Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
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.
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.