Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
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 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.
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.