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Johnny Tremain

Johnny Tremain


by Esther Forbes

Character Clues

Character Analysis


A lot of things happen in Johnny Tremain, which means that somebody's doing something on almost every page, and we learn about people through their behavior. Early on, we can tell that Johnny is in charge of the Lapham house because he's the one ordering everyone around, even going so far as to interrupt his master in front of customers like Mr. Hancock:

"Bless me," exclaimed the gentleman, not accustomed to apprentices who settled matters while their masters pondered. (1.3.37)

We know Cilla is dependable and brave because she helps others, including Johnny and the Lyte family, at personal risk to herself. When she leaves the silver behind with the mob, she insists:

"Johnny—I've got to get back to Milton. I'm going to save that silver. It was my fault." (8.1.27)

We know Isannah is an Izzy because she rolls around on the floor in her underwear in front of everyone. As Johnny says, "[I]f she acts like an Izzy, she gets called Izzy" (7.5.24).

One thing to note about actions in the novel is that characters often have a choice about the actions they undertake. The question might be "To do or not to do?" and the choices they make say a lot about the characters. While this is true of many books, it's particularly pronounced in this one. When Rab and Uncle Lorne discuss Johnny's success at learning to ride Goblin, Rab says, "Johnny Tremain is a bold fellow. I knew he could learn—if he didn't get killed first. It was sink or swim for him—and happens he's swimming" (5.2.21).

Physical Appearances

So maybe we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but in this book, we can judge a person by his or her physical appearance. Let's look at Johnny himself: "He was a rather skinny boy, neither large nor small for fourteen. He had a thin, sleep-flushed face, light eyes, a wry mouth, and fair, lank hair" (1.1.21). Johnny's thin build is contrasted with that of the slow, heavy Dove, giving an impression of quickness. His wry mouth suggests the sarcastic sense of humor that will come out on the next page, and his overall average appearance makes him a sort of everyman.

Mr. Lyte's appearance reflects the way he himself is corrupted:

He would have been a handsome man, with his fine dark eyes, bushy black brows, contrasting smartly with the white tie-wig he wore, except for the color and quality of his flesh. It was as yellow as tallow. Seemingly it had melted and run down. The lids were heavy over the remarkable eyes. The melted flesh made pouches beneath them. It hung down along his jawbone, under his jutting chin. (4.1.17)

Mr. Lyte is a picture of something once fine and noble that has gone to ruin under its own corruption… much like his entire family, and perhaps even the British Empire.

Significantly, Cilla's appearance is contrasted both with that of her sister Isannah and with that of Lavinia Lyte—she is far more ordinary looking than either of them. With her light brown hair, she has neither Isannah's angelic blond radiance nor Lavinia's dark beauty; she is the one who looks the most real, and consequently she is the most real. Because nothing about her appearance is striking, it takes Johnny a long time to realize that she's pretty, but he finally does: "And so pretty he could not believe it. He was accustomed to staring at Lavinia Lyte's famous beauty and to feel a pleasant tingle up and down his spine. And now it was Cilla Lapham, just good old Cilla, that was giving him spinal creeps" (8.4.27).

Thoughts and Opinions

In any book that deals heavily with politics, we're going to run into a lot of thoughts and opinions. The narrator often tells us directly what certain characters think about lots of things, but nowhere is this clearer than in the final meeting of the Boston Observers, when James Otis interrogates the other members about why they are fighting and what they are willing to sacrifice.

"So we hold up our torch—and do not forget it was lighted upon the fires of England—and we will set it as a new sun to lighten a world…"

Sam Adams, anxious to get that good night's sleep before starting next day for Philadelphia, was smiling slightly, nodding his gray head, seeming to agree. He was bored. It does not matter, he was thinking, what James Otis says these days—sane or crazy.

Joseph Warren's fair, responsive face was aflame. The torch Otis had been talking about seemed reflected in his eyes.

"We are lucky men," he murmured, "for we have a cause worth dying for. This honor is not given to every generation."

In this scene, their thoughts and ideas reflect Otis's prophetic speech, Adams's jaded determination, and Warren's devotion to the cause.