The Chocolate War is an unrelentingly bleak account of life in a Catholic boys’ school, from its opening line (“They murdered him.”) to the closing defeat of its young protagonist and the reascendancy of the school’s evil forces. Yet the novel is also an important example of the realistic quality of much young-adult fiction, and it is certainly Cormier’s strongest effort in this field.
Set in a small New England city, the novel could take place in any urban academic setting—at least in any school where the pressures of grades, conformity, and repressed sexuality create an unhealthy and competitive atmosphere. Trinity is a school where privacy is nonexistent, where teachers intimidate students, and where students brutalize one another. Cormier’s view of Trinity is singularly gloomy, but few readers would argue that it is totally unrealistic.
The story in this short, fast-paced novel is neither complex nor difficult. Jerry Renault is in his first year at Trinity and is trying to become a quarterback on the football team. He needs this success badly, for his mother has died the previous spring, and Jerry is living in an apartment with his father, who sleepwalks through his days. Jerry wants desperately to fit in, but a contrary impulse also motivates him. In his school locker, Jerry has a poster that showsa wide expanse of beach, a sweep of sky with a lone star glittering far away. A man walked on the beach, a small solitary figure in all that immensity. At the bottom of the poster, these words appeared—Do I dare disturb the universe? By [T. S.] Eliot, who wrote the Waste Land thing they were studying in English. Jerry wasn’t sure of the poster’s meaning. But it had moved him mysteriously.
In the course of The Chocolate War, Jerry will discover the full import of the poster’s message.
Jerry accepts an “assignment,” or school stunt, from the powerful Vigils secret society to refuse to sell chocolates in the annual Trinity sale, but when the ten days of his prank are up, Jerry continues his rebellion, in protest now against the authoritarian tactics of Brother Leon, the acting headmaster, and against Jerry’s own isolation at the school. He gains a new identity through his rebellion: “I’m Jerry Renault and I’m not going to sell the chocolates,” he declares to Brother Leon and his homeroom. The Vigils, enlisted by Brother Leon, however, whip up school support for the chocolate sale and ensure that every student has sold his fifty boxes—every one except Jerry.
Emile Janza, a school bully who badly wants to get into the Vigils, gathers a gang of younger kids to beat up Jerry, and when Archie, the leader of the Vigils, arranges a boxing match in front of the whole student body between Jerry and Janza, Jerry accepts. The fight has been arranged so that Jerry cannot win, and in fact the young hero loses the very individuality he had earlier gained in his protest. In the end, as Jerry is being treated for a possible broken jaw and internal injuries, he is advising his friend Goober not to “disturb the universe,” and the Vigils and Brother Leon are even more firmly in control of Trinity.
The meaning of The Chocolate War is complex and, for many readers, depressing—the makers of the 1989 film of the novel created a more upbeat ending—but it is an important novel for young people. As with any work of this complexity, there are a number of subthemes: loss, violence in its many forms, and power—how it is maintained in human society and the hatred and brutality that its misuse breeds. The Chocolate War is a novel of initiation in which the young protagonist, like the reader, learns a number of crucial lessons about the adult world—most of them negative.
Like all Cormier’s novels, the central theme of The Chocolate War is the relation of the individual to society and the price one pays for conformity or (the other side of this theme) the greater sacrifices one must make in order to realize one’s individuality. Jerry’s protest is not easy for him to carry out, but he gains a new identity through his actions. What this idea becomes in the novel is the concept of being true to oneself and standing up to the evil that one perceives in the world.
The only character who is true to himself in the novel is Jerry—but at a terrible price. Goober tries to emulate Jerry but, in a crucial test, caves in. When the Vigils make sure that a “50” is posted after his name in the auditorium, representing boxes of chocolates sold, Goober does not have the courage to challenge it and tell the truth. The situation raises all kinds of questions, in the novel as in society: Which is more important, loyalty to oneself or to the group? Which takes more courage? What are the real consequences of conformity? How can evil be stopped except by heroic individual human action?
In the end, Jerry did disturb the universe: He stood up against peer pressure and teacher intimidation to protest the evil he recognized in the world, and his example is a model of courage in the face of cowardice and conformity. He is, in the true sense of the word, a martyr, and, if he gives in at the end, that action only makes the novel more psychologically realistic and his earlier courage even greater. The evil at Trinity can only be defeated if more people speak up. The power of The Chocolate War is this social and psychological realism: The novel shows what can happen to people who stand up for their rights in a totalitarian system.
There are several stylistic elements that distinguish The Chocolate War from most young-adult novels and that distinguish Cormier as a writer. For one thing, the multiple points of view in the novel provide a much more complex structure than that of most adolescent novels. The language in the book is not very difficult, but the honest and mature matter in which its subjects are treated may cause problems for some readers. The students here act like real teenagers—they swear and frequently think about sex. Irony plays a large part in the novel, and readers will notice the double meanings that pepper The Chocolate War.
There is also rich religious symbolism. On one level, Jerry is a Christ figure who tries to change the world but is metaphorically crucified in the attempt. Trinity is a religious school, but evil there dominates any kind of Christian love or spirit. The complex religious symbolism in the novel underscores the themes that Cormier is raising: Must someone else be crucified before the evil is banished? Finally, as a powerful psychological novel, The Chocolate War’s characterization is realistic if unremittingly grim.