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...
(The entire section is 1158 words.)
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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...
(The entire section is 812 words.)
No other writer of young adult fiction in recent times has stirred up more controversy than Cormier, probably because his novels are among the relatively few that combine a frank examination of the values and decisions that trouble adolescents---such as self-respect and peer pressure---with intense conflict, suspense, and unpredictable developments in plot and character.
Cormier's characters do not struggle with the typical dating dilemmas and parental pressures that often plague adolescents in young adult fiction. To the contrary, Cormier offers a unique treatment of the dark side of humanity and social institutions. Cormier's work portrays adolescents who confront evil, corruption, the misuse of power, and the effects of conformity, issues that teenagers too often dismiss as part of the adult world. Cormier's characters invariably demonstrate the need to come to terms with these sinister forces and to make important, irreversible decisions as to where they stand.
(The entire section is 146 words.)
Part I Summary - Setting the Scene
In the first chapter of Robert Cormier's 1974 novel, The Chocolate War, the reader is introduced to Jerry Renault, a freshman at Trinity, a private all-male Catholic high school in New England. It is early fall, and Jerry is trying out for the position of quarterback on the freshman football team. He is faring poorly, however, having just received a crushing blow from a defenseman. When he is finally able to get onto his feet again, his coach, impatient with his overall performance, sends him to the showers. As Jerry walks back to the locker room, he reflects on his sense of isolation (a feeling he experiences repeatedly in the novel), yet is nonetheless encouraged by the coach's injunction that he "show up tomorrow."
The second chapter introduces two more important characters, Archie Costello and Obie. Both are members of the officially secret student organization called the Vigils. Archie is the "Assigner" of the Vigils—the one in charge of assigning to various students the pranks and other disruptive acts that constitute the Vigils' main contribution to the school. It is a position that carries a great deal of influence with it; at least Obie, the group's secretary, terms Archie's power "awesome." The two are in the bleachers while Jerry's football practice is going on. The scene opens with an important exchange between the two characters, one in which the pessimistic outlook that seems to pervade the novel's core is first articulated:...
(The entire section is 615 words.)
Part II Summary - Jerry's Assignment
Chapter 13 marks a major turning point in the novel, for it is here that the chocolate sale begins in earnest, although a kickoff pep rally is described a few chapters before. Brother Leon is calling out the names of the students in his class and having them indicate whether or not they will participate in the sale; participation is supposedly voluntary. When he reaches the name "Renault," Jerry tells him that he will not sell the chocolates. His obstinacy continues through the next couple of chapters, causing a bit of a stir among the members of the student body. In Chapter 16, Leon blackmails a student into revealing that Jerry is refusing participation in order to fulfill a Vigils' assignment, which at this point is scheduled to be completed shortly. It is thus with a light heart that Brother Leon goes through the list in the following chapter—according to his information, Jerry's assignment has at this point been completed, and he anticipates Jerry's joining the sale. He receives a second surprise, then, when Jerry announces that he is "not going to sell the chocolates."
Jerry spends the rest of that day and night second-guessing his action, even trying to figure out why he did what he did. He wakes up the next morning exhausted, deciding that he now knows what a hangover feels like. On his way to school, he unexpectedly receives congratulations on his action from several students, though when he gets to school, he is confronted by the Goober, who...
(The entire section is 645 words.)
Part III Summary - Jerry's Exile
At this point, two significant things happen: the sale of chocolates increases dramatically, and Jerry increasingly becomes an object of hostility. Concerning the chocolate sale, it becomes clear that the Vigils are orchestrating large-scale distributions of chocolates all across town. They attribute the sales to each member of the student body, so that everyone except Jerry reaches or exceeds their quota. The Goober, who has stopped selling at a certain point in solidarity with his friend, is passing by the school gym when he sees himself fraudulently awarded his fiftieth sale; the experience crushes him.
For his part, Jerry is subject to some anonymous rough treatment on the football field and constant harassing phone calls. One day he is taunted by Emile Janza for being "queer" (which he is not). Then, when he starts to show signs, despite himself, that he is ready for a fight, several other boys converge on him and he is badly beaten. After the beating, he becomes "invisible" at school—ignored by everyone, so that when he walks down the halls, the other students part before him "like the Red Sea."
(The entire section is 186 words.)
Part IV Summary - Jerry's Martyrdom
Around this time, the chocolate sale ends. All but fifty boxes—Jerry's boxes—have been sold, and Brother Leon is ecstatic. Archie, meanwhile, has come up with a plan for the remaining chocolates: a boxing "match," to be held on the football field one night, between Jerry and Emile Janza. Rather than a traditional free-for-all, however, the "match" will be combined with a raffle, in which the spectators (the members of the student body) can buy tickets and write down blows that they want one or the other to give to his opponent. The recipient of the punch is not allowed to avoid being hit. Archie manages through various means to convince both Jerry and Emile to participate.
The "match" begins according to plan: Carter reads out the directions on each ticket drawn, and both Jerry and Emile follow them, Emile unsurprisingly getting the better of things. Soon, though, Carter draws a ticket on which the buyer has called for an illegal below-the-belt hit, and without thinking he reads it out. He and the other Vigils immediately recognize the mistake, but it's too late: Emile, acting immediately as he has throughout, goes for Jerry's groin; Jerry understandably tries to block the blow. Emile, thinking Jerry has cheated, decides his action negates the rules altogether. He attacks Jerry with a flurry of blows, eventually knocking him out.
Chaos ensues, until the stadium lights mysteriously go out. Archie goes back to the school building to...
(The entire section is 348 words.)