The Chocolate War

by Robert Cormier

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What do you think of the statement "Do I dare disturb the universe?"

In The Chocolate War, Jerry uses Prufrock's question as a guide in his own life, and his fate is ultimately tied to Prufrock's. Prufrock's question about whether he dares to disturb the universe makes it clear how terrified he is of revealing his vivid, passionate interior life in the mundane world he really inhabits. Any attempt to be emotionally honest in such circumstances would be such an upheaval that it would seem to disturb the universe.

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There are several ways to think about the quote and its relationship to The Chocolate War.

As you might remember, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” is written on a poster in Jerry’s locker. The question comes from T. S. Eliot, a poet that Jerry is learning about in English.

Jerry’s universe is rather unpleasant. There’s a violent secret society and compromised teachers. You could say Jerry uses the question to help guide him. Yes, Jerry should disturb this universe. He shouldn’t sell the chocolates and support the bullies. He should stick to his principles.

However, Jerry’s disruption of the universe seems to cause more disruption to his own life than to the sinister status quo of Trinity. A group of boys beat him up. He also receives odious prank phone calls.

Although, it could be argued that the retaliation establishes that Jerry was successfully undercutting the school’s cruel culture at certain points. If he wasn’t a threat to the secret society, you could reason that they wouldn’t care. They’d leave him alone.

Yet if you review the final scenes, you might say that Jerry doesn't ultimately disturb the universe. You could say he makes a valiant attempt at changing things, but in the end, the Vigils and Brother Leon maintain their power. The raffle brings in the money to compensate for the lost chocolate sales. Archie walks home without facing any substantial consequences.

Meanwhile, Jerry appears to be quite disillusioned with the “disturb the universe” concept. He tells his friend, “Don’t disturb the universe, Goober, no matter what the posters say.”

You might want to think about how Jerry’s resigned conclusion connects to Eliot’s own beliefs about the world. The line—“Do I dare disturb the universe?”—comes from Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In that poem, Eliot confesses that he’s no Hamlet—he’s no hero. You might think about the ways in which Jerry comes to realize the difficulties of being a hero.

More so, "Prufrock" ends with some stark drowning imagery. You could think about how the ending of The Chocolate War links to drowning. You might talk about how Jerry tried to swim on his own but wound up drowning in the overwhelmingly toxic universe of the school.

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Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
These are the words of the speaker in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and they show a combination of magniloquence, which is typical of him. Prufrock wants to say something to his companion, with whom he goes to genteel tea parties but to whom he never speaks truthfully, heart to heart or man to woman. He wants to put to her some "overwhelming question," the precise nature of which is never revealed. However, since this is a love song, the reader can assume that it is...

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something romantic.
Prufrock feels that to ask a women to marry him, sleep with him, or even just to go out to dinner is such a momentous task that it would disturb the universe. Throughout the poem, the contrast is drawn between Prufrock's dramatic inner life, with its imagery of Lazarus come back from the dead, and the tameness of the tea parties in social chitchat in which he actually spends his days. To bring his inner and outer life together in a confession of love would be terrifying for Prufrock, who may be just as afraid of acceptance as he is of rejection. Any attempt to bring his passions to the surface would be such a cataclysmic shock after so many years of repression that, from his perspective, it really would seem to disturb the universe.
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The question derives from TS Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," which concerns a man growing old, wondering about his worth, nervous about what others think of him. The phrase in the poem can be understood as rather humorous, for all the speaker intends to do is ask a woman a question, and that surely would not "disturb the universe." The point is that often we think our actions are greater than they are, which makes us afraid to do anything at all, to take any risks in life. Using this direct quote from this famous poem is a literary device called "allusion," which asks us to read this part of the story in terms of the poem alluded to.

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I think the statement is a challenge, asking whether a person will dare to be different, to "march to the beat of a different drummer", to quote loosely from Thoreau.  It asks whether a person is willing to go against the flow, to NOT do what everyone else is doing just because it is expected, and to take the consequences of the choice.

In the context of the story, Jerry looks at his father's very ordinary life and asks, "is that all there is?'  He doesn't want to just coast along and live a life of mediocrity like his dad, he wants to make his own decisions, to take charge of his own destiny, so to speak.  When his assignment from the Vigils is over, the easy thing to do would be to just sell the chocolates like everyone else, but Jerry at this point is tired of doing things just because he is told to or because it is expected, so he "dares to disturb the universe" and continues to refuse to participate.  Unfortunately, he finally concludes that the consequences of daring to be different are not worth it.

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