Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 710
A Chocolate Soldier is a story within a story that reveals the obsession and loneliness of Meshach Barry’s life. He narrates the history of his hero, a classmate at Gladstone College thirty-five years earlier. The novel is a nonlinear direct address narrative, flashing from the present, in which Meshach attempts...
(The entire section contains 710 words.)
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- Critical Essays
A Chocolate Soldier is a story within a story that reveals the obsession and loneliness of Meshach Barry’s life. He narrates the history of his hero, a classmate at Gladstone College thirty-five years earlier. The novel is a nonlinear direct address narrative, flashing from the present, in which Meshach attempts to make emotional contact with his estranged daughter Carol through the act of sharing his story, to the past, in which closely alternating segments in the lives of Meshach and Cager establish the contrast between them. The tragedy of the novel is that Carol is unable to understand that her father needs to retell this story in order to come to terms with the meaning of his life. To Carol, Meshach’s interest in Cager’s life is nothing but a useless compulsion. Because Carol, Meshach’s only human connection, refuses to listen to her father’s story, he is forced to turn and speak directly to the audience.
Meshach and Cager, both from rural southern families, meet at Gladstone College, an all-black school in Valhalla, Tennessee, in the midst of World War II. Meshach has been forced by his mother to study to be a preacher. Cager is determined to escape the fate of his sharecropper father by becoming a militant black leader.
Eventually Cager’s belief that education is useless without force to support it leads him to neglect his studies in favor of training the small, all-black militia he has mustered among the townspeople. Cager is a visionary leader, but before long the other members of the group come to believe that their effort is useless, and they leave him. Disheartened by this failure and hurt by his girlfriend Flo’s brutal honesty concerning the misshapenness of his sexual organ, Cager is on his way to flunking out of school when Haley Barnes, a history professor, intervenes. Barnes, concerned that Cager is on his way to ruin, convinces the boy to take some time off from school and get a job to allow himself time to think about his future. It is Barnes who uses his connection with Mary Dabney to get Cager a job as a house servant in the Dabney mansion.
Although Cager finds Mrs. Dabney’s white supremacist attitude maddening, he decides to stay on in her employ until he has studied all the volumes in her library of military books. He sneaks the books to his room to read at night. He discovers an inflammatory black newspaper, The Chicago Hawk, that another servant’s relatives smuggled south. He is amazed by the apparent solidarity and aggression of Chicago African Americans, and he determines to go there as soon as he is done with Mrs. Dabney’s library.
It is while reading through a historical volume in the Dabney household that Cager learns about Ofield Smalls, a nineteenth century slave who led a rebellion against his kind white masters. In a dramatic scene approaching the climax of the novel, Cager is struck by an epiphany while he stands over a bridge above the river Darling. Realizing that Smalls was denouncing oppression hidden in charity, Cager is seized by a feeling that he is fated to carry out a rebellion similar to Smalls’s. Driven by a messianic vision, Cager dresses himself in the uniform of his defunct black militia and stabs Mrs. Dabney to death with the bayonet of her heirloom confederate Enfield musket, just as she is on the eve of donating an enormous amount of money to Gladstone College.
As Meshach narrates this story, constantly emphasizing Cager’s saintly intensity and his will to sacrifice his own good for his ideals, it becomes clearer that Meshach, having spent time in prison and several spells in a mental hospital as well as having sexually violated his daughter, is trying desperately to create some order in his own life by relating himself to Cager. The novel ends as Meshach, in an epilogue, tells of Cager’s death as the victim of a mob lynching and Flo’s death from tuberculosis. There is no definite action left for the narrator to take once his tale is told. The novel’s ending suggests that Meshach has achieved some sort of catharsis from reorganizing his memories.