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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Johnny Tremain!