Study Guide

Johnny Tremain Mortality (Death)

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Mortality (Death)

Beyond him, in the semi-darkness, running across mud flats, was the one road which connected Boston with the mainland. And here the gallows—on which Mrs. Lapham promised him to end. He turned back from the lonely place. The gallows and the graves of suicides frightened him a little. (3.5.1)

Yeah, this is a creepy scene. It reminds us of something out of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. The shadowy road that leads out of Boston seems symbolic of the shadowy road that leads out of life, especially since the gallows and the graves of suicides are here. There's a certain amount of (thankfully, inaccurate) foreshadowing going on, but this is where Johnny's headed if things don't look up fast.

He believed that the case of the theft, all that interested him at the moment, was "dead open and shut against the boy." And might he ask the death penalty? There was too much thieving going on in Boston. Poor apprentices were getting out of hand. The gallows had been too long empty. (4.5.16)

Merchant Lyte plays hardball, and the offhand way in which he asks for the death penalty shows a real lack of value for the lives of the poor. How does Johnny's experience of the justice system relate to James Otis's iconic words, "A man can stand up?" (8.5.65).

He looked in the birth and death room. It was once more used for storage. It seemed strange beyond belief that he had ever lain so long in the room. 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 here again at the threshold, but now he was somebody else. (7.4.12)

The metaphorical death Johnny describes seems as sad as any literal death. His life has completely changed, and he has also changed a lot as a person. The accident divides his life in two. What did Johnny lose? What did he gain?

He had seen her face, heard her voice so clearly that night he had lain by her grave on Copp's Hill. He thought of her with love and a tender understanding (an understanding he had been too young to give when she had died), but he left the haunted chambers, echoing halls, and went gladly to the kitchen where Cilla was. For the dead should not look at the living—nor the living too long upon the dead. (8.2.33)

Why not? What about Johnny's experiences so far supports the assertion in the final sentence? At what other points in the novel does Johnny "look upon the dead"? Does he ever get the sense that they're looking back? This passage gives us the shivers.

"Each shall give according to his own abilities, and some"—he turned directly to Rab—"some will give their lives. All the years of their maturity. All the children they never live to have. The serenity of old age. To die so young is more than merely dying; it is to lose so large a part of life." (8.5.60)

We think this is why the Observers are sick of James Otis. He tells the truth, no matter how tragic or uncomfortable that truth is. Here he's like, "Let me just add to the tragedy by reminding everyone of how much you're really giving up." Is there a difference between dying and losing one's life, as James Otis seems to suggest?

Johnny put his hands to his face. It was wet and his hands were shaking. He thought of that blue smock his mother had made him, now torn by bullets. Pumpkin had wanted so little out of life. A farm. Cows. True, Rab had got the musket he craved, but Pumpkin wasn't going to get his farm. Nothing more than a few feet by a few feet at the foot of Boston Common. That much Yankee land he'd hold to Judgment Day. (9.5.9)

Johnny witnesses Pumpkin's execution for desertion, but it happens behind him so that he can't actually see it. What is the effect on Johnny—and on the reader—of having to imagine what happens rather than being directly told?

Each musket ended with a wicked round eye—watching him so it seemed. Eight cruel eyes. It was like looking into the face of death. (9.5.12)

So much like looking into the face of death that Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem about it. How does the personification of the muskets make facing them worse? Or does it? Is it an attempt to blame the musket rather than the person firing it?

Johnny had been fearful that Rab would be suffering, crying out, struggling like other wounded men he had seen: afraid that with death so close something of that aloof dignity he had always had would be shattered. He had lived with Rab a year and a half, and yet he had never really known him—not known him inside and out as, say, he had known the hated Dove.

But half-sitting as he was, Rab did not seem at first very different from always. His face was white but not drawn. The eyes very dark and wide. Rab smiled. (12.4.3-4)

For a dying man, Rab doesn't look too bad. In fact, Rab faces death as we would expect him to. Do you agree? How does the way Rab dies correspond to—or break from— descriptions of his character in earlier scenes?

"And some of us would die—so other men can stand up on their feet like men. A great many are going to die for that. They have in the past. They will a hundred years from now—two hundred. God grant there will always be men good enough. Men like Rab." (12.5.17)

What future events might Doctor Warren be referring to, if he could see them? What makes a man (or woman) "good enough" to die?

True, Rab had died. Hundreds would die, but not the thing they died for.

"A man can stand up…" (12.5. 59-60)

What does Rab die for? He is mortally wounded on Lexington Green, one of seventy men trying to stop seven hundred. Is his sacrifice necessary?

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