The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

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Themes and Characters

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

It is important to realize that Cormier is a political writer in the most general sense. He devotes his attention to systems rather than individuals or specific philosophies. For this reason, it is virtually impossible to separate the characters of The Chocolate War from the sensitive themes around which Cormier's perception of humanity revolves.

Cormier's courageous protagonist Jerry Renault stands in opposition to extremely powerful forces of society. He is not a typical rebel, agitator, or heroic figure, but a complex character whose reasons for defying peer pressure are difficult to pinpoint. In spite of his eventual defeat by the Vigils, a secret society, Jerry reflects what Cormier sees as the only way to defeat the continuing evils of the system.

Cormier examines the inner workings and the effects of the closed society of a private school. His conclusions reflect on the nature of all institutions— governments, social clubs, fraternities, and churches—and the potential for destruction that such agencies have when their power derives from a conspiracy of self-interested individuals. The members of the Vigils vary widely in their natures and motivations, yet they remain almost indivisible in their misuse of power, their attempts to silence dissent, and their indifference to the evil produced by the group. Carter, the president and "jock," seeks status but turns over real authority to the "assigner," Archie Costello. Archie is the cynic, so convinced of the weakness and self-centered nature of others that he relishes manipulating people every chance he gets. Obie serves as the "administrator," a henchman who carries out orders and enjoys the power delegated to him in spite of his pangs of conscience. Lastly, there is Emile, recognizable at once as the "goon" with no apparent conscience and a willful energy for terrorizing outsiders.

Corruption, Cormier suggests, is the by-product of this banding together of the cynical, the intolerant, and the ambitious. More ominous, however, is that such groups function only to promote their own self-interest and survival, their power and prestige. Thus, groups like the Vigils or the Watergate conspirators invest their energy in silencing dissent, exerting group pressure on the individual, and making everything secondary to the group's domination. To this end, the Vigils provide almost everything in the way of "school spirit," and Archie Costello devises assignments intended simply to demonstrate the power of the group to control Trinity's student population.

Trinity represents any institution where "spirit" becomes the only standard, and those who disagree are silenced or exiled. This attitude implemented to its furthest degree would produce the social dictatorships portrayed so vividly in such novels as George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that The Chocolate War simply focuses on adolescents. The same sort of conspiracy and...

(The entire section is 709 words.)