Discuss the novel's antagonists. Are they genuinely bad?
Forbes takes extra care to show that even her bad characters have good sides. For example, Dove is secretly very lonely and wants to befriend Johnny, Mr. Tweedie teaches Cilla how to draw, and Miss Lavinia gives Johnny some important information about his family at the end of the book. Even the British army has good soldiers and bad: Pumpkin, Lieutenant Stranger, and the medical officer who helps Rab are all examples of sympathetic British characters.
Why does Johnny reject unskilled jobs? Is he right to do so?
Johnny rejects unskilled jobs like the butcher's apprenticeship because he believes they are not good enough for him. His choice to do so shows that he is still very proud despite his injury. At first, Johnny is reluctant to take work as a delivery boy with Uncle Lorne, but when he does so, he finds that it is a challenging and rewarding job. He learns many new skills, like riding a horse and talking about politics. He also gets to see parts of the country, like Worcester and Plymouth, that he would never visit otherwise. Through his work as a delivery boy, Johnny learns that even low-level jobs can be a source of pride and enjoyment if you work hard and do well at them.
How does Johnny change over the course of the novel?
As Johnny ages, he loses his pride and becomes more modest about his skills. He is willing to do any sort of work if it is helpful, even if it is slightly embarrassing––like his assignment to pretend he is a child so he can deliver a message to Mr. Newman. He also gains more empathy for the people around him. At first, he is only interested in Cilla and Isannah when they are useful to him. However, he comes to genuinely care about them––especially Cilla––as he grows older.
Rab sometimes uses violence to solve problems. Is this a good or a bad quality?
Forbes's portrayal of Rab is complicated, especially in his relationship to violence. Overall, Rab fights much less than most boys his age. However, he still uses violence unnecessarily at times, as when he beats up the butcher and his family for teasing the Webb twins. Rab seems very eager to fight at Lexington and does not consider the dangers of battle. Although Rab is portrayed as a mature and thoughtful character overall, his attitude toward violence is a flaw that suggests he still has some growing up to do.
Discuss Johnny’s trial in Chapter 4. What does it show about the colonial legal system?
Johnny's trial shows that while it had some problems, the American legal system under England was not horribly tyrannical. The sheriff is kind to Johnny and tells him about his rights. Johnny is able to get a good lawyer to work for him for free––although it's worth noting that this is due to Rab's connections, and with less luck, Johnny would have been on his own. And although Merchant Lyte tries to bribe Mrs. Lapham, Cilla testifies anyway. Johnny's trial shows a triumph of the early American justice system and demonstrates the importance of individual rights.
How does Johnny’s response to his deformed hand change over the course of the novel? Does he get better at living with his injury? Why or why not?
Johnny's attitude about his hand improves dramatically as he grows older. At first, he is ashamed of his hand and refuses to show it to anyone, hiding it in his pocket whenever other people are around. After Rab points out that people would react to it more calmly if Johnny himself were calm about it, Johnny makes an effort to not be ashamed of the hand. However, he doesn't fully achieve this until Rab's death. Once he does, he finds out that Dr. Warren will be able to give him back the use of his thumb, something that he could not do before because Johnny was too embarrassed to show him his hand.
How does Rab change over the course of the novel?
When we first meet Rab, he seems calm, reserved, and charismatic. However, he develops a disturbing appetite for violence as the Revolution draws closer. This is not due to a change in his character so much as a change in the circumstances. Johnny's perspective heavily influences Forbes's portrayal of Rab; when he first meets the older boy and is in awe of him, Forbes only writes about Rab's good qualities. However, as the boys get to know each other, she shows some of the character's flaws as well.
What is the significance of Pumpkin?
Pumpkin shows that while Johnny and Rab seem suited to fighting in a war, not everyone has the skill or the desire to do so. Forbes portrays Pumpkin and his desire to be a farmer very sympathetically, and his tragic death illustrates the cost that the American Revolution had for the common people of England.
Esther Forbes wrote Johnny Tremain in 1943, at the height of World War II. How might this historical context have influenced the novel?
Forbes has said that the Second World War influenced her while she was writing this story. Johnny's speech at the end of the novel, which explains that Americans will always have to fight to protect their freedom, is a clear reference to the fact that in World War II, young Americans were affected by the fighting just like their Revolutionary War counterparts. Forbes uses the story to show the value of virtues like patriotism and self-sacrifice, qualities that she considered especially important for young people to learn in a time of war.
How does Forbes portray the real historical characters in Johnny Tremain? Is she right to take artistic license with some of them?
Forbes's portrayals of real people in the novel vary widely. For example, Paul Revere is portrayed as a heroic working man, while Sam Adams is shown as having an unpleasant appetite for fighting. John Hancock appears to be well-intended but also absent-minded and slightly snobbish. These portrayals are partly based on history (Forbes wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Revere and would have been very familiar with his personality), but they also involve some artistic license. This allows her to realistically portray what it would have been like to live during the American Revolution. While the rebel leaders are heroes to modern readers, the people who lived at that time would have considered them flawed humans like anyone else.