiveness within the context of revolution and thus challenges our moral judgment. Whereas Johnny does not forgive easily enough, we might ask whether Mr. Lapham forgives too easily. Forbes asks us to think about whether forgiveness is an appropriate response to the atrocious acts committed by the British.
Between the Whigs and the Tories, the Tories are more forgiving of British actions, and they are committed to being loyal to their mother country. As Forbes puts it, “Tories believ[ed] all differences could be settled with time, patience, and respect for government.” The Whigs, on the other hand, do not want to resolve their issues with England and forgive the offenses they feel they have suffered; they want to fight. The book, however, suggests that the Whigs are the heroes, because they are fighting for human rights and independence. Even the mild-tempered Rab, who is held up as the model of perfect manhood, chooses on occasion to take revenge instead of pardoning others. When the butcher’s son tortures the Webb twins, Rab does not forgive him, nor does he attempt a diplomatic resolution. Instead, he reacts with violence, physically hurting both the butcher and his son and damaging their shop. Forbes seems to suggest that, in some contexts, forgiving too easily might be just as bad as not forgiving easily enough.
Compared to England, eighteenth-century America was a land of opportunity and equality. The colonies lacked both titled nobility and a poverty-stricken underclass. The vast majority of colonists were small farmers, and there were a handful of artisans, shopkeepers, unskilled laborers, and merchants in the cities. The minimal stratification that did exist was relatively fluid. With hard work and dedication, an ambitious farmer or servant could easily climb the ranks into the upper echelons of society. Forbes subtly interweaves this particular cultural difference between England and the colonies throughout the novel. We view the minimal social stratification of colonial society as represented in the wealthy Hancock’s easy interaction with Ephraim Lapham, and even with a poor apprentice like Johnny. Johnny’s interaction with Stranger illustrates the British side of this growing cultural divide. Stranger, a British officer, strictly observes the rules regarding class boundaries in his interactions with Johnny. Johnny, unused to such strict divisions among the classes, finds Stranger’s behavior toward him inexplicable.
Forbes also portrays the social mobility that characterized life in the colonies. For example, the fact that an artisan like Paul Revere can become as influential and powerful as wealthy merchants like John Hancock and Samuel Adams—and can be treated as their equal—shows that class lines were easily crossed and often ignored in the colonies. The episode with Pumpkin further underscores the relative mobility of social class in the colonies as compared to in England. Pumpkin longs to desert the British army and become an American, because only in the colonies can a poor boy of low class hope to aspire above his birth station and acquire his own land. Forbes hints that the egalitarian nature of colonial life was one of the underlying causes of the growing dissatisfaction with British rule. Many democratically minded colonists, living in a society that was socially mobile rather than stratified, came to believe, as James Otis puts it in Chapter VIII, that “a handful of men cannot seize power over thousands. A man shall choose who it is shall rule over him.”
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Johnny’s Crippled Hand
Johnny’s crippled hand is a physical symbol of the mental obstacle that cripples him, which is his arrogance and selfishness. Johnny develops the physical handicap as a direct result of his psychological handicap. Johnny’s insufferable vanity and haughtiness drive Dove to resent Johnny. Dove plays a practical joke on Johnny to try to humble him and accidentally leaves Johnny with a disfigured hand. Unable to continue as a silversmith’s apprentice, Johnny loses his sense of self and his ambitions for the future. Johnny is no longer the talented breadwinner for the Lapham family, and he must find other work.
Johnny’s physical handicap forces him to think about his identity and grapple not only with his physical capabilities but also with his personality. As he struggles to come to terms with his new identity, he slowly overcomes his selfishness and arrogance. Johnny’s self-pride turns into pride for his country, and his insolence turns into patience and kindness. Once Johnny fully overcomes his psychological handicap, he is able to mend his physical handicap as well. Johnny becomes secure enough with his own imperfections to allow Doctor Warren to examine and operate on his injured hand. Once the psychological handicap is gone, the physical handicap can also be overcome.
The Silver Lyte Cup
The silver cup, a luxury item bearing the seal of a powerful and wealthy family, is symbolic on two levels. First, the cup can be viewed as a symbol of Johnny’s initial vices—his self-centered desires for money, status, and recognition. The cup is Johnny’s only connection to the Lyte family. Presumably, the Lyte family is the genetic source for Johnny’s vices, since they seem to exhibit these qualities in a much more drastic form than Johnny. When Lyte steals the cup from Johnny, he takes away Johnny’s connection to the Lyte family and the vices that they represent. Cut off from his sole possession and his only relatives, Johnny is forced to adapt to his new situation and shed his selfish vices. When Johnny passes up the opportunity to take his cup back from Lyte, it signals that he no longer cares about his former selfish, materialistic ambitions.
The cup can also be viewed as a symbol of the world that fosters the vices that Johnny overcomes. In other words, it symbolizes Britain and the British mind-set with regard to class, money, and humanity. The connection works on a literal level, as the cup physically originated in England. Because the cup is a luxury item, it represents Britain’s wealth, and the seal it bears symbolizes Britain’s power and class-consciousness. By leaving behind the cup, then, Johnny renounces his selfish ambitions, but he also relinquishes his ties to England and the system of class and wealth that it nurtures. In letting go of the cup, he symbolically declares himself a citizen of America and not of England.
Johnny’s Infatuation with Lavinia Lyte
Lavinia Lyte, with her haughtiness, wealth, and luxurious beauty, signifies, like the cup, the class-conscious world of England, where nobility of birth is more important than nobility of spirit. Lavinia prefers London to Boston and yearns to return there. She is embarrassed that her father works for a living, and would prefer that he become more like the titled nobility of England. In fact, at the book’s end, as she and her father plan their escape to England in the wake of revolution, Lavinia arranges to marry into the titled nobility of England, thereby securing her position in the highest possible class of the highly stratified society. Johnny’s infatuation with Lavinia signifies his stubborn connection to his vices. As he matures out of his arrogance and selfishness, Lavinia slowly loses her grip on him. The more that Johnny loses his yearning for petty personal gain, the more Cilla begins to overshadow Lavinia in his mind.
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