Johnny Tremain Themes, Symbols, and Motifs

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Johnny Tremain Themes, Motifs, and Symbols


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Activity Overview

Themes, symbols, and motifs come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify themes and symbols from the novel, and support their choices with details from the text.

Themes to Look For and Discuss

Freedom is Worth Fighting For

Esther Forbes does not take death lightly in Johnny Tremain. For her characters to be willing to kill and die, they must have a worthwhile reason. The true justification for the Revolutionary War is given by James Otis in a rare moment of sanity (due to an injury, the historical James Otis had a lead plate in his head that was slowly poisoning him). Otis argues that anger and money are no reason to go to war, but freedom and equality are. He says, “we fight, we die, for a simple thing. Only that a man can stand up.” In essence, he is arguing for the rights of the common man, who should not be made to bow down physically or financially to a higher class. He also argues that this cause is bigger than the city of Boston, bigger even than the 13 colonies. The fight for freedom that begins with the American Revolution is one that will continue across the globe in the centuries to follow. This humanitarian cause is worth dying for, and the characters accept this. Rab’s death and the suffering it causes are not meaningless, therefore. He gives his life for the freedom of future generations.

Pride Goes Before a Fall

Perhaps the most important lesson Johnny learns throughout the book is to control his pride. At the beginning of the novel, Johnny’s greatest flaw is his pride, which leads him to abuse his peers and take his privileged position for granted. In an instance of foreshadowing, old Mr. Lapham warns Johnny against this pride by having him read various proverbs from the Bible. Pride in his abilities and reputation as a silversmith leads Johnny to secretly light the forge on a Sunday, a decision which ends in his permanently maimed hand. His burn almost seems like a divine punishment meted out to quell his pride. With the loss of both his hand and his future, Johnny reaches an all-time low. He only regains his sense of well-being when he learns to humbly accept help and treat others with patience and kindness.

War Turns Boys into Men

Johnny Tremain is a classic bildungsroman, a coming of age story. Though Johnny begins as a spoiled, carefree boy, sheltered by the predictable security of the Lapham household, he is ready, two years later, to join the colonial forces in the War for Independence. As Johnny becomes more involved in politics, he comes to believe in the cause of liberty, but struggles to come to grips with the violence that war brings. He is sickened by a Tory sympathizer who is tarred and feathered by a Patriot mob. He is horrified to witness Pumpkin’s death and cannot imagine lifting a weapon against his British friend, Lt. Stranger. By the end of the book, however, he has seen Rab die and accepted the price of freedom. Most significantly, he has accepted Dr. Warren’s offer to fix his hand so that he can hold a musket and join the war. Forbes directly addresses this theme when she states that at sixteen Johnny was “a boy in time of peace and a man in time of war”.

Motifs & Symbols to Look For and Discuss

The Color Red

The color red is symbolic of the British troops that invade Boston following the Boston Tea Party. At various points, the troops are described as “redcoats”, “lobsterbacks”, “red ants”, the “scarlet deluge”, and the “scarlet dragon”. These troops change the daily lives of the Bostonians and increase the tension between the British government and the rebellion-minded colonists. From Johnny’s perspective, the red soldiers ultimately represent an enemy threat.

Johnny’s Family Cup

Johnny’s silver cup with the Lyte’s rising eye symbol represents his connection to his mother and the Lyte family. It also represents the British aristocracy that the Lytes embody and that the Revolutionaries seek to destroy. Early in the book, Johnny’s cup seems almost magical – it is the key that can connect him instantly with the riches and power of his Lyte ancestors. Johnny likes the idea that he might be superior to others and that possible treasures await him amongst his estranged family. As he matures, however, he learns that he cannot take the easy way out. In fact, he becomes a stronger and better person once rejected by Mr. Lyte. When he has the chance to take back his cup in the Lyte house at Milton, Johnny leaves it behind. His personal story mirrors that of the American colonists. Johnny cuts ties with his aristocratic past, much like America is about to do with England.

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Template and Class Instructions

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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in Johnny Tremain. Illustrate instances of each theme, symbol, or motif and write a short description below each cell.

  1. Click "Start Assignment".
  2. Identify the themes, symbols, or motifs from Johnny Tremain you wish to include.
  3. Create an image for examples that represents this theme.
  4. Write a description of each of the examples.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.

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