Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
In the opening chapter, Ephraim Lapham condemns the sin of pride, warning Johnny that “pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” Despite the negative way in which this motif is introduced, the novel does not portray pride as an entirely negative quality. Forbes reveals pride in many variations, and some version of the trait serves as a motivation for almost all of the main characters. The Lytes represent the worst sort of pride—a cruel, arrogant haughtiness that is often expressed as prejudice against the lower classes. They look down disapprovingly on all those of a lesser status, such as Johnny and Cilla. Rab, with his quiet self-possession and sense of purpose, shows the positive side of pride. Rab is proud of his work for the Whig rebellion, and, as a result, he works passionately to help the cause. Colonial rebel leaders such as Samuel Adams and John Hancock also exhibit a useful sort of pride. Their plucky cockiness enables them to declare war on a well-armed empire when they only have a few hundred untrained farmers to back up their threats.
Caught between the two possible paths of pride are two children, Isannah and Johnny, both of whom display tendencies toward excessive pride. Isannah’s pride ultimately becomes haughty arrogance, because of her association with Lavinia Lyte. Johnny’s pride, on the other hand, is recast under the guidance of Rab and the rebel leaders. His pride develops from an arrogant, defensive pride into a more effective, nobler sense of self. Johnny’s final step away from his defensive pride occurs when he allows Doctor Warren to examine his crippled hand. Interestingly, Johnny’s ultimate embrace of the loftier side of pride is indirectly a result of another prideful soul: his father. As a French prisoner of war in Boston, Charles Tremain was too proud to reveal his own name and spent a year responding to an assumed name, Charles Latour. The Bostonians knew this man as Latour, not Tremain. As a result, when Johnny turns up at Lyte’s office claiming kinship, the name Tremain does not sound familiar to Mr. Lyte, and he is convinced that Johnny is an impostor. If Charles Tremain had not been too proud to keep his real name, Lyte may have taken Johnny in as his grandnephew. If Johnny had lived with the Lytes, however, he might have developed like Isannah, letting his pride develop into an arrogant haughtiness instead of a noble self-confidence and sense of purpose.
When Johnny learns of Dove’s malicious role in his crippling accident, Mr. Lapham admonishes him to forgive Dove, declaring, “I say, and Bible says, forgive.” Mr. Lapham, as a pious Christian, seems to believe that every offense, no matter how horrific, should be forgiven. Mr. Lapham’s beliefs not only make him gentle and mild in his personal relationships, but they also lead him to take a pacifist stance toward the conflict with England.
At the beginning of the book, Johnny’s views on forgiveness could not be more opposite from those of Mr. Lapham. He refuses to forgive any offense, no matter how small. Even accidental offenses, such as when Samuel Adams’s slave dumps water on Johnny’s head, stir up Johnny’s wrath. Mr. Lapham’s limitless capacity for forgiveness seems very appealing, whereas Johnny’s inability to forgive seems like a horrible flaw. Forbes, however, raises the issue of forgiveness within the context of revolution and thus challenges our moral judgment. Whereas Johnny does not forgive easily enough, we might ask whether Mr. Lapham forgives too easily. Forbes asks us to think about whether forgiveness is an appropriate response to the atrocious acts committed by the British.
Between the Whigs and the Tories, the Tories are more forgiving of British actions, and they are committed to being loyal to their mother country. As Forbes puts it, “Tories believ[ed] all differences could be settled with time, patience, and respect for government.” The Whigs, on the other hand, do not want to resolve their issues with England and forgive the offenses they feel they have suffered; they want to fight. The book, however, suggests that the Whigs are the heroes, because they are fighting for human rights and independence. Even the mild-tempered Rab, who is held up as the model of perfect manhood, chooses on occasion to take revenge instead of pardoning others. When the butcher’s son tortures the Webb twins, Rab does not forgive him, nor does he attempt a diplomatic resolution. Instead, he reacts with violence, physically hurting both the butcher and his son and damaging their shop. Forbes seems to suggest that, in some contexts, forgiving too easily might be just as bad as not forgiving easily enough.
Compared to England, eighteenth-century America was a land of opportunity and equality. The colonies lacked both titled nobility and a poverty-stricken underclass. The vast majority of colonists were small farmers, and there were a handful of artisans, shopkeepers, unskilled laborers, and merchants in the cities. The minimal stratification that did exist was relatively fluid. With hard work and dedication, an ambitious farmer or servant could easily climb the ranks into the upper echelons of society. Forbes subtly interweaves this particular cultural difference between England and the colonies throughout the novel. We view the minimal social stratification of colonial society as represented in the wealthy Hancock’s easy interaction with Ephraim Lapham, and even with a poor apprentice like Johnny. Johnny’s interaction with Stranger illustrates the British side of this growing cultural divide. Stranger, a British officer, strictly observes the rules regarding class boundaries in his interactions with Johnny. Johnny, unused to such strict divisions among the classes, finds Stranger’s behavior toward him inexplicable.