“They murdered him.” Thus begins The Chocolate War, a novel about evil and the abuse of power in a private boy’s high school. Jerry Renault is not literally murdered that day, only tackled on the football field. However, by using that sentence, Robert Cormier sets an ominous tone for the book and hints at a grim ending.
The novel comprises thirty-nine chapters, each short but with significant impact. The author’s writing has been called “cinematic” because the book’s scenes are very tight and the dialogue is brief. Action and dialogue move the story along; there are no long, descriptive paragraphs. Cormier’s career as a newspaper reporter and editor influenced his style. Journalists are trained to use the lead to draw readers in and to keep their sentences short. Cormier does not give away the ending, however. He draws readers in with little dramas, creating suspense with pacing and dialogue. “Rather than waiting for one big climax, I try to create a lot of little conflicts,” Cormier explained, “a series of explosions as I go along.”
The point of view changes from chapter to chapter. Some chapters are narrated from Jerry’s perspective, while others are narrated from the perspectives of Obie and Archie. By shifting the point of view from one character to another, Cormier develops connections between a reader and every major character.
The metaphors and similes in the book are dark, comparing, for example, Brother Leon’s breath to rancid bacon or a sunset to bleeding and spurting veins. Cormier draws upon his upbringing as a Roman Catholic for much of the symbolism: He describes goal posts that resemble empty crucifixes and names the bullies’ group the Vigils in reference to the eve of a religious holiday.
The struggle of the individual against an evil system is a major theme of the book. Cormier was a practicing and moral Catholic. Individual moral choices shape the lives of his characters, but he is interested in bigger issues than a freshman refusing to sell chocolate candy. He asks through his novel what responsibility each individual bears when faced with injustice. He portrays a choice between merely observing such injustice or, in the words of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915) quoted on Jerry’s poster, “disturb[ing] the universe.”
Cormier’s last editor, Karen Wojtyla, wrote, “He often places his characters at crossroads, exploring what happens depending upon which choice they make.” The Chocolate War is about choosing defiance or conformity. Jerry chooses defiance, refusing to participate in the candy sale. The other students and Brother Jacques, by contrast, know of the Vigils but do nothing to stop or disband them. Cormier demonstrates the outcome of doing nothing. Someone gets hurt, and the evil Archie sits calmly on a bench, ironically wishing he had a chocolate bar.
Cormier ends the book the way it began, with the word “murder.” Jerry is brutally beaten to the point of unconsciousness. He says to Goober, “Just remember what I told you. It’s important. Otherwise, they murder you.” Although Jerry does not die, his spirit is broken as he succumbs to the manipulations of Archie and Brother Leon. Jerry dared to disturb the universe, but he has lost.
The Chocolate War is historically significant in two ways. First, according to biographer Patty Campbell, “The Chocolate War initiated a new level of literary excellence in the fledgling genre of young adult fiction.” Cormier created books for teens that were literature and paved the way for other writers in this genre to achieve literary recognition.
Second, Cormier’s book represented new thinking regarding the types of books to which youth should be exposed. By rejecting the idea that endings must be happy and that the hero must prevail, Cormier opened the door to controversy, exposing teenagers to the real world. In this world, heroes can get hurt and they may not win in the end. This does not mean that the world is all bad or that Cormier was a pessimistic person. Cormier did his job as an author: He told a great story, with honesty, and created realistic characters with whom his readers could identify.
While there were objections and formal protests to the book because it contained violence, offensive language, and an upsetting ending, The Chocolate War has earned many honors since it was published. In 1974, the novel received a New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year Award and an American Library Association (ALA) Award for books for young adults. Margaret Sacco of Miami University of Ohio wrote, “It is considered the best young adult novel of all times by teachers, professors and librarians.” The ALA named The Chocolate War one of the one hundred best books for teens written between 1966 and 2000.