Beyond the Chocolate War

by Robert Cormier
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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 679

Beyond the Chocolate War deals with the complex issue of how to define power and with the psychological problems of fear, intimidation, and control. Jerry Renault has traded T. S. Eliot’s “Do I dare/ Disturb the universe?” for A. E. Housman’s “I, a stranger and afraid/ In a world I never made.” Housman’s despairing words signal a kind of realization on the part of Jerry that although there exist multiple attacks on integrity, individuals must depend on themselves for physical and intellectual survival. Jerry’s scene with Janza illustrates the power of passive resistance to irrational and obsessive brute violence. Despite Janza’s violent punches, Jerry refuses to fight back, and his inner strength allows him to withstand the blows. He tells Goober that the confrontation was something that had to be won alone. Janza, on the other hand, feels like he “has lost something” in this battle, and what he has lost is power. Here Cormier also touches on the close kinship of brutal power and sexual power when he writes that Janza’s attack on Jerry is “nothing sexual.”

The issues pertaining to sexuality are further illustrated in Obie’s and Laurie’s experiments with sex. Although their physical exchanges are called love, the two actually time their fondling and caresses to keep themselves under control. Bunting, on the other hand, does lose control during his assault on them, and what was originally planned only as a scare tactic almost turns into rape. Laurie feels abused when her unknown assailant (Bunting) squeezes her breast; the same act by Obie had been viewed another way. Now Laurie sees Obie and their sexual foreplay from an entirely different perspective. Cormier thus illustrates the fine line between romantic sexuality and ruthless sexuality.

The role of illusion in the attainment of power is another theme that runs through Beyond the Chocolate War. Ray Bannister’s guillotine and card tricks show that there are real steps to what appears to be magic. Archie’s talent of selecting the white marble from the black box so that he does not have to carry out assignments is likewise a nonmagical sleight-of-hand trick. “Tubs” Casper’s illusions of becoming thin are too difficult to act upon, so he is victimized into accepting an assignment to gain twenty more pounds.

Finally, Cormier shows the reader that evil may thrive because of institutions. Evil may be hiding behind innocence and benevolence. More important, there may be evil in everyone—a dark side that the individual shuns or tries to repress. Archie tells Jill Morton that all people have secret imperfections that they try to conceal. In the final scene with Obie, in a line similar to the lyrics of the Rolling Stones song “Sympathy for the Devil,” Archie sums up one of Cormier’s themes: “Because I’m you. I’m all the things you hide inside you. That’s me—”

The Chocolate War and Beyond the Chocolate War are often used in conjunction with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) and other literature that deals with individuals in conflict with group obligations. Beyond the Chocolate War, like Golding’s work, graphically portrays how games can escalate into real violence. The killing game in Lord of the Flies begins with Ralph pretending to machine-gun Piggy, continues with pretending to kill Maurice as a pig, proceeds with the boys hurting Robert as a pig, and climaxes with the killing of a sow and, soon after, Simon. Obie’s use of magic and Bunting’s staged attack are examples of games or play evolving into real violence; David Caroni’s fantasies of revenge intensify into obsession and ultimately turn on Caroni himself.

Often taught with The Chocolate War, Cormier’s sequel presents the ambiguities of right and wrong confronting the adolescent. The multiple plot lines in the sequel provide an introduction to reading more complex novels about adolescents. Despite its grim depiction of the exploitation of power, Beyond the Chocolate War deals realistically with making choices for what is socially appropriate and individually responsible behavior.

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