The 1960s/1970s Counterculture
The Chocolate War was written in the early seventies and published in 1974. Its story is told almost without reference to the world at large. Chapter 3 is therefore highly significant. In this chapter Jerry, after taking a copy of Playboy down from the top shelf of a magazine rack and surreptitiously browsing, has an exchange at a bus-stop with a confrontational drop-out. Cormier's description of the group from which the confrontational young man emerges is both specific and various. "They were now part of the scenery like the Civil War Cannon and the World War Monuments, the flagpole. Hippies. Flower Children. Street People. Drifters. Drop-Outs. Everybody had a different name for them." In other words, they are exemplars of the counterculture that thrived in America in the late 1960s and was still a strong cultural and social presence in 1974. Jerry is mocked by their spokesman as a "square," as someone hidebound by his smart uniform, his obedience to rules, and his sense of guilt (which has just been exhibited in his recollection of having to quickly get rid of the only pornographic magazine he had ever dared take home).
Cormier, it must be noted, refrains from using the words "protesters" or "draft-dodgers" in connection with this group. They are specifically not political protesters, but social dropouts. Fred Inglis, in his book The Promise of Happiness: Value and Meaning in Children's...
(The entire section is 509 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
Set at a prestigious Catholic high school in New England, The Chocolate War takes place in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Beyond its broad philosophical and political concerns, the novel is most decidedly a product of its times. At the time of the novel's creation, American society had just begun to leave behind the 1960s, a period of great social turmoil during which government policy in the Vietnam conflict, civil rights reform, and other emotionally charged issues came under public scrutiny. Opposition to institutional decisions ran high; individual acts of conscience and open defiance divided the country; and government, college administrations, and churches were frequently challenged. Cormier's observation that his novel illustrates the adage "to not resist is to assist" clearly echoes the often repeated 1960s slogan, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."
Even more appropriate to the themes of The Chocolate War is the notorious Watergate affair that shook society and toppled President Richard Nixon shortly before the novel's publication. Watergate quickly became a symbol of the abuse of power, the ability of small groups to influence policy, and the use of "dirty tricks" to silence opposition, an environment much like the Trinity School in The Chocolate War.
(The entire section is 206 words.)
The Chocolate War offers a harrowing glimpse into human society and relationships, conveying its powerful message through a wealth of literary techniques that give depth and emotion to the author's vision. Cormier's admiration of Ernest Hemingway's style and Graham Greene's genius for symbolism is evident in his own work.
The narrative's point of view regularly shifts from one character to another. Combined with frequent interior monologue, this technique illuminates complex character relationships and motivations. Like Hemingway, Cormier charges his dialogue and interior monologue with meaning. Simple and graphic metaphors---related in brief, crisp sentences---invariably suggest thematic elements. Even the seemingly ordinary description of Jerry Renault'stry outut for the football team in the first chapter foreshadows the challenges he will face. His choice between lying down or getting up and showing his determination soon becomes the novel's focal point.
"No. I'm not going to sell the chocolates." Cities fell. Earth opened. Planets tilted. Stars plummeted. And the awful silence.
On a more sophisticated level, Cormier frequently alludes to Shakespeare, the Bible, and in one important instance, the work of the poet T. S. Eliot. In fact, some critics have compared Jerry Renault to Hamlet, a young man also indecisive but committed to taking action against the wrongs he sees in his society. The poster Jerry hangs in his locker...
(The entire section is 421 words.)
Controversy has surrounded The Chocolate War since its appearance in the 1970s. Critics, parents, and educators cited its political cynicism, its sense of despair, and the few but emotional passages containing sex and violence. Not many would accuse Cormier of deliberate sensationalism or pandering to "rebellious" youth, but he has been strongly criticized for attempting to convince young adults of the baseness and brutality of their peers as well as the adult world.
This "negative atmosphere" is vital to Cormier's theme and the nature of his characters, and adults and adolescents may find the novel far from explosive, given the tendency of recent novels for young adults to explore specific and sensitive sexual and social themes.
Objections to the novel, including school board attempts at censorship, have centered mostly on the pessimistic philosophy that Cormier seems to espouse. These critics have accused the author of painting a hopeless portrait of society, leading his readers toward depression and apathy, and suggesting that they to abandon any hope of challenging corruption and working for a better society. Indeed, The Chocolate War is a convincing demonstration that literature need not be constructed upon happy endings, heroic climaxes, or the familiar triumph of good over evil. Nor does Cormier lull his readers into believing that the "good guys" and "bad guys" are easily distinguishable. He offers readers a passage into...
(The entire section is 261 words.)
Topics for Discussion
1. Many readers are disturbed by the conclusion of the novel because it is not a "happy ending." Others claim that it is the only sensible ending to the story. Which view do you agree with?
2. As the book progresses, Obie seems less and less tolerant of Archie's behavior. What prevents him from opposing Archie?
3. Both Carter and Obie dislike and fear Archie's "psychological" tactics. How does Archie control the Vigils without using physical violence?
4. One notable characteristic of Cormier's style is his use of a shifting point of view; we see the action through the eyes of several characters. How does this add to our understanding of the story?
5. Goober is one of the most puzzling characters in the novel. In the same situation, would you have done what he did? Why or why not?
6. Leon and Archie seem to dislike each other even though they cooperate on the candy sale. Can you explain what lies at the bottom of this mutual contempt?
7. What convinces Archie and Carter that Jerry Renault is a serious threat to the Vigils?
8. Considering how important every dollar is to the candy sale, how do you explain Leon's calmness in the face of Jerry's refusal to participate?
9. Sending Emile after Jerry Renault does not seem to accomplish much from Archie's point of view. Why does he decide that the "boxing match-raffle" will be more effective?
10. Based on what we know...
(The entire section is 419 words.)
Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Several other well-known and popular novels deal with private schools as reflections of society and human nature. Compare The Chocolate War with Catcher In The Rye or A Separate Peace.
2. The Iran-contra political scandal of 1987 demonstrates that the problems of the 1970s may still be part of the American political landscape. Write an essay comparing the characters in The Chocolate War to the figures in the scandal, or compare the actions and explanations each group used to justify its decisions.
3. Cormier obviously believes that characters such as Archie and Carter will leave Trinity and become part of other institutions. Choose one character and project him into the future. What will his future be like and what danger, if any, will he represent to society?
4. Imagine an entire society governed by the Vigils. Describe in detail what that society would be like.
5. Jerry Renault's act of defiance is similar to many that have taken place in history when one person stood up to an entire system. Report on a famous individual whose conscience motivated him or her to act against almost impossible odds. Compare the results of this action with Jerry's in the novel.
6. Critics have admired Cormier's use of simile and metaphor in The Chocolate War, particularly because they provide revealing insights into theme and character. Find several of these and explain what we learn from...
(The entire section is 267 words.)
Topics for Further Study
Pretend that you are Brian Cochran, treasurer for the chocolate sale. Design an accounts sheet on which you would be able to record the progress of the sale. Complete it according to the information given in the novel.
Make a list of all the scenes that take place outside the school, and analyze the importance of each one.
Illustrate the varying types of physical and psychological bullying explored in the novel, with specific reference to Archie Costello, John Carter, Emile Janza, and Brother Leon.
You are a film director preparing to shoot the scene in which Bailey is accused of cheating. Plan very carefully how you intend to use the camera at each stage of the scene, and what you intend each shot to convey to the audience.
Cormier worked for many years as a newspaper journalist. Imagine that, following complaints from Jerry's father, you have been sent to investigate recent events at the school. Whom will you interview? What do you imagine will be their responses to your questions?
(The entire section is 170 words.)
The Chocolate War was adapted to the screen in a 1988 film production directed by Keith Gordon and starring John Glover as Brother Leon, Han Mitchell-Smith as Jerry, and Wally Ward as Archie. The film was not particularly well received by either the public or the critics. Washington Post film critic Hal Hinson noted: "Though it has been adapted . . . from Robert Cormier's young adult novel . . . this film's true source seems to be every other schoolboy story ever told."
(The entire section is 77 words.)
The film version of The Chocolate War, produced by Jonathan D. Krane and Simon R. Lewis, and directed by Keith Gordon, was released in 1988, starring John Glover as Brother Leon, Han Mitchell-Smith as Jerry, and Wally Ward as Archie. Available from Management Company Entertainment Group.
A sound recording of an edited version of the novel was narrated by Andrew Jarkowsky and published by Westminster on a single audio cassette in 1977.
A complete, unabridged sound recording of the novel, read by Frank Muller, recorded on four audio cassettes, was released by Old Greenwich Listening Library in 1988.
(The entire section is 95 words.)
What Do I Read Next?
I Am the Cheese, Cormier's second young adult novel, published in 1977, is an effective psychological thriller based on the U.S. Witness Relocation Program.
In 1985 Cormier published a sequel to The Chocolate War. Beyond The Chocolate War includes most of the original characters. An important new character is Ray Bannister, a magician who uses a guillotine as part of his act.
Fade (1988), one of Cormier's bleakest and most graphic novels, is a supernatural story about a New England family's ability to become physically invisible.
Tenderness (1997) is a novel which demonstrates that Cormier, in his seventies, has lost none of his power to shock. The novel describes a teenage girl's fixation with a young psychopathic killer.
The End of the Affair (1951) by Graham Greene is Cormier's favorite book, by his favorite author.
Calling Home (1991) by Michael Cadnum, about how a teen's guilt over causing the death of his friend leads him into alcoholism. A reviewer in The Horn Book Magazine has said of Cadnum's work: "Not since Robert Cormier has such a major talent emerged in adolescent literature."
(The entire section is 177 words.)
For Further Reference
Campbell, Patricia. Presenting Robert Cormier. New York: Twayne, 1985. A thorough critical study of Cormier's novels and stories. Incorporates interviews and discussions of style and meaning.
Clements, Bruce. "A Second Look: The Chocolate War." Horn Book (April 1979): 217. Reviews the storm of controversy concerning the novel.
Commire, Anne, ed. Something about the Author. Vol. 10. Detroit: Gale Research, 1976. A lengthy overview of Cormier's career and literary goals. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 12. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980. Encapsulates a broad spectrum of reviews and critiques of the author with a great deal of variety, particularly in the matter of The Chocolate War.
Donelson, Kenneth L., and Alleen Pace. Literature for Today's Young Adults. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1980. A brief overview of the novels and their relevance.
Evory, Anne, ed. Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981. Encyclopedic entry covering the early works.
Lukens, Rebecca. "From Salinger to Cormier: Disillusionment to Despair in Thirty Years." ALAN Review (Fall 1981): 3. Discussion of the change in perception concerning the adolescent in fiction.
Stanek, Lou Willett. A Teacher's Guide to the Paperback Edition of "The Chocolate War" by Robert Cormier. New York: Dell, 1975. Brief but interesting survey of the...
(The entire section is 221 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
Norma Bagnall, "Realism How Realistic Is It? A Look at The Chocolate War," in Top of the News, Vol 36, no 2, Winter, 1980, pp 214-17.
Fred Inglis, "Love And Death In Children's Novels," in his The Promise Of Happiness: Value And Meaning in Children's Fiction, Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp 271-291.
Sylvia Patterson Iskander, "Robert Cormier," in Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Broadening Views 19681988, Gale, 1989, pp 34-51.
Nancy Veglahn, article in The Lion And The Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children's Literature, June, 1988, pp 12-18.
For Further Study
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 19, Gale, 1996, pp. 65-76.
A full-length sketch which includes useful summaries of Cormier's other books and ample reference to contemporary reviews.
Betty Carter and Karen Hams, "Realism in Adolescent Fiction: In Defense of The Chocolate War," in Top of the News, Vol 36, No 3, Spring, 1980, pp. 283-85.
A direct response to Norma Bagnall's essay in the previous edition of the journal.
Paul Hems, review of I Am the Cheese, in The Horn Book Magazine, Vol. Lm, No 4, August, 1977, pp 427-28 Hems, reviewing Cormier's next book after The Chocolate War, calls it "a novel in the tragic mode, cunningly wrought, shattering in its emotional implications."
(The entire section is 309 words.)
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Campbell, Patricia J. Presenting Robert Cormier. Boston: Twayne, 1985.
Coats, Karen. “Abjection and Adolescent Fiction.” JPCS: Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture & Society 5 (Fall, 2000): 290-300.
Gallo, Donald R. “Reality and Responsibility: The Continuing Controversy over Robert Cormier’s Books for Young Adults.” In The VOYA Reader. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1990.
Hyde, Margaret O. Robert Cormier. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005.
Ishandert, Sylvia Patterson. “Readers, Realism, and Robert Cormier.” Children’s Literature 15 (1987): 7-18.
Karolides, Nicholas J., ed. Censored Books, II: Critical Viewpoints, 1985-2000. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 2002.
Keeley, Jennifer. Understanding “I Am the Cheese.” San Diego: Lucent, 2001.
Myers, Mitzi. “’No Safe Place to Run To’: An Interview with Robert Cormier.” The Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children’s Literature 24 (September, 2000): 445-464.
Tarr, C. Anita. “The Absence of Moral Agency in Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War.” Children’s Literature 30 (2002): 96-124.
Veglahn, Nancy. “The Bland Face of...
(The entire section is 166 words.)