Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War begins with a seemingly serious remark: "They murdered him." We quickly realize that this is the author's way of telling us, with humorous exaggeration, that a character, who we learn is named Jerry Renault, has just received a heavy hit during football practice. As the novel progresses, though, other details emerge, and our reading of this remark changes. We come to see in it a reference to Christ's "murder," and thus to see Jerry's rebellion against the chocolate sale and everything it stands for as being patterned in part on Christ's "rebellion." Other details complicate this association, however, so that by the end of the novel we are left not with a portrait of Christian triumph, but rather with a set of anguished questions: Is there any purity or "sincerity" (or in Christian terms, redemption) in the world, a world that seems to be so thoroughly corrupt? If there is, can one (like Christ) attain it by refusing to compromise one's beliefs—by refusing to "bend"—and thus risking everything, even being "murdered," for those beliefs? And can that refusal be an example by which others profit: can others be redeemed by such a self-sacrifice?
That these questions are "anguished" suggests that the novel's outlook is a bleak one; and indeed, there is a pervasive pessimism at the core of The Chocolate War. None of the "adult" power structures in the novel—family, church, school—seem to offer any haven to the adolescent boys who are the novel's focus. Parents, who play at best a peripheral role, are ineffectual or absent. The "brothers" at Trinity, the Catholic prep school where The Chocolate War is set, are by and large no better, either weak, like Brother Eugene, or cruel and hypocritical, like the novel's central authority figure, Brother Leon. Not only is Leon cruel and hypocritical, he is also more concerned for the school's material well-being, represented by the chocolate sale, than he is for the boys' spiritual nurturing. Indeed, his concern for the "spiritual" seems to be limited to the boys' "school spirit," his euphemism for their enthusiasm for the sale. The further disclosure that he has made some illegal transactions in setting up the sales drive, while it makes some of his actions understandable, and thus to some extent, perhaps, sympathetic, has the primary effect of sealing our verdict that he is one of the novel's arch-villains.
The other arch-villain in the novel is Archie Costello. Like Brother Leon, Archie is not a wholly unsympathetic character. We see him at points alone and vulnerable, though we probably feel that because of his hubris (excessive pride), he is more deserving of the discomfort he experiences than are the other characters in the novel (including, perhaps, Brother Leon). At the same time, it is Archie who is the guiding spirit of the Vigils, the officially secret student group that controls so many aspects of the boys' lives at Trinity. It is he who articulates the cynical outlook that so troubles the novel. In the novel's second chapter, for example, when we first meet him, he has an exchange with Obie, the Vigils' secretary, in which he claims that to him, the communion ceremony means nothing more than "chewing a wafer," while Jesus is not his "leader," but rather "a guy who walked the earth for thirty-three years like any other guy but caught the imagination of some PR cats."
The effect of these remarks is to suggest that nothing one might do has the potential for any larger/higher significance, in a "spiritual" sense— that if Jesus, the supposed Son of God, was in reality just a "guy," then we too can be nothing more than just "guys." And if we are all just "guys," then we can hope for nothing better than some form of worldly success (to have good "PR" people behind us), or failing that, survival. All action, then, is reduced to power "games," and all people, as Archie says to Carter at the boxing "match" near the end of the novel, are "bastards," "greedy and cruel." Carter, like Obie, reacts with "disgust" to Archie's statements—it is "as if there was no goodness at all in the world," he subsequently reflects—yet he, like Obie, has no answer to them. Indeed, no answer is readily forthcoming from any character in the novel, for such a response, Cormier seems to be saying, cannot be made in words, but must come in the form of action: you cannot argue the cynic out of his cynicism, in other words; you must show him that he is "wrong."
The main attempt to "respond" to Archie is of course made by Jerry Renault. As noted earlier, it is intimated from the beginning of the novel that Jerry will in some respects "imitate" Christ in his role in the novel. At the same time, it is also intimated that Jerry will be unable to fulfill this daunting task. Having...
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"They murdered him." The opening line of The Chocolate War. Three words that describe the whole movement of the plot. The process of "murdering" Jerry Renault is the subject; it remains only to tell who and why and how they felt about it. And what it meant.
On the surface the story is straightforward enough, moving along quickly in brief, intense scenes. We first see Jerry slamming through a football practice. He is a freshman at Trinity High School in Monument, and making the team is important to him, a small compensation for the recent death of his mother and the gray drabness of his life with his defeated father. The camera shifts to the stands; there we meet Archie, the villainous brains of the secret society called the Vigils. He is plotting "assignments" with his henchman Obie, cruel practical jokes to be carried out by selected victims. On the way home, Jerry is confronted at the bus stop by a hippie vagrant who challenges his passive conformity. Meanwhile, the malevolent Brother Leon, acting headmaster of Trinity, has called Archie into his office to break the traditional conspiracy of silence about the Vigils by asking for their help in the school chocolate sale. As Archie later discovers, Leon, in a bid for power while the headmaster is in the hospital, has overextended the school's funds to take advantage of a bargain in twenty thousand boxes of chocolates. Archie is delighted to have the vicious brother capitulate to him. Now we see Archie in action, as an inoffensive kid called The Goober is assigned to loosen every screw in a classroom so that it falls into debris the next morning at the first touch. But no assignment is complete until Archie has drawn from a box containing six marbles—five white and one black. If the black turns up—as it never has yet— Archie himself must carry out the assignment. But again the marble is white. Next we see Leon in action, tormenting a shy student with false accusations of cheating while the class watches tensely, then turning on the group to accuse them of condoning the cruelty by their silence. An even more vicious character is the bestial Emile Janza, who is in bondage to Archie over an obscene snapshot. Now the cast is complete and the action begins.
To show Leon where the power lies, Archie secretly assigns Jerry to refuse to sell the chocolates for ten days. Brother Leon is enraged but impotent as every day at roll call Jerry continues to answer "No." Suspecting a plot, Leon calls honor student David Caroni into his office and threatens to spoil the boy's perfect academic record with an undeserved F unless he reveals the secret. Terrified, Caroni tells him about the assignment. Finally the ten days are up, but Jerry, for reasons he only dimly understands, still continues stubbornly to refuse to sell the chocolates. Surreptitious approval for Jerry's stand begins among the other students, and for the first time he begins to understand the words on a poster he has taped in his locker: "Do I dare disturb the universe?" The sales begin to drop off. Leon, panicked, pressures Archie; Archie pressures Jerry before the Vigils, but Jerry clings to his resolve. Soon it becomes apparent that the power of both Leon and the Vigils will be destroyed by the failure of the chocolate sale. When Carter, the jock president of the Vigils, in frustration resorts to his fists to subdue a contemptuous assignee at a Vigils' meeting, Archie realizes Jerry's resistance must be destroyed utterly. The Vigils take charge of the chocolates, and under their secret management sales mount dramatically. With this turn of the tide, the school is caught up in the enthusiasm. Jerry is ostracized and tormented, first secretly by the Vigils and then openly by the whole student body. Finally Archie prods Emile Janza to taunt Jerry into a fistfight, but characteristically Emile hires some children to do the actual beating. The Goober, in a belated show of support, decides to stop selling, but his gesture is futile. Soon the sale is over, and only Jerry's fifty boxes of chocolates remain. Archie conceives a diabolical scheme for final vengeance. Under cover of a supposed night football rally, he stages a "raffle" for the last boxes of chocolates. He offers Jerry "a clean fight" with Emile Janza, and Jerry, wanting desperately to hit back at everything, accepts. Only when he and Emile are already in the boxing ring are the rules explained. The raffle tickets are instructions for blows and the recipient is forbidden to defend himself. But now Carter and Obie come forward with the black box. Archie's luck holds; the marble is white. The fight begins as planned, but Emile's animal rage is quickly out of control, and the mob goes wild as he beats Jerry savagely. The carnage is stopped when one of the brothers arrives and turns out the lights, but it is too late for Jerry. Terribly injured and lying in The Goober's arms, he begs him not to disturb the universe, but to conform, to give in. An ambulance takes him away, and Archie, who has seen Brother Leon watching with approval in the shadows, is left triumphant.
The novel works superbly as a tragic yarn, an exciting piece of storytelling. Many young adults, especially younger readers, will simply want to enjoy it at this level, and Cormier himself would be the first to...
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How does the theme of this book fit into Cormier's fascination for the nature of human confrontation with the Implacable? All of the three villains are vulnerable, and if they cannot quite be placated, they can at least be manipulated. They are quick to see each other's weaknesses and quick to take advantage of them for more secure positions of power. Leon has put himself in a shaky place by his overreaching ambition, and Archie sees him "riddled with cracks and crevices—running scared—open to invasion." Archie fears Leon's power over him as his teacher, and his domination of the Vigils is dependent on thinking up ever more imaginative assignments. And then there is the black box—a nemesis over which he has no control....
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