The Chocolate War

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For the film adaptation, see The Chocolate War (film).
The Chocolate War
The Chocolate War novel.jpg
Front cover of 30th anniversary edition [1]
Author Robert Cormier
Country United States
Language English
Genre Young-adult novel
Publisher Pantheon Books
Publication date
1974
Media type Print (hardback & paperback)
Pages 272 pp
ISBN 0-394-82805-4
OCLC 722968
LC Class PZ7.C81634 Ch
Followed by Beyond the Chocolate War

The Chocolate War is a young adult novel by American author Robert Cormier. First published in 1974, it was adapted into a film in 1988. Although it received mixed reviews at the time of its publication, some reviewers have argued it is one of the best young adult novels of all time.[2] Set at Trinity School, a fictional Catholic high school, the story primarily follows Jerry Renault as he challenges the school's cruel and ugly mob rule. Because of the novel's language, the concept of a high school secret society using intimidation to enforce the cultural norms of the school, and various characters' sexual ponderings, it has been the frequent target of censors and appears at number three on the American Library Association's list of the "Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books in 2000–2009."

A sequel was published in 1985, Beyond the Chocolate War.

Narrative mode[edit]

The novel is told from an alternating third-person subjective point of view that generally shifts by chapter, briefly focusing on the personal thoughts and experiences of various individual students at Trinity School. The two most common perspectives are those of Jerry Renault (the putative protagonist) and Archie Costello (the putative antagonist), which much of the time alternate back and forth between chapters, though there are many exceptions, in which others' perspectives are depicted as well. Obie's, The Goober's, and Brian Cochran's viewpoints also appear relatively often, and numerous minor characters' third-person subjective perspectives are portrayed in one or more chapters. The book sometimes even (albeit rarely) conveys multiple students' perspectives within the very same chapter.

Plot[edit]

Jerry Renault is a self-determined and solitary first-year student at a preparatory, all-boys, Catholic high school called Trinity. Jerry occasionally copes with sexual frustration, depressive feelings, and basic existential questions, some of which stem from the recent death of his mother and the consequential emptiness he observes in his father's new life as a widower. Though thin, Jerry is quickly recruited onto the football team where he meets "The Goober," a fellow freshman and newfound friend at the school.

Archie Costello, an intelligent, controlling, and apparently amoral older student selects Jerry to carry out an "assignment" for The Vigils, the school's influential secret society of student pranksters, who carry out "assignments" that range from ridiculous to cruel. The existence of the Vigils is known by Trinity faculty but neither officially recognized nor openly acknowledged. Though The Vigils' president is nominally the school's star boxer and football player, John Carter, The Vigils are run de facto by Archie, whose title is the "Assigner" and who personally crafts each of the group's often elaborate pranks, which the other members of The Vigils unquestioningly carry out.

When the school's headmaster becomes ill, his vice-principal, Brother Leon, assumes the position of acting headmaster. Leon, however, quickly overextends his rising ambition by committing the students to selling twice as many chocolates at twice the price in the annual school-wide chocolate fundraising event than last year. To accomplish this goal, Leon quietly reaches out to Archie, hinting at his desire that The Vigils will use their influence among the student body to increase this year's chocolate sales. Archie is seduced by the thought of having Leon's implicit support for The Vigils and, recognizing the power play in his favor, agrees. However, as if reveling in the power he now secretly wields over Leon, Archie assigns Jerry to refuse to sell any chocolate for ten days, expecting to provide a laugh for his fellow students and a humiliating scene for Leon. Jerry carries out the prank and it indeed shocks Brother Leon during his daily roll call, which includes an assessment of individuals' fundraising progress.

Surprising everyone, though, Jerry persists in his refusal to sell chocolates even after the ten days have passed, thus estranging himself from the Vigils and their demands. Although Jerry himself cannot justify these actions at first, he persists each following day in his outright refusal, ultimately based on some personal rejection of the school's corrupt culture in which students and teachers alike condone manipulative people like The Vigils. Archie urges the rest of The Vigils to thwart Jerry's display of non-conformity, initially encouraging non-violent action. Meanwhile, Jerry ponders the meaning of a quotation on the poster inside his locker: "Do I dare disturb the universe?" from T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

Jerry's refusal to cooperate, at first, is seen by many classmates as heroic and soon the chocolate sales throughout the school plummet as fellow students begin to celebrate and align with Jerry's resistance to the fundraising effort. Both Brother Leon and The Vigils are angered by Jerry's noncompliance, which threatens their ability to direct the student body toward their own self-serving goals. As a result, Brother Leon presses Archie to have The Vigils put their full force behind the chocolate sale, and in doing so set Jerry up as an enemy to be alienated and bullied by the rest of the student body. Because of this, the chocolate sales begin to skyrocket and the tide is now turned: Jerry soon becomes an outcast, facing harassment by his peers, isolation in the hallways, prank calls at home, and the vandalism of his locker and possessions. Only The Goober remains a friend to Jerry and even supportive of his resistance, though he does little to actively protect him. Ultimately, Archie enlists the school bully Emile Janza to ambush Jerry just outside the school. Jerry maintains his defiance even in the aftermath of the violent beating he receives.

At the end of the novel, Archie concocts a final event for the chocolate sale: a boxing match at night on the field between Jerry and Emile, promising that whoever is the winner of the fight will also win back his dignity. The match is watched by the all the school's students, each of whom selects which blows will be laid by the two combatants through a randomized lottery system. The match is only halted when a teacher kills the electrical power on the field, throwing the scene into darkness and disarray, but not before Jerry is brutally injured by Emile. Floating in and out of consciousness, Jerry says to The Goober, now his only remaining companion at school, that there was no way to win and that he should have just gone along with what everyone wanted him to do. Jerry concedes that it is best, after all, not to "disturb the universe." Though Archie is caught as the mastermind of the match and confronted, Brother Leon intervenes on Archie's behalf and in private praises his efforts that led to unprecedented results in the chocolate sale. Leon implies to Archie that, next year, if Leon is officially made the new headmaster, he will work to continue to preserve Archie's power.

Characters[edit]

Main characters[edit]

Jerome E. "Jerry" Renault is a high school freshman with all the normal masculine urges, but who normally goes out of his way to avoid confrontation. He misses his late mother and, sensing the drabness in his father's working life, develops a desire to do something with his own life. His refusal to participate in the chocolate sale is initially part of a Vigil assignment lasting ten days, but some inner volition leads him to extend his boycott beyond this period. Cormier presents this individual defiance in earth-shattering terms: "Cities fell. Earth opened. Planets tilted. Stars plummeted. And the awful silence." Jerry becomes the target of a Vigil campaign to force him to join the chocolate sale. There are anonymous phone calls to his home. His locker, including the important poster, is ransacked. An art assignment is stolen. He is beaten up by Emile Janza and some of his cronies, and then systematically ostracized. Presented with the opportunity of getting back at Janza, he agrees to Archie's plans for a boxing match on the athletics field. The outcome of this final Vigil antic is that Jerry is badly beaten and seriously hurt. When The Goober leans over him, Jerry wants to tell him to play by the rules, and not to try to "disturb the universe," but is too badly injured to even speak. He is taken away in an ambulance and the reader is left to speculate on his fate. Although the action in the novel is not always seen from Jerry's point of view, he is clearly the pivotal character, and the one with whom the reader sympathizes. The novel was shocking in its time because of the manner in which its main character was so clearly and unequivocally defeated.

Archie Costello is a high school upperclassman described as having an uncanny ability to manipulate people: "he could dazzle you with his brilliance" and "disgust you with his cruelties...that had nothing to do with pain or violence but were somehow even worse." As the "Assigner" of The Vigils, Archie is the real power behind The Vigils (as opposed to the group's puppet president, football player John Carter) and eventually directs his devilish ingenuity against the protagonist, Jerry. He annoys his irritable but basically submissive stooge, Obie, with his "phony hip moods." Archie delivers the first major assignment of the novel to The Goober — loosening the screws in all the furniture in Brother Eugene's classroom. His crucial role is established when Brother Leon invokes, through Archie, The Vigils' support for the upgraded annual chocolate sale. Archie provides an unwholesome line of communication between the adults and the students. He is not above taking advantage of this position to gain personal amusement at his fellow Vigils' expense, as when a collective assignment against Brother Jacques backfires. Obie and the rest of the class are assigned to stand up and do a jig whenever Jaques utters the word "environment"; Jacques, clearly tipped off in advance by Archie, goes out of his way to use the word as often as possible, with exhausting results. This episode further exacerbates Obie's antagonism towards Archie. Archie also blackmails another pupil, Emile Janza, by pretending to have a photo of Janza masturbating in the toilet.

Archie is eventually persuaded by Brother Leon that pressure must be brought to bear on Jerry to force him to sell chocolates. He begins, in conjunction with Emile Janza, by arranging to have Jerry accused of being a "queer," and then beaten up. He then stage-manages the climactic final encounter of the novel, a boxing match between Jerry and Emile. At the end Archie unrepentantly admits to Obie that he tipped Brother Leon off about the boxing match, so that Leon could stand at a distance and watch.

Roland Goubert, nicknamed The Goober, is a tall and skinny freshman, good at running. He has bad acne. From the moment he is made the subject of the first assignment — he spends over six hours loosening the screws in Brother Eugene's room and eventually has to have Vigil assistance to complete the task — the reader is made to sympathize with him, and to feel that he is a potential ally for Jerry, such as when he makes the most of a pass from Jerry and scores for the freshman football team. We sometimes see things from his point of view, particularly when the drama of the chocolate sale is developed in terms of Goubert's apprehension of Brother Leon's state of mind. Towards the climax of the book he is amongst those who have their sales falsely reported. It is claimed that he has reached his quota when he has, in fact, sold only twenty-seven boxes. This is a turning point. He does not speak up and rushes to his locker in tears, knowing that he has betrayed Jerry. After this he is absent from school for a number of days, before returning in time to witness Jerry's destruction in the boxing ring.

Brother Leon is the ingratiating and slyly venomous Assistant Headmaster. When the Headmaster becomes sick, Leon takes over management of the school. He controls his pupils by being intellectually unpredictable and making examples of them, as in the cruel game he plays on Bailey. He speaks in a whisper but there is always a barely controlled violence beneath the surface, as evidenced when he snaps a piece of chalk in two while talking to a pupil called Caroni.

His decision to double the quota and the price in the annual chocolate sale, and the financial foolhardiness of this project, leads him to seek a commitment of support from The Vigils. Once he has identified Jerry as the primary cause for the poor general progress of the sale, he becomes obsessed with revenge. The treasurer of the sale, Brian Cochran, compares his demeanor to that of a "mad scientist in an underground laboratory." The practicalities of revenge are handed over to Archie, but at the boxing match at the end of the story, he stands in triumph beside Archie, having achieved his objectives in beating Jerry and having forged with The Vigils.

Trinity students[edit]

Howie Anderson, president of the junior class, is notable for almost knocking out Carter in an intramural boxing match. Described as an "intellectual roughneck," he plays only a tiny part in the novel, yet his appearance is significant for his refusal to agree to Richy Rondell's suggestion of a class boycott in support of Jerry. Howie says, "No, Richy. This is the age of do your own thing. Let everybody do his thing. If a kid wants to sell, let him. If he doesn't, the same thing applies."

Gregory Bailey is an A-grade pupil made to bear the brunt of Brother Leon's object lesson in political connivance early in the novel. He was accused of cheating by the Brother. He taunts Bailey about how only God is perfect so he couldn't get all A's. "You turned this classroom into Nazi Germany for a few moments," Leon says, after the class has failed to defend Bailey against his accusation of cheating.

David Caroni, the recipient of a Trinity scholarship, is blackmailed by Brother Leon into trading information about Jerry Renault's Vigils assignment (a ten-day embargo on chocolate selling) in return for having a wrongly-marked F-grade paper reconsidered. Caroni finds the episode deeply dispiriting: "If teachers did this kind of thing, what kind of world could it be?"

John Carter, all-star guard on the football team and president of the Boxing Club, is also president of The Vigils. Cormier describes him as a "big beefy varsity guard who looked as if he could chew freshmen up and spit them out." Although elsewhere referred to as "almost as big a bastard" as Archie, Carter is a more straightforward bully. He is distrustful of the others tactics, and more than ready to get physical to prove that force is more effective than cleverness. Late in the novel, Archie disapproves of Carter's readiness to beat up an insolent junior, Frankie Rollo. In a key moment Carter flattens him with a single punch and effectively puts Archie on probation. Carter disagrees with Archie's decision to associate The Vigils with the chocolate sale.

Brian Cochran, a senior and not "exactly a hotshot in the psychology department," who is volunteered by Brother Leon to be treasurer of the chocolate sale, a job which he performs with clerical efficiency. In the course of the sale he becomes aware that sales are being falsely attributed to certain individuals in order to encourage others. He keeps his disapproval to himself. Ultimately, when the sale is pronounced over, he is worried by the tidiness of the figures, but again keeps quiet.

Emile Janza is described as "a brute" with "small eyes." Janza likes to sit at the front of the class, infuriating the teacher with a soft whistling or a tapping of the foot. He was once caught by Archie with his trousers down, masturbating in the toilet. For a long time he believes that Archie has an incriminating photograph. Emile is a straightforwardly ruthless bully, intimidating younger pupils into buying him cigarettes. Sheer malice and enjoyment of the game motivate him to accost Jerry, accuse him (at Archie's bidding) of being a closet homosexual, and then (on his own initiative) rough him up with a group of accomplices. Archie is then able to use this incident to set up the final, bizarre boxing match between Emile and Jerry.

Obie is Archie's stooge and general errand-boy for The Vigils. He has a thin, sharp face, is constantly yawning, and is presented as intellectually inferior to Archie, whom he alternately admires and detests, frequently thinking and outright (to his face) calling Archie "a bastard." For all his envious hatred of Archie, though, Obie can never bring himself to successfully undermine Archie or resist Archie's orders. He is manipulated by Archie and often made to take an active part in one of the assignments, such as the stunt perpetrated on Brother Jacques. This is a festering cause of resentment. At the end of the book Obie attempts to outwit Archie by unexpectedly presenting him with The Vigils' "black box" of marbles (which serves as a check on Archie's power) at the start of the boxing match and challenging him to pick two. In the final chapter Obie, in low-key conversation with Archie, says "Maybe the black box will work the next time, Archie," to which Archie responds with scorn.

Teachers[edit]

Brother Andrew is Jerry's art teacher. He asks for an art assignment which Jerry has already completed and handed in. It is implied that other students stole the assignment to humiliate Jerry.

The football coach, never mentioned by name, is nevertheless an important presence in the book. Encountered in the opening chapter, he presses Jerry hard and spits on him. His bullying coaching style is initially unsympathetic, but is an increasingly healthy counterpoint to the murky machinations of Archie and Leon.

Brother Eugene is an instructor at Trinity. Eugene's classroom, Room Nineteen, is the subject of the first major Vigil assignment undertaken in the book. All the screws are loosened so that every item of furniture will collapse at the merest touch. Brother Eugene is destroyed by this experience and is absent from the school in the second half of the novel, presumed to be on sick leave.

Brother Jacques is a new teacher who appears halfway through the novel and is untainted by the regime. He is quickly made to bear the brunt of a Vigil stunt, but he has been forewarned by Archie and is able to turn the tables on the boys. Jacques admonishes Archie in tones of cold contempt after the fight, but his protest is undermined by the arrival of Brother Leon.

Other characters[edit]

Ellen Barrett is a pretty girl Jerry looks forward to seeing at the bus stop. Jerry's hopes of dating her are ruined after she mistakes him for another boy and talks rudely to him over the phone.

Mr. James R. Renault, Jerry's father, is a pharmacist. He works irregular hours and is often asleep when at home. His favorite word is "fine" and he has a resigned outlook on life, but Jerry considers his father's existence to be dull and meaningless.

Critical reception[edit]

The book was well received by critics. The New York Times wrote, "The Chocolate War is masterfully structured and rich in theme; the action is well crafted, well timed, suspenseful; complex ideas develop and unfold with clarity."[3]

Children's Book Review Service said "Robert Cormier has written a brilliant novel."

In an interview with Robert Cormier, he explained that he is "interested in creating real people, dramatic situations that will keep the reader turning pages."[4] He went on to say that although some adults dislike the book because of the topics discussed "the kids can absorb my kind of book because they know this kind of thing happens in life."[4]

The New York Times Book Review declared that "Mr. Cormier is almost unique in his powerful integration of the personal, political and moral"[5] and The Australian wrote that young readers "recognised his vision as authentic and admired his willingness to tell things as they are".[6] However, the book has been banned from many schools and it is one of the most challenged books of 2006 "for sexual content, offensive language, violence".[7]

Reviewers compared the book to A Separate Peace and Lord of the Flies.

Awards[edit]

1974 School Library Journal Best Books of the Year

1974 ALA Best Books for Young Adults

1974 ALA the Best of the Best Books for Young Adults

1974 New York Times Notable Books of the Year [8]

Film adaptation[edit]

The Chocolate War inspired the 1988 film of the same name, directed by Keith Gordon. It starred John Glover, Wallace Langham, Ilan Mitchell-Smith, Jenny Wright and Adam Baldwin and Corey Gunnestad.

References[edit]

  1. ^ "The Chocolate War | Tattered Cover Book Store". Tatteredcover.com. Retrieved 2013-09-23. 
  2. ^ The Best Young Adult Novels of All Time, or The Chocolate War One More Time Ted Hipple and Jennifer L. Claiborne, English Journal, high school edition, January 2005
  3. ^ New York Times Book Review
  4. ^ a b Rosenberg, Merri (May 5, 1985). "Children's Books; Teen-Agers Face Evil". New York Times Book Review. p. 36. Retrieved March 9, 2011. 
  5. ^ Rochman, Hazel (May 5, 1985). "No Headline". New York Times Book Review. p. 37. Retrieved March 9, 2011. 
  6. ^ "Provocateur of Young Minds – Time & Tide". The Australian. December 6, 2000. Retrieved March 12, 2011. 
  7. ^ "The Most-Challenged Books of 2006". The Kansas City Star, The (MO). October 4, 2007. Retrieved March 12, 2011. 
  8. ^ http://www.randomhouse.com/book/32032/the-chocolate-war-by-robert-cormier#praise&awards

External links[edit]