Johnny Tremain: Theme Analysis
The main theme of the novel is maturation. Through the work, Johnny develops from boy to man. At the beginning of the novel Johnny is rather immature. He is self-centered, somewhat egotistical, and thinks only in terms of his relatively small world. His injury brings about a series of events that cause him to undergo a significant personal transformation. Of course, Johnny’s maturation parallels the maturation of young America. The novel suggests that maturation is a difficult and often painful process. It is also a social process, for Johnny only matures as a result of his interactions with other adults.
The theme of pride emerges early in the novel. In Chapter 1 Mr. Lapham makes Johnny recite several Bible passages, all reflecting the notion that pride comes before a fall. Johnny believes that his own pride is the source of his injury. Later in the novel Johnny takes pride in his mastery of the skittish Goblin, yet this pride isn’t boastful. The same assertion is evident in the British defeat, for they too are full of pride and certainty that they will defeat the patriots in short order.
There are many instances of loyalty and disloyalty throughout the novel. Johnny is an extremely loyal person. For example, when Paul Revere offers to purchase the remainder of Johnny’s apprenticeship from Mr. Lapham, Johnny declines because he believes that the Laphams need him. As Johnny becomes more involved with the Sons of Liberty and the Boston Observers, he sees a deep fraternal loyalty. For example, when Johnny is arrested for allegedly stealing Merchant Lyte’s cup, Rab is able to procure better accommodations for him because Rab, the jailer, and the turnkey are all members of the close-knit Sons of Liberty. Overall, the novel suggests that in life loyalty is rewarded and disloyalty is punished.
Another major theme is freedom. The novel it explores the nature of freedom, how freedom is acquired, and the costs of freedom. The novel suggests that freedom means sacrifice. Sometimes this sacrifice involves personal property, such as when Mrs. Lorne allows the Rab and Johnny to smelt her pewter to make bullets or when Johnny gives up his silver cup. Other times it involves sacrificing one’s life, such as in the death of Rab. The novel asserts that freedom doesn’t have to be a lofty, philosophical ideal. For example, Pumpkin’s wish to desert the British army is rooted in his desire to obtain a parcel of land and some livestock.
Gluttony and Excess
A minor theme in the novel surrounds the ill effects of gluttony and excess. Following his injury, Johnny visits John Hancock, in hope of securing an apprenticeship. Hancock dismisses Johnny, but, out of pity, he gives Johnny a small purse filled with silver coins. The starving Johnny indulges himself in a lavish meal at the Afric queen. Immediately afterward, however, he chastises himself for wasting the money, noting “what a fool he had been!”
The main symbol of excess in the novel is, of course, the wealthy Lyte family. Merchant Lyte’s willingness to trade honesty for material possessions causes him to be knows as “crooked” throughout Boston and to even deny his own family members. The fashionable Lavinia Lyte is admired by many for her beauty and will soon increase her fortune by marrying a wealthy Londoner, yet there is no real substance or purpose to her life. In the end, the Lytes are driven from Boston. In essence, the Lytes’ house crumbles.