Themes and Characters
It is important to realize that Cormier is a political writer in the most general sense. He devotes his attention to systems rather than individuals or specific philosophies. For this reason, it is virtually impossible to separate the characters of The Chocolate War from the sensitive themes around which Cormier's perception of humanity revolves.
Cormier's courageous protagonist Jerry Renault stands in opposition to extremely powerful forces of society. He is not a typical rebel, agitator, or heroic figure, but a complex character whose reasons for defying peer pressure are difficult to pinpoint. In spite of his eventual defeat by the Vigils, a secret society, Jerry reflects what Cormier sees as the only way to defeat the continuing evils of the system.
Cormier examines the inner workings and the effects of the closed society of a private school. His conclusions reflect on the nature of all institutions— governments, social clubs, fraternities, and churches—and the potential for destruction that such agencies have when their power derives from a conspiracy of self-interested individuals. The members of the Vigils vary widely in their natures and motivations, yet they remain almost indivisible in their misuse of power, their attempts to silence dissent, and their indifference to the evil produced by the group. Carter, the president and "jock," seeks status but turns over real authority to the "assigner," Archie Costello. Archie is the cynic, so convinced of the weakness and self-centered nature of others that he relishes manipulating people every chance he gets. Obie serves as the "administrator," a henchman who carries out orders and enjoys the power delegated to him in spite of his pangs of...
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Fiendishly concocting assignments for the Vigils and eventually directing his devilish ingenuity against the hero, Jerry, Archie is introduced to the reader in Chapter 2 as "the bastard" with an uncanny ability to manipulate people. He annoys his stooge, Obie, with his "phony hip moods." It is Archie who delivers the first major assignment of the novel to Roland Goubert—loosening the screws in all the furniture in Brother Eugene's classroom. His crucial role is established in Chapter 4, when Brother Leon invokes, through Archie, the Vigils' support for the upgraded annual chocolate sale. Archie blackmails another pupil, Emile Janza, by pretending to hold a photo of him masturbating in the toilet, but the real point of their chilling confrontation in Chapter 15 is to establish Janza as a crude and guileless demon in contrast to Archie's cerebral and wickedly playful malevolence.
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 in Chapter 20, when a collective assignment against Brother Jacques (Obie and the rest of the class get up and do a jig whenever Jaques utters the word "environment") backfires. Jacques, clearly tipped off in advance by Archie, goes out of his way to used the word as often as possible, with exhausting results. This episode further exacerbates Obie's antagonism towards Archie....
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Brother Leon is the pale, ingratiating, and slyly venomous Assistant Headmaster. When the Headmaster becomes sick, Leon takes over management of the school. In his teaching he controls his pupils by being intellectually unpredictable and with his ability to make examples of them, as in the cruel game he plays on Bailey in Chapter 6. It has been 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. He speaks in a whisper but there is always a barely controlled violence beneath the surface, as evidenced in Chapter 16 when he snaps a piece of chalk in two while talking to a pupil called Caroni. 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 Leon comes forward at the horrible denouement to the boxing match, to stand in triumph beside Archie. In most respects Leon has won. The chocolate sale has achieved its objectives. Jerry has been beaten. And an overt partnership has been forged with the Vigils.
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Jerome E. Renault is the son of James R. Renault, a pharmacist. His mother has recently died. The reader's introduction to Jerry, in Chapters 1 and 3, is crucial. Together these chapters establish Jerry as a sportsman and a teenager with all the normal masculine urges, but one who goes out of his way to avoid confrontation. When his football coach is shouting at him and some saliva hits his face, he wants to protest, "Hey, coach, you spit on me." Instead, he is polite. And after looking at a Playboy in Chapter 3, he has a confrontation with a hippy who taunts him as a "Square boy. Middle-aged at fourteen, fifteen. Already caught in a routine." Jerry does not respond. "He hated confrontations."
He misses his 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. This individual defiance is presented in earth-shattering terms. "Cities fell. Earth opened. Planets tilted. Stars plummeted. And the awful silence." Jerry's lone protest is partly inspired by a poster displayed in the back of his locker. It shows a man walking alone on the beach, with a captioned quote from poet T. S. Eliot: "Do I dare disturb the universe?" Beyond answering this challenge Jerry has no satisfactory explanation for his friend The...
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One of the characters in Chapter 21 who, in private, expresses sympathy for Jerry's stand. (Danny is in conversation with Kevin Chartier.) By extension he is being criticized for their failure to translate this into public support.
President of the junior class, Anderson 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 in Chapter 21 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."
Jerry's art teacher. In Chapter 28 Brother Andrew asks for an art assignment which Jerry has already completed and handed in.
An A-grade pupil, made to bear the brunt of Brother Leon's object lesson in political connivance (Chapter 6). "You turned this classroom into Nazi Germany for a few moments," Leon says, after the class has failed to defend Bailey against the accusation of cheating.
A 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.
A senior, Carlson is described as thin and mild. Emile Janza siphons gas from Carlson's car, confident that there will not be any repercussions.
The recipient of a Trinity scholarship, "sweetfaced" David Caroni is blackmailed by Brother Leon in Chapter 16 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 emphasizes Carter's physical prowess. In Chapter 12 he is described 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 other's tactics, and more than ready to get physical to prove that force is more effective than cleverness. In Chapter 27 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.
Casper, forty pounds overweight, is seen in Chapter 14 cycling around the neighborhood selling chocolates, intending to spend the returns on his girlfriend, Rita.
Experiencing difficulty selling the chocolates, Kevin Chartier phones his friend Danny Arcangelo and the two of them discuss, inconclusively, joining the boycott.
The football coach, never mentioned by name, is nevertheless an important presence in the book. Encountered in the opening chapter, we see him pressing Jerry hard and accidentally spitting on him. His bullying coaching style is initially unsympathetic, but is viewed as an increasingly healthy counterpoint to the murky machinations of Archie and Leon.
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