Robert Cormier Essay - Critical Essays

Robert Cormier American Literature Analysis

In 1974, when Cormier agreed to allow Pantheon to market The Chocolate War as a young-adult novel, the little-known journalist who had been writing adult fiction for several decades became almost instantly one of the most popular and respected writers in the young-adult field. This novel about a teenager fighting almost alone against the evil at a Catholic boys’ school—and apparently losing—caused an immediate sensation and controversy.

Cormier’s novels since The Chocolate War have continued to take as their subjects extreme, often violent, acts. I Am the Cheese (1977) is a mystery thriller about a young boy trying to learn his family history before the killers pursuing his parents and himself catch them all. After the First Death (1979) is a violent novel about terrorists taking over a schoolbus full of children. The Bumblebee Flies Anyway (1983) is a bleak depiction of a young boy trying to find out why he is in a hospital with terminally ill children. Beyond the Chocolate War (1985) continues some of the same themes of Cormier’s first young-adult novel, but it focuses on different characters. Fade concerns several generations of a family tragically gifted with the power of invisibility. Cormier produced some of the most vivid and compelling works in the young-adult field, but his subjects are often grim and his treatment rarely sentimental.

Approximately every three years, Cormier contributed another important, if unsettling, work to the canon of young-adult fiction. Not only are his novels set in the same general location, in various urban, suburban, or rural locales in northeastern Massachusetts, but they are also linked by a careful formal technique. The point of view in each novel, for example, is usually multiple or complex and aids in the suspense that builds throughout the work. The language of the novels is not difficult for younger readers and is usually recognizable for its metaphorical intent (the religious symbolism in The Chocolate War, for example). Characterization is facile and at times two-dimensional, but the tense structure of each work keeps the action moving quickly. Cormier’s novels highlight his unique protagonists in their struggles with forces more powerful than themselves.

Cormier’s novels resemble one another most significantly in their themes. All of his young-adult works focus on an individual struggling to survive in a society dominated by evil and defined by violence. The individual has few chances against the system or the institution he or she faces but usually manages to bring meaning to these struggles for survival. Most of Cormier’s heroes are male, but Kate Forrester, the schoolbus driver who dies trying to save the children from the terrorists who hold them, is the real heroine of After the First Death. In spite of the similarity of his subjects, Cormier’s novels are hardly formulaic, and each one has its own special appeal. If each is somehow bleak or depressing, it is also compelling in its own way.

Cormier’s novels are not didactic; his protagonists face their situations without benefit of authorial moralizing. Yet his heroes often leave readers with a real sense of courage: Young people, in the face of almost overwhelming odds, somehow manage to carve meaning out of their desperate lives. In a culture in which young people are often seen as soft or cynical, Cormier’s is an inspiring model.

Cormier had noted that his focus is on the individual versus the system. The institutions which represent this “system” change from novel to novel—from the Catholic prep school in The Chocolate War to the corrupt government agencies in I Am the Cheese to the impersonal hospital in The Bumblebee Flies Anyway—but the focus tends to remain on innocent individuals struggling against these evil agencies. In one sense, then, Cormier was a very political writer, for he was concerned with the power relationships among individuals and institutions and with the ways that those institutions (and the people who run them) misuse their power. The villains in his novels are not institutions but the authoritarian individuals acting in their names (Brother Leon in The Chocolate War, Dr. Lakendorp in The Bumblebee Flies Anyway) without regard for individual human need.

Like many political novelists, Cormier was at heart a moralist. He applauded those individuals (such as Jerry Renault in The Chocolate War) who stand up against the system and are martyred in their battles with it. Cormier’s connections to Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, Ken Kesey, and other American writers in this tradition of social protest are clear.

Cormier’s success as a writer can be gauged by the number of awards he garnered over the length of his career, both as a newpaperman and as a writer for young people. When The Chocolate War was first published in 1974, the American Library Association’s Booklist journal gave the novel a black-bordered review, indicating an obituary for naïve optimism. Prior to this work, even the most realistic young-adult novel had left its protagonists on an upbeat note. After The Chocolate War, the young-adult novel was capable of true tragedy. More than any other single writer, Cormier was responsible for having broadened the possibilities of the young-adult genre.

The Chocolate War

First published: 1974

Type of work: Novel

Jerry Renault learns much during his freshman year at a Catholic boys’ school and gains his own identity.

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 solitary figure in all that immensity. At the bottom of the poster, these words appeared—Do I dare disturb the universe? By [T. S.] Eliot, who wrote the Waste Land thing they were studying in English. Jerry wasn’t sure of the poster’s meaning. But it had moved him mysteriously.

In the course of The Chocolate War, Jerry will discover the full import of the poster’s message.

Jerry accepts an “assignment,” or school stunt, from the powerful Vigils secret society to refuse to sell chocolates in the annual Trinity sale, but when the ten days of his prank are up, Jerry continues his rebellion, in protest now against the authoritarian tactics of Brother Leon, the acting headmaster, and against Jerry’s own isolation at the school. He gains a new identity through his rebellion: “I’m Jerry Renault and I’m not going to sell the chocolates,” he declares to Brother Leon and his homeroom. The Vigils, enlisted by Brother Leon, however, whip up school support for the chocolate sale and ensure that every student has sold his fifty boxes—every one except Jerry.

Emile Janza, a school bully who badly wants to get into the Vigils, gathers a gang of younger kids to beat up Jerry, and when Archie, the leader of the Vigils, arranges a boxing match in front of the whole student body between Jerry and Janza, Jerry accepts. The fight has been arranged so that Jerry cannot win, and in fact the young hero loses the very individuality he had earlier gained in his protest. In the end, as Jerry is being treated for a possible broken jaw and internal injuries, he is advising his friend Goober not to “disturb the universe,” and the Vigils and Brother Leon are even more firmly in control of Trinity.

The meaning of The Chocolate War is complex and, for many readers, depressing—the makers of the 1989 film of the novel created a more upbeat ending—but it is an important novel for young people. As with any work of this complexity, there are a number of subthemes: loss, violence in its many forms, and power—how it is maintained in human society and the hatred and brutality that its misuse breeds. The Chocolate War is a novel of initiation in which the young protagonist, like the reader, learns a number of crucial lessons about the adult world—most of them negative.

Like all Cormier’s novels, the central theme of The Chocolate War is the relation of the individual to society and the price one pays for conformity or (the other side of this theme) the greater sacrifices one must make in order to realize one’s individuality. Jerry’s protest is not easy for him to carry out, but he gains a...

(The entire section is 4016 words.)