Johnny Tremain: Essay Q&A
1) In what ways does Johnny mature throughout the novel?
Johnny Tremain is largely a story about a young man’s maturation. While Johnny obviously matures physically over the course of the novel, his most significant developments are in other areas.
One of the most important ways Johnny matures relates to his sense of self-worth. At the beginning of the novel, Johnny has a very strong sense of self-worth. He takes pride in the fact that he is a very competent silversmith, that he is allowed to give orders to Dove and Dusty, and that the Laphams think so highly of him that he will be allowed to marry one of Mrs. Lapham’s daughters and inherit the family business. Of course, his injury changes everything. In effect, it brings about a psychological death; in his mind if he is not a silversmith, he has no real purpose in life or identity in the world. Through his interaction with Rab and others involved in the Revolution, he not only reclaims his sense of self, but he also understands that one’s self-worth is not determined by one’s profession or possessions, it is more related to one’s actions and the things for which one stands.
Johnny also matures emotionally. His personal relationships become deeper and more complex. For example, his relationship with Cilla becomes somewhat romantic and his relationship with Dove becomes almost parental. Part of one’s emotional growth is learning to master one’s emotions. When Johnny visits the dying Rab, Dr. Warren cautions him that he must “play a man’s part.” He plays that part very well, keeping his emotions in check. Similarly, at the end of the novel, though he longs to rush to Grandsire Silsbee and tell him that Rab has died, he understands that Silsbee can’t be interrupted because he has important work to do.
By the end of the novel, Johnny has matured socially too. He understands that humans are not one-dimensional beings. For example, he recognizes the fact that the British soldiers are can be both brutal and benevolent. His conception of family also changes. He comes to understand that family is not necessarily one’s blood relatives, but can be a group of like-minded individuals or a group of people driven by the same purpose. Following the opening battles of the American Revolution, when he looks at the patriots around him, he understands that “This [is] his land and these his people.”
2) What is the significance of the Birth and Death room?
When Johnny’s hand is injured, he is taken to a small room in the Laphams’ home, known by them as the Birth and Death room. Literally, this room would have been reserved for giving birth and attending to those who are dying—the two extremes of life. Figuratively, the room is a place for major life transitions. As such, it is fitting that Johnny recovers here, for he both dies and begins his rebirth in the room. We are told: “And in a way he had died in that room; at least something had happened and the bright little silversmith’s apprentice was no more. He stood there again at the threshold, but now he was somebody else.”
Johnny’s “death” comes quickly. Being a silversmith is Johnny’s life, his identity.
Because of his talent at working silver, Mrs. Lorne has consented to allow him to marry one of her daughters, and Mr. Lorne has promised to give him the business. Johnny even fantasizes about the master’s mark he will use on his own pieces of silver. When the bandages are removed, however, he understands that he will no longer be able to perform his trade. He has lost all that he foresaw in his future. In essence, Johnny Tremain, silversmith, has died.
Johnny’s rebirth takes much longer. It begins with his understanding that he can no longer be a silversmith, but it continues throughout the remainder of the novel.
There are many important moments in his rebirth, but several clearly stand out.
When he has exhausted his list of possible new trades, he finds himself on Copp’s Hill, crying on his mother’s grave. At this moment, he reaches acceptance of his situation. A second step occurs when Johnny attends the Silsbees’ barn dance. Here, the women are not troubled by his hand. When he mentions this to Rab, Rab tells him that he is responsible for the way others react to his hand. Johnny’s refusal to take back the silver cup when he has the chance, in essence giving up any claim to the Lyte fortune, is another important step. By the end of the novel his rebirth is complete. He has developed a new and solid conception of himself and his place in society.
3) The British army is obviously better equipped and better trained. What does the novel suggest will make it possible for the patriots to defeat the British?
There is no denying that the British army is better trained and far better equipped to fight a war than the Minute Men. While the British soldiers have crisp uniforms, modern guns, artillery, and plentiful powder, the patriots wear “the very clothes they used for farming” and their weapons are “old squirrel guns.” This deeply troubles Johnny. As he passes a company of Minute Men preparing for battle, we read, “Oh, God help them, thought Johnny. They haven’t seen those British troops in Boston. I have. They haven’t seen the gold lace on the generals, those muskets—all so alike, and everyone has a bayonet” (176).
Later, he wonders: “What chance—what shadow of a chance—had those poor, untrained, half-armed farmers at Concord? O God, be with us now” (236).
One reason the patriots will win relates to the British soldiers themselves, for there are many among them who actually support the patriots. When Johnny drops his copies of the Boston Observer as he attempts to travel through a British military camp, Pumpkin tells him not to worry about the papers because they “’went where they’ll do a deal of good.’” Pumpkin also informs him that many of the British soldiers are deserting. Pumpkin’s own desertion is a clear example of why many of the British soldiers desert. Pumpkin seems to want simple things, some land of his own and some livestock, but he knows that these are things he cannot acquire in England.
The primary reason the patriots are more suited to victory is their desire, determination, and willingness to sacrifice. Johnny’s life is a prime example of the strong determination characteristic of the patriots. Though life may beat him down, he struggles tenaciously to get back on his feet. As James Otis reminds the men at the final meeting of the Boston Observers, they must be willing to sacrifice their property, and possibly their lives, if they are to succeed. This willingness to sacrifice takes many forms. For example, when Rab obtains a musket, Mrs. Lorne allows Johnny smelt her pewter for bullets. Of course, the ultimate sacrifice is seen in Rab’s death. By the end of the novel, Johnny understands that the patriots will in fact win, for they are “unalterably determined.”
4) What does the novel suggest about family?
Johnny Tremain is as much a novel about the meaning of family as it is maturation or the beginnings of the American Revolution. Throughout the novel, Johnny’s conception of the family changes.
Technically, Johnny is an orphan. However, at the beginning of novel, we see that the Laphams have become his family. He lives and works in the Lapham home. He has a sibling-like relationship with Cilla and Isannah and a near father/son relationship with Mr. Lapham. It is even expected that Johnny will become a more formal member of family by marrying one of Mrs. Lapham’s daughters and inheriting the family business. Of course, Johnny’s injury completely alters his role in this family. Mrs. Lapham begins to see Johnny as a burden and even starts to view him with suspicion. Ultimately, Johnny leaves this family.
Johnny’s relationship with the Lytes is complex. He discovers that he is, at least legally, a member of the Lyte family. However, he recognizes the great ugliness that is a part of the Lyte family and, as is evident when he destroys the pages of the family tree from Mr. Lyte’s Bible, effectively divorces himself from them.
On most levels, Johnny’s relationship with the Lornes is much like his early relationship with the Laphams. He lives and works in the Lorne home. Rab is like an older brother to him, and Johnny seems to have a close relationship with both Uncle Lorne and Aunt Jenifer. The difference is that life with the Lornes exposes Johnny to a broader interpretation of family. Through his involvement with various members of the Observers and the Sons of Liberty, Johnny comes to see that family can encompass a much larger group, and it can be based on ideals instead of bloodlines, professions, or proximity.
At the end of the novel, we sense that Johnny has finally found his true family. As he walks about the area in Lexington where fighting first broke out, he looks around and understands that “This [is] his land and these his people.”
5) One of the most important lines in the novel is James Otis’ statement that “A man can stand up.” What does the novel suggest this statement means?
One of the most powerful scenes in Johnny Tremain takes place when James Otis addresses a group of patriots at the final meeting of the Boston Observers. He warns that they should not predicate the war on issues of occupation, property, or taxation. Instead, they must fight for more a universal ideal: so that their struggle for freedom inspires people the world over. If they are to be successful, they must subscribe to the following philosophy: “’We give all we have, lives, property, safety, skills . . . we fight, we die, for a simple thing. Only that a man can stand up.’”
Throughout the novel we see different visions of what the ability to stand up means. Ironically, the best example of what they are fighting for is seen in Pumpkin, the British soldier who attempts to desert. Pumpkin’s desire to flee and establish a new life in America is rooted in nothing more than a longing to be a farmer, to possess his own land, home, and livestock. While these may not seem like significant things, Pumpkin makes it clear that they are things he could never hope to acquire in England. In essence, Pumpkin’s desire to be a farmer is a longing to be independent.
Of course, achieving this goal is very difficult. It means being willing to sacrifice and struggle. It even means plunging two countries into war. Johnny comes to understand that standing up on one’s own may mean losing one’s possessions, family, and friends. It may involve a complete reinvention of oneself. But the goal is achievable, and this is the main lesson he learns throughout the novel.
At the end of the novel Johnny realizes that though some may have thought Otis insane, his words were true. Fighting so that “a man can stand up” is a worthy goal because the result has a powerful and lasting impact. As Johnny states in the closing lines, “True Rab had died. Hundreds would die, but not the thing they died for.”