Johnny Tremain Summary, Characters, Themes, Pictures


Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes is a story about the American Revolution and the principles of freedom and democracy it established throughout the world. There are five important aspects of Johnny Tremain: the plot, the political setting at the time, the society the people lived in, the characters, and the theme behind the story.

Johnny Tremain Summary
The cover picture of the book
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

Johnny Tremain Summary: Synopsis

Johnny Tremain tells of the times in Boston just before the American Revolution through the eyes of Johnny Tremain, a young silversmith who is drawn into the war after meeting Rab, a daring young member of the Sons of Liberty. Working closely with Paul Revere and the revolutionists, Johnny must learn to overcome the obstacles in his path through his courage and determination and help prepare Boston for the battle ahead.

Johnny Tremain Summary: Plot Summary

Johnny Tremain is a 14 year old silversmith apprentice living in Boston during the 1770's. The owner, Ephraim Lapham, no longer takes much interest in running the silversmith shop and so Johnny is left in charge, with authority over the other two apprentices, Dove and Dusty. Because of his skill and status, Johnny is arrogant and impulsive, often bullying his fellow apprentices and the Lapham daughters.

One night Johnny reveals his family secret to Cilla Lapham, who Mrs Lapham wants Johnny to marry. Before Johnny's mother died she revealed that he was related to a wealthy Boston merchant named Jonathan Lyte. She also gave him a silver cup featuring the Lyte coat of arms but told him to not make contact with them unless he became desperate.

As Johnny is creating a silver basin for the wealthy merchant John Hancock, Dove plays a joke on Johnny that was intended to be harmless but humbling. Dove hands Johnny a cracked crucible but the prank goes wrong and Johnny's hand is left deformed. No longer able to work as a silversmith, Johnny Tremain goes from the pride of the Lapham house to the burden. Mrs Lapham forbids Johnny from marrying Cilla and complains of having to house and feed him.

In search of a new trade, Johnny comes across a print shop where a Whig newspaper, the Boston Observer is published. Johnny is intrigued by Rab, the nephew and apprentice of the owner Mr. Lorne. After Johnny tells the story of his accident Rab promises to give Johnny a job delivering newspapers if Johnny can find no better work.

In desperation, Johnny approaches Jonathan Lyte and produces the silver cup as evidence that they are related. However Jonathan Lyte accuses Johnny of stealing it and has him arrested. With the assistance of Rab and Cilla, Johnny is cleared of the charges in court. After this Jonathan Lyte then steals the cup after Johnny tries to sell it to him. At this point Johnny takes up the offer of delivering newspapers for Mr. Lorne.
Johnny Tremain Summary
Picture of Johnny Tremain and Cilla in the
1957 film adaptation of Johnny Tremain

Through delivering the Boston Observer, Johnny becomes acquainted with key members of Boston Politics and turns into an enthusiastic Whig supporter. The Lornes treat Johnny like he is one of the family and Johnny is soon doing tasks for the Whigs of Boston. He also takes part in the Boston Tea Party, where a group of Boston citizens board English merchant ships and throw the tea overboard, in protest of the tax England was imposing on the tea. "No taxation without representation!" was the cry of the citizens.

During this period Johnny changes from an arrogant, self-centred boy to a selfless, idealistic man. Rab's personality influences Johnny to calm his temper and the Whigs give Johnny a purpose larger than himself. Johnny also comes to realise and appreciate the feelings he has for Cilla Lapham.

Just before the beginning of the Revolutionary War between the colonists and England, the Lytes who are Tory supporters plan to flee to England. Before they go, Lavinia Lyte, the daughter of Jonathan Lyte, reveals to Johnny that they have investigated his claims of kinship and found it to be true. Although her father, Johathan Lyte, genuinely thought Johnny to be lying at first, they now accept Johnny has the right to some of the Lyte property.

As the war breaks out, Rab is fatally shot during the battle of Lexington. Although deeply affected by Rab's death, Johnny refuses to give up the struggle for the values which Rab sacrificed his life for. After examining Johnny's hand, Doctor Warren, a colonist leader, realises that through simple surgery he can separate the thumb which is fused to Johnny's palm. Doctor Warren assures Johnny Tremain that he will soon be able to fire the musket left to him by Rab.

Johnny Tremain Summary: Characters

Johnny Tremain:
Throughout the story, Johnny’s character undergoes changes both to his way of life and his personality. At the start of Johnny Tremain he is a small-minded and proud boy who lives with the Laphams as an apprentice silversmith. After his accident where he burns his hand, he starts to become more humbled as he moves out into the open world and must learn to overcome his difficulties. By being around people like Rab Silsbee, Paul Revere, and Sam Adams his view of life is widened and he starts to see the bigger picture of Boston and the revolt. He takes on responsibilities and becomes very much involved with the revolution. By the end of the story Johnny has become a much more humble and responsible young man with a larger view of life.

Johnny Tremain Summary
Picture of Johnny Tremain and Rab in the
1957 film adaptation of Johnny Tremain
Rab Silsbee:
Rab Silsbee is a tall, dark boy who becomes friends with Johnny. Because his parents are dead, Rab works for his Uncle Lorne, a Whig, at the Boston Observer, a local newspaper. He is also a member of the Sons of Liberty and very much involved with the revolution.

When Johnny first meets Rab he gets the impression that Rab is very calm and collected because of the way Rab talks to the lady who lost her pig and how he invites Johnny in to share lunch. Johnny finds an ease and confidence in Rab that he had not come across in anyone before. Rab is a friendly person and has a strong, reliable character that Johnny immediately feels comfortable with and admires. Rab becomes a friend to Johnny and helps him and guides him throughout the story, such as the time when he saves Johnny from a hanging after being accused by Merchant Lyte.

Rab’s character seems faultless and he is symbolic of the good in humanity. It is for this reason that Rab is martyred at the end of the Johnny Tremain, to show how much was given to the American Revolution and how some died so that others could stand up. Through Rab's death Esther Forbes demonstrates the cost of revolution and the price of freedom.

James Otis:
In Johnny Tremain James Otis seems to be a prophet. This is very evident during his speech in the attic of the Boston Observer where he foresees events and consequences of the coming war, such as Rab’s death. During this speech he puts forward a lot of principles about democracy and freedom and it is apparent that Esther Forbes is using him to voice her own opinions and views about the war and democracy.

Johnny Tremain Summary: Themes

Johnny Tremain is about more than just Americans fighting the British in the American Revolution. It is about freedom and democracy, resistance to all kinds of tyranny and oppression everywhere, and most of all an individual’s natural rights to stand up. Esther Forbes uses the American Revolution to illustrate and portray these principles to her reader. The theme of Johnny Tremain can be best summarized and described by a single statement that appears throughout the book - “so that a man can stand up”.

The American Revolution established many of the principles of freedom in the world today and laid them out in the constitution. It established that every individual has natural rights given to them and so all are equal and thus should be treated equally. Even though today many of these principles seem commonplace, back then these ideas seemed revolutionary and the constitution was considered a milestone.

“And the strange new sun rising in the west. A sun that was to illumine a world to come.” This is a striking statement made by Esther Forbes. She is referring to the very first revolution rising up from America. The revolution that would establish new principles of freedom, show the world the rights of individuals, and trigger the wave of revolutions around the world that would lead to the new democratic nations.

Johnny Tremain Summary: Political Setting

The political setting during Johnny Tremain has a heavy impact on the story. Set in the time of the American Revolution, there was a great deal of conflict between the American colonies and England. The most contentious issue was that the colonists were being taxed by England on goods, yet the colonists had no representation in the English Parliament. Many colonists saw this as a violation of their rights and opposed England. Freedom groups such as the Sons of Liberty organised rallies and demonstrations against such taxes. “No taxation without representation!” became their popular cry. It was not long before an American resistance had been organised against the English. The colonists who supported this resistance were known as Whigs after the Whig Party in English Parliament. The Whig Party was one of two parties in Parliament, the other being the Tory Party. The Whig Party supported giving the colonies their representation and freedom, while the Tory Party was against this.

In 1770, Parliament, bowing to the protest, withdrew all taxes on goods except for tea which still retained a small tax in order to demonstrate the power of Parliament to tax the colonies. Even then, however, the colonists still refused to buy the English tea and as a form of protest in 1773, a group of Boston citizens, many disguised as Indians, swarmed over English ships in Boston Harbour and dumped the cargoes of tea into the sea. This became known as the Boston Tea Party, a key event in American history as it helped to trigger off the American Revolution.

The Boston Tea Party provoked great anger amongst the English and on April 19, 1775, the first armed encounter between England and the colonists took place at Lexington. This battle was the start of the American War of Independence. Thanks to Paul Revere, who had rode from Charlestown to Lexington the night before to warn of the coming English troops, the colonists were prepared for the attack. Revere then started for Concord but was captured on the way; however, another messenger riding with him did arrive and aroused the town for war. Paul Revere’s ride was of great importance to the colonists as it prepared them for the Revolution against England. The Revolution was fought until September 3, 1783 when the colonies defeated the British and by doing so earned their freedom and independence.

Johnny Tremain Summary: Social Setting

The society in Johnny Tremain had many differences to ours today. The most obvious differences throughout the book Johnny Tremain are the Christian religious aspect of the people’s lives, and the people’s working situation.

Although most people in Johnny Tremain were Christian in religion and observed many Christian practices such as reading the Bible and not working on Sundays, they did not seem to have a very Christian nature at heart. The church was very strict about keeping Biblical rules yet people seemed to practice only some of the principles of the Bible. For example, it was against the law to work on Sunday, yet loving your neighbour and caring for the poor mattered so little that many people could starve from not being able to buy food.

The other major difference was the way that people worked and the employment situation. Back then most of the work people did was very physical, such as silverworking and metalworking, whereas today machines do most of the physical work for us and people do more mentally based work. As a result, many people weren’t educated and most couldn’t even read. When people were employed or took on as an apprentice they would come and live with their master for a certain period of time. Apprentices received no wages for working just food, accommodation, and clothing. They were basically forced to live with their master because if they ran away they could die of starvation if not employed soon after. Consequently the apprentice’s family would become like his or her own family and the apprentice or employee would often be arranged to marry one of the master’s daughters to keep the business in the family, just as Johnny was arranged to marry Cilla.

Johnny Tremain Summary: Plot Studies

Johnny’s Hand:
At the end of Johnny Tremain, Johnny’s burnt hand is about to be operated on by Dr Warren. But before Johnny’s hand is fixed the book Johnny Tremain ends, leaving the reader in suspense. The following is an account of what might have happened: Johnny’s hand is operated on and his thumb is freed. Since Johnny can now hold a gun, he becomes a soldier in the war and fights with the minutemen and becomes a hero. Once the war is over, Johnny finds that his hand is just as good with silverwork as before the burn and he begins a silversmith business. Johhny is soon recognized as one of the best silversmiths in Boston and becomes a wealthy man.

The Lyte Property:
When the Lytes flee to the refuge of England, they are forced to leave their property and mansion behind in Boston. Just before they leave, Lavinia Lyte tells Johnny that they are indeed related and that Johnny is entitled to ownership of the property. After the war, Johnny most likely comes back and puts in a claim for the property and mansion. Johnny is awarded ownership of the property and lives in the mansion with Cilla and Mrs Bessie, the Lyte’s former servant.

Cilla and Johnny:
Through Johnny Tremain, Johnny and Cilla are good friends. However, the story ends abruptly, not revealing what will happen between them. A probable ending is that after the war, Johnny comes back and sees Cilla in Boston. The two eventually get married and live in the Lyte mansion that Johnny now owns. Johnny works as a silversmith, now that his hand is better, and becomes very wealthy. They then have children and live together happily until they die.

The War’s Outcome:
At the end of Johnny Tremain the war is only just beginning and the outcome is not known. The following is the ending to the war: After heavy casualties on either side, Britain finally decides to give in to the colonies. A treaty is drawn up in which the colonies are taxed but are also represented in British parliament and treated as British citizens. Sam Adams and a group of other men become representatives for the colonies. However, the colonial members of parliament and the British members of parliament find it hard to get along and two years later another war breaks out. This time the colonies win their independence and a new nation is born with its own leader and constitution.

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