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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.”
Ace your assignments with our guide to Johnny Tremain!