Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1158 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of The Chocolate War Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Jerry Renault, a skinny freshman at Trinity High School who lost his mother to cancer a year ago, tries out for the football team. He is brutally sacked, but he gets up afterward, and the coach tells him to come back the next day. Obie and Archie watch from the stands. Archie, the plotter of practical jokes for an underground group, the Vigils, must pick ten names and an assignment for each name. Obie, Archie’s flunky, writes what Archie says: “Roland Goubert—Brother Eugene’s Room; Jerry Renault—Chocolates.”
Brother Leon, Trinity’s assistant headmaster, has ordered twenty thousand boxes of chocolates for the school’s annual fund-raiser, two times the normal order. He asks Archie for help with this endeavor, explaining that each student must sell fifty boxes. Archie enjoys seeing Brother Leon squirm but finally agrees that the Vigils will help.
The Vigils meet. Archie humiliates Goober, who is given the assignment to loosen every screw in Brother Eugene’s classroom. Goober fearfully accepts the assignment. Then, Carter pulls out a small black box that contains six marbles—five white and one black. Archie must pick blindly. If the marble is white, the assignment remains with Goober. If black, Archie must carry out the assignment. Archie gets lucky.
The morning after Goober carries out his assignment, pandemonium breaks loose in Brother Eugene’s room as the desks and chairs begin falling apart. Brother Eugene has a breakdown, and Goober feels guilty. After scrimmage that day, Jerry finds a letter taped to his locker door—a summons from the Vigils.
Brother Leon enjoys mentally torturing his students. In class, he reads their names from a list, asking each person if they will agree to sell fifty boxes of chocolates. Everyone says “Yes,” until Brother Leon reaches Jerry, who says “No.”
Brother Leon discovers why Jerry won’t sell the chocolates—it is a Vigils assignment. Jerry is to refuse to sell...
(The entire section is 812 words.)