Study Guide

Johnny Tremain Society and Class

By Esther Forbes

Society and Class

Breakfast was good, although no more than what a poor artisan could afford—milk and ale, gruel, sausages, and corn bread. Everything was plentiful and well cooked. The kitchen was as clean or cleaner than many of those in great houses. Every member of the household had a clean shirt or petticoat. Mrs. Lapham was a great manager, but she cared nothing for genteel manners and was the first to laugh at Dorcas's "If it please you, Mother—just a touch more maple syrup for me." "Gimme that there syrup pitcher" was good enough for her. (1.2.6)

This paragraph gives us a great snapshot of what life in the Lapham house is like and what the expectations are for those living in it. How does it contrast with Johnny's later life with the Lornes and with his glimpses of life in the Lyte house?

Neither of the girls had ever heard of a poor working boy with three names. "You're not making it up?" Cilla asked, almost respectfully. "I've heard tell of folk with three names, but I never saw one before." (1.4.14)

In the eighteenth century, you were a pretty big deal if you had three names. When we consider that it was only in the last few centuries that everyone started to get last names, we can see why that is. Why does Johnny's name impress the girls? Why does he suddenly decide to tell them when he's always kept his middle name a secret?

"Any back-alley drabtail can name her child for the greatest men in the colony. There should be a law against it, but there is none."

Johnny's temper began to go.

"You flatter yourself. What have you ever done except be rich?" (4.1.32-34)

Johnny's first meeting with Mr. Lyte doesn't go quite as well as he'd hoped, and it turns out Mr. Lyte isn't quite as awesome as he thought he'd be. Could Johnny have gotten his temper from the Lytes? It looks like it might be a family trait. Why does Mr. Lyte refuse to believe he and Johnny could actually be related? Do their attitudes toward each other change by the end of the novel?

"I will not have my servants intruding their personal affairs into my drawing room. Priscilla, if you are not satisfied here, I can arrange for your return to your mother, but you are not ever to bring in street boys, horse boys, riffraff…"

[…]

"And you"—she turned to Johnny—"get back to the gutter or wherever boys like you keep themselves." (7.5.25, 33)

Okay, what is Lavinia Lyte's deal? Based on her conversation with Johnny at the end of the novel, we know that at this point she at least suspects that they actually are related, and she's already started digging to find out the truth. Yet she keeps insulting him. She's downright mean whenever she gets a chance. Why?

He could see her profile through the window. Cilla sat facing her. Isannah, as befitted her higher station in the household, sat next to Miss Lyte. Only Isannah was staring about, observing the "lower classes" milling about in the street. She looked straight at Johnny and he at her. Neither gave any sign of recognition. (8.1.1)

Isannah doesn't have much ability to develop her own personality. Maybe she should be an actress because she mainly mimics those around her. When Cilla is her main influence, she copies Cilla's thoughts and words, but when Lavinia Lyte steps in, she starts trying to act like her. Is she more or less admirable a character than Lavinia Lyte? In other words, which of them is worse?

He stood by the entrance gates. Yes, Cilla was right. They had smashed the arms carved upon the gates. The poor people of Milton had had enough of that rising eye. Johnny wasn't sure but he had as well. (8.2.3)

This is one of the few places where the rebellion appears to be specifically class-based. According to the novel, is there a place for people like the Lytes in the colonies? Would they be welcomed if they wanted to join the rebellion?

"…The peasants of France, the serfs of Russia. Hardly more than animals now. But because we fight, they shall see freedom like a new sun rising in the west. Those natural rights God has given to every man, no matter how humble…" He smiled suddenly and said "…or crazy," and took a good pull at his tankard.

"…The battle we win over the worst in England shall benefit the best in England. How well are they over there represented when it comes to taxes? Not very well. It will be better for them when we have won this war.

"Will French peasants go on forever pulling off their caps and saying 'Oui, Monsieur,' when the gold coaches run down their children? They will not. Italy. And all those German states. Are they nothing but soldiers? Will no one show them the rights of good citizens?" (8.5.43-45)

This is part of James Otis's long speech at the final meeting of the Boston Observers. He seems to be saying that the whole world will be improved once the rebellion against England prevails. What does historical evidence say about the truth of this claim? How might this passage have affected Forbes's original readers?

Although the very young officer was proud and class-conscious enough when they met indoors at the Lytes' or Afric Queen, once both were in their saddles they were equals. […]

From that day he and Johnny spent hours together jumping or exercising horses. Johnny almost worshipped him for his skill and almost loved him, because, ever and anon, he looked so much like Rab; but still it was only where horses were concerned they were equals. Indoors he was rigidly a British officer and a "gentleman" and Johnny an inferior. This shifting about puzzled Johnny. It did not seem to puzzle the British officer at all. (9.2.45-46)

Lieutenant Stranger accepts the paradox of his and Johnny's friendship as the way the world is, while Johnny can't understand it at all. What does this say about what each of them takes for granted about the way the world is? What assumptions is each making?

"I will leave the decision entirely to her. She shall be perfectly free to choose between us. Precious, would you rather go with me to London and be a great lady and wear silks and jewels and ride in coaches, or stay here and be just another poor working girl?"

[…]

"Which would you rather be, a common person like your sister or a fine lady?" (11.4.20, 26)

This is one of Lavinia Lyte's most horrible, meanest moments—hands down. Hello, Cilla is in the room while Lavinia Lyte is saying this stuff. Miss Lavinia pretty much buys Isannah's affections. What does this scene say about the three women's characters? And, uh, we'd like to point out that Isannah is totally showing she can be bought. Again. See her analysis in the "Characters" section for what this says about her.

The first two boats were filled with privates. They had been packed in, and now were being tossed ashore, like so much cordwood. Most of them were pathetically good and patient, but he saw an officer strike a man who was screaming.

Johnny's hands clenched. "It is just as James Otis said," he thought. "We are fighting, partly, for just that. Because a man is a private is no reason he should be treated like cordwood." (12.1.16-17)

Johnny is watching the British wounded from Lexington and Concord being unloaded at the Boston docks. How are the British military and the American militia compared in the novel? What are the advantages and disadvantages of both systems? Is there a way to keep order without treating officers and privates differently?