The Chocolate War

by Robert Cormier

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Interpretation of Christian Beliefs within The Chocolate War

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Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War begins with a seemingly serious remark: "They murdered him." We quickly realize that this is the author's way of telling us, with humorous exaggeration, that a character, who we learn is named Jerry Renault, has just received a heavy hit during football practice. As the novel progresses, though, other details emerge, and our reading of this remark changes. We come to see in it a reference to Christ's "murder," and thus to see Jerry's rebellion against the chocolate sale and everything it stands for as being patterned in part on Christ's "rebellion." Other details complicate this association, however, so that by the end of the novel we are left not with a portrait of Christian triumph, but rather with a set of anguished questions: Is there any purity or "sincerity" (or in Christian terms, redemption) in the world, a world that seems to be so thoroughly corrupt? If there is, can one (like Christ) attain it by refusing to compromise one's beliefs—by refusing to "bend"—and thus risking everything, even being "murdered," for those beliefs? And can that refusal be an example by which others profit: can others be redeemed by such a self-sacrifice?

That these questions are "anguished" suggests that the novel's outlook is a bleak one; and indeed, there is a pervasive pessimism at the core of The Chocolate War. None of the "adult" power structures in the novel—family, church, school—seem to offer any haven to the adolescent boys who are the novel's focus. Parents, who play at best a peripheral role, are ineffectual or absent. The "brothers" at Trinity, the Catholic prep school where The Chocolate War is set, are by and large no better, either weak, like Brother Eugene, or cruel and hypocritical, like the novel's central authority figure, Brother Leon. Not only is Leon cruel and hypocritical, he is also more concerned for the school's material well-being, represented by the chocolate sale, than he is for the boys' spiritual nurturing. Indeed, his concern for the "spiritual" seems to be limited to the boys' "school spirit," his euphemism for their enthusiasm for the sale. The further disclosure that he has made some illegal transactions in setting up the sales drive, while it makes some of his actions understandable, and thus to some extent, perhaps, sympathetic, has the primary effect of sealing our verdict that he is one of the novel's arch-villains.

The other arch-villain in the novel is Archie Costello. Like Brother Leon, Archie is not a wholly unsympathetic character. We see him at points alone and vulnerable, though we probably feel that because of his hubris (excessive pride), he is more deserving of the discomfort he experiences than are the other characters in the novel (including, perhaps, Brother Leon). At the same time, it is Archie who is the guiding spirit of the Vigils, the officially secret student group that controls so many aspects of the boys' lives at Trinity. It is he who articulates the cynical outlook that so troubles the novel. In the novel's second chapter, for example, when we first meet him, he has an exchange with Obie, the Vigils' secretary, in which he claims that to him, the communion ceremony means nothing more than "chewing a wafer," while Jesus is not his "leader," but rather "a guy who walked the earth for thirty-three years like any other guy but caught the imagination of some PR cats."

The effect of these remarks is to suggest that nothing one might do has the potential for any larger/higher significance, in a "spiritual" sense— that if Jesus, the supposed Son...

(This entire section contains 1959 words.)

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of God, was in reality just a "guy," then we too can be nothing more than just "guys." And if we are all just "guys," then we can hope for nothing better than some form of worldly success (to have good "PR" people behind us), or failing that, survival. All action, then, is reduced to power "games," and all people, as Archie says to Carter at the boxing "match" near the end of the novel, are "bastards," "greedy and cruel." Carter, like Obie, reacts with "disgust" to Archie's statements—it is "as if there was no goodness at all in the world," he subsequently reflects—yet he, like Obie, has no answer to them. Indeed, no answer is readily forthcoming from any character in the novel, for such a response, Cormier seems to be saying, cannot be made in words, but must come in the form of action: you cannot argue the cynic out of his cynicism, in other words; you must show him that he is "wrong."

The main attempt to "respond" to Archie is of course made by Jerry Renault. As noted earlier, it is intimated from the beginning of the novel that Jerry will in some respects "imitate" Christ in his role in the novel. At the same time, it is also intimated that Jerry will be unable to fulfill this daunting task. Having gotten up after the crushing hit in the first chapter, he is accidently spat upon by his coach, and his response to this ill-treatment, to affirm that he is fine, is not what he feels it should have been: "he was a coward about stuff like that, thinking one thing and doing another—he had been Peter a thousand times and a thousand cocks had crowed in his lifetime." In comparing himself to Peter, Jerry is alluding to the Christian Last Supper and to Christ's prediction that he would be betrayed by one of his disciples and that the rest would abandon him. When Peter hears this, he says that he would never abandon Jesus, to which Jesus responds, "Verily I say unto thee, That this night, before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice" (Matthew 26:34). Ironically, in responding as he does to his coach, Jerry has literally "turned the other cheek" (recall that the coach spits on his cheek), and so not denied but followed Christ, by following his teachings. That Jerry views this as cowardice indicates that he is unable to see the full implications of Christ's example—that if he has "imitated" Christ, he has done so without knowing it.

In the subsequent events of The Chocolate War, neither Jerry nor any of the other characters in the novel ever realize the significance of his actions in Christian terms (ironically, given that the novel's setting is a Catholic school). Even the climactic boxing "match," reminiscent as it is of a Roman gladiatorial show, in which Jerry the "martyr" is thrown in to face the beastlike Emile Janza, produces no such realization in anyone. For Jerry at least, the more real model for his actions is T. S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock, whose timid query, "Do I dare disturb the universe?", is the caption of a poster hung in his locker. Here too, Jerry is at first "[not] sure of the poster's meaning," nor does he seem to know that it is Prufrock in whose mouth Eliot puts the famous question. After a while, though, he feels he understands the poster's significance, and Prufrock's question, answered cautiously in the affirmative—'"Yes, I do, I do. I think"—becomes his battle cry.

By the end of his trials, though, a far darker picture of things has emerged in the novel. After the boxing "match," Jerry does feel he has had an epiphany or deep insight into things, but it is not one that affirms his decision to "disturb the universe." On the contrary, he has decided that one should stay in line, that "doing your own thing" is useless, when that "thing" does not happen to coincide with the interests of those in power—that rebellion is "a laugh, ... a fake." What Jerry has discovered, Cormier suggests, is the modern world's "heart of darkness," for in referring to Jerry's discovery as "the knowledge, the knowledge," he is assumably echoing the famous last words of Mr. Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness: "The horror! The horror!" As Zibby Oneal puts it in an essay in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, "Within himself, [Jerry] discovers, are the very things he has fought—the hatred and the violence."

With this discovery, Jerry's insistence that ignoring what he has learned will only lead to one's "murder" recalls the Christian example from the beginning of the novel, only to deny it at last. Christianity in the modern world, Cormier appears to be saying, is at best a sort of shadowy absolute against which our relative failings can be measured; at worst, it is an outdated myth with no bearing on the "real world." If there is to be any sort of "second coming," moreover, it will not be in the form of a Jerry Renault, trying to "imitate" Christ. Instead, he suggests by echoing a line from W. B. Yeats' poem, "The Second Coming" (1921), it will take the form of a general spread of coldness, hardness, and cruelty among people—the qualities that characterize figures like Archie and Brother Leon. (Yeats embodies this "coming" as a "rough beast" "with lion body and the head of a man, [and] / A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun," and says that just after he has this vision of the "beast," "The darkness drops again." Cormier alludes to this final line at the end of Chapter 37 when Obie catches a glimpse of Brother Leon at the top of a hill, watching the "match" below: "The face vanished as the darkness fell.")

In coming to terms with the novel's pessimistic core, we should consider it in the context of the United States of the early 1970s, when The Chocolate War was published. The country was then still emerging from a very tumultuous and largely unprecedented part of its history, marked by widespread unrest, much of it violent. Widespread, too, was the belief among the protesters that all leaders and all systems of control should be distrusted, and eventually done away with, if possible. "Do your own thing" was a byword of the times, and for a while many felt that if everyone truly and honestly did so, the bad "things" (war, racial hatred) would somehow come out right. By the end of the 1960s, however, the fact that the war in Vietnam was still raging, combined with some ugly outbreaks of civil violence and a more general breakdown of the drug-based "counterculture," produced in many people feelings of fatigue, bitterness and disillusion, even paranoia—feelings that only became sharper with the emergence of the Watergate scandal in 1973. These widespread feelings are reflected not only in some of the literature of the period (e.g., Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers), but also in movies (The Parallax View, Serpico) and other media. This soured idealism is in evidence as well in The Chocolate War, not only in Jerry's conclusion about the uselessness of "doing your own thing," but also for example in Cormier's use of the word "beautiful" (another byword of 1960s idealism), which is pervasive and ironic.

If this pessimism was widespread in American culture generally, though, it was, Zibby Oneal reminds us, still very new to young people's fiction: "The Chocolate War was immediately—and understandably—controversial. It broke new ground ... toppling dearlyheld taboos, upsetting any number of conventions." In its willingness in particular to tell young adults that sometimes "failure happens" and "despair ensues," Oneal notes that the book still has the power to disturb readers. It is this continuing challenge to readers as much as anything else, perhaps, that makes The Chocolate War still timely—still more than a period piece.

Source: Stan Walker, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997.
Walker is a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas.

"The Chocolate War" in Presenting Robert Cormier

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"They murdered him." The opening line of The Chocolate War. Three words that describe the whole movement of the plot. The process of "murdering" Jerry Renault is the subject; it remains only to tell who and why and how they felt about it. And what it meant.

On the surface the story is straightforward enough, moving along quickly in brief, intense scenes. We first see Jerry slamming through a football practice. He is a freshman at Trinity High School in Monument, and making the team is important to him, a small compensation for the recent death of his mother and the gray drabness of his life with his defeated father. The camera shifts to the stands; there we meet Archie, the villainous brains of the secret society called the Vigils. He is plotting "assignments" with his henchman Obie, cruel practical jokes to be carried out by selected victims. On the way home, Jerry is confronted at the bus stop by a hippie vagrant who challenges his passive conformity. Meanwhile, the malevolent Brother Leon, acting headmaster of Trinity, has called Archie into his office to break the traditional conspiracy of silence about the Vigils by asking for their help in the school chocolate sale. As Archie later discovers, Leon, in a bid for power while the headmaster is in the hospital, has overextended the school's funds to take advantage of a bargain in twenty thousand boxes of chocolates. Archie is delighted to have the vicious brother capitulate to him. Now we see Archie in action, as an inoffensive kid called The Goober is assigned to loosen every screw in a classroom so that it falls into debris the next morning at the first touch. But no assignment is complete until Archie has drawn from a box containing six marbles—five white and one black. If the black turns up—as it never has yet— Archie himself must carry out the assignment. But again the marble is white. Next we see Leon in action, tormenting a shy student with false accusations of cheating while the class watches tensely, then turning on the group to accuse them of condoning the cruelty by their silence. An even more vicious character is the bestial Emile Janza, who is in bondage to Archie over an obscene snapshot. Now the cast is complete and the action begins.

To show Leon where the power lies, Archie secretly assigns Jerry to refuse to sell the chocolates for ten days. Brother Leon is enraged but impotent as every day at roll call Jerry continues to answer "No." Suspecting a plot, Leon calls honor student David Caroni into his office and threatens to spoil the boy's perfect academic record with an undeserved F unless he reveals the secret. Terrified, Caroni tells him about the assignment. Finally the ten days are up, but Jerry, for reasons he only dimly understands, still continues stubbornly to refuse to sell the chocolates. Surreptitious approval for Jerry's stand begins among the other students, and for the first time he begins to understand the words on a poster he has taped in his locker: "Do I dare disturb the universe?" The sales begin to drop off. Leon, panicked, pressures Archie; Archie pressures Jerry before the Vigils, but Jerry clings to his resolve. Soon it becomes apparent that the power of both Leon and the Vigils will be destroyed by the failure of the chocolate sale. When Carter, the jock president of the Vigils, in frustration resorts to his fists to subdue a contemptuous assignee at a Vigils' meeting, Archie realizes Jerry's resistance must be destroyed utterly. The Vigils take charge of the chocolates, and under their secret management sales mount dramatically. With this turn of the tide, the school is caught up in the enthusiasm. Jerry is ostracized and tormented, first secretly by the Vigils and then openly by the whole student body. Finally Archie prods Emile Janza to taunt Jerry into a fistfight, but characteristically Emile hires some children to do the actual beating. The Goober, in a belated show of support, decides to stop selling, but his gesture is futile. Soon the sale is over, and only Jerry's fifty boxes of chocolates remain. Archie conceives a diabolical scheme for final vengeance. Under cover of a supposed night football rally, he stages a "raffle" for the last boxes of chocolates. He offers Jerry "a clean fight" with Emile Janza, and Jerry, wanting desperately to hit back at everything, accepts. Only when he and Emile are already in the boxing ring are the rules explained. The raffle tickets are instructions for blows and the recipient is forbidden to defend himself. But now Carter and Obie come forward with the black box. Archie's luck holds; the marble is white. The fight begins as planned, but Emile's animal rage is quickly out of control, and the mob goes wild as he beats Jerry savagely. The carnage is stopped when one of the brothers arrives and turns out the lights, but it is too late for Jerry. Terribly injured and lying in The Goober's arms, he begs him not to disturb the universe, but to conform, to give in. An ambulance takes him away, and Archie, who has seen Brother Leon watching with approval in the shadows, is left triumphant.

The novel works superbly as a tragic yarn, an exciting piece of storytelling. Many young adults, especially younger readers, will simply want to enjoy it at this level, and Cormier himself would be the first to say that there is nothing wrong with that. A work of literature should be first of all a good story. But a work of literature also has resonance, richness, a broader intent than just the fate of the characters. For the reader who wants to dig a bit beneath the surface, there is a wealth of hidden meaning and emotion in The Chocolate War. How does Cormier achieve this atmosphere of dark, brooding inevitability? What are the overarching themes from which the events of the plot are hung? And, most of all, just what is the crucial thing that he is trying to tell us?

A look at Cormier's style in this book will show first of all the driving, staccato rhythms. The sentences are short and punchy, and the chapters are often no more than two pages. He uses dialogue to move the action quickly forward and to establish character and situation in brief, broad strokes. His technique is essentially cinematic; if he wants to make a psychological or philosophical point he does so visually with a symbolic event or an interchange between characters, rather than reflecting in a verbal aside. Tension is built by an escalating chain of events, each a little drama of its own. "Rather than waiting for one big climax, I try to create a lot of little conflicts," he explains [in "An Interview with Robert Cormier" in Lion and the Unicorn]. "A series of explosions as I go along."

The point of view snaps back and forth from boy to boy in succeeding chapters, a more focused use of the technique called "omniscient observer." First we see Archie through Obie's eyes, then we are inside Jerry's head, then we watch Leon and The Goober squirm under Archie's gaze, then we are looking up at him from Emile's dwarfish mind, then we watch Brother Leon's classroom performance through Jerry's quiet presence, and so on. The variety of perspectives develops our understanding of the characters and reveals the complex interweaving of motivations and dependencies. The shift is unobtrusive but can be easily detected by a close look at the text. Less subtly, there are occasional tags that clue the reader to a change in voice: Brian Cochran and Obie, for instance, are inclined to think, "For crying out loud!," while Archie, among others, is addicted to the ironic use of the word beautiful. Cormier is too fine a writer, of course, to descend to imitation slang in order to indicate that this is a teenager speaking. Nothing dates a book more quickly than trendiness, as he learned from "The Rumple Country," and his understanding of the quality of adolescence goes far deeper than picking up the latest expression.

Much has been made of Cormier's imagery, and many essays and articles have been written on bis metaphors and similes, his allusions and personifications. Sometimes it seems that Cormier is merely exercising his virtuosity for the reader: "his voice curled into a question mark," or "he poured himself liquid through the sunrise streets." But most of the time his metaphors are precisely calculated to carry the weight of the emotion he is projecting. Carter, about to tackle Jerry, looks "like some monstrous reptile in his helmet." Leon, thwarted, has "a smile like the kind an undertaker fixes on the face of a corpse." Jerry, happy, scuffles through "crazy cornflake leaves" but, sad, sees autumn leaves flutter down "like doomed and crippled birds." Jerry's father, preparing their loveless dinner, slides a casserole "into the oven like a letter into a mailbox." Sometimes the imagery is vividly unpleasant, as some reviewers have complained, but it is always appropriate to the intensity of the thing that Cormier is trying to say. There is a whole bouquet of bad smells in The Chocolate War, starting with Brother Leon's rancid bacon breath. The evening comes on as "the sun bleeding low in the sky and spurting its veins." Sweat moves like small moist bugs on Jerry's forehead. The vanquished Rollo's vomiting sounds like a toilet flushing.

Literary and biblical allusions, too, enrich the alert reader's experience of the novel. Shakespeare, the Bible, and the poetry of T.S. Eliot are the most obvious sources. "Cut me, do I not bleed?" thinks Emile, like Shylock. For Jerry, like Saint Peter, a thousand cocks have crowed. The quotation on the poster in his locker is from Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." [Bruce Clements in Horn Book ] has gone so far as to write an essay drawing parallels between Jerry and Hamlet, Archie and Iago. Cormier denies building in this particular analogy, but admits that such references may come from his subconscious. The sophisticated reader, too, can absorb them subliminally, without conscious analysis.

Many of these allusions are not isolated flourishes, but fit together into larger structures of meaning. As one example, the Christian symbolism in The Chocolate War is an indication of the importance of the book's theme to Cormier. Before tracing that imagery, however, it is essential to clarify that the school itself is not part of this symbolism. It is a gross misunderstanding of the theme of the book to interpret it as an attack on parochial schools or the Catholic Church. If that had been Cormier's intention, it should be quite clear from his biography that he would have drawn on his childhood memories to picture a school where nuns, not brothers, presided. No, the fact that Trinity is a Catholic school is as irrelevant to the meaning of the story as that fact is irrelevant to the characters. But Cormier does use Christian symbolism to show the cosmic implications of the events he is relating. When Jerry refuses to sell the chocolates, the language suggests the Book of Revelation [as Betty Carter and Karen Harris state in "Realism in Adolescent Fiction" in Top of the News]: "Cities fell. Earth opened. Planets tilted. Stars plummeted." In the first chapter, the goal posts remind Obie of empty crucifixes, and in the last chapter, after Jerry's martyrdom, they again remind him of— what? In his graceless state, he can't remember. When Jerry is challenged to action by the hippie, the man looks at him from across a Volkswagen so that Jerry sees only the disembodied head. The image is John the Baptist, he who was beheaded by Herod after he cried in the wilderness to announce the coming of Christ. Archie's name has myriad meanings from its root of "arch": "principal or chief," "cleverly sly and alert," "most fully embodying the qualities of its kind"; but most significantly, the reference is to the Archangel, he who fell from Heaven to be the Fallen Angel, or Lucifer himself. The Vigils, although Cormier admits only to a connotation of "vigilantes," resonate with religious meaning. The candles placed before the altar in supplication are vigil candles, and a vigil is a watch on the night preceding a religious holiday. The members of the gang stand before Archie, who basks in their admiration like a religious statue before a bank of candles [according to Kenneth L. Donelson and Alleen Pace Nilsen in Literature for Today's Young Adults]. But most important, the understanding of the ultimate opposing forces of good and evil in The Chocolate War is a deeply Christian, or perhaps even a deeply Catholic, vision.

Source: Patricia J. Campbell, "The Chocolate War," in Presenting Robert Cormier, revised edition, Twayne Publishers, 1989, pp 40-51

"The Chocolate War" in Presenting Robert Cormier

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How does the theme of this book fit into Cormier's fascination for the nature of human confrontation with the Implacable? All of the three villains are vulnerable, and if they cannot quite be placated, they can at least be manipulated. They are quick to see each other's weaknesses and quick to take advantage of them for more secure positions of power. Leon has put himself in a shaky place by his overreaching ambition, and Archie sees him "riddled with cracks and crevices—running scared—open to invasion." Archie fears Leon's power over him as his teacher, and his domination of the Vigils is dependent on thinking up ever more imaginative assignments. And then there is the black box—a nemesis over which he has no control. Emile's weakness is his stupidity; he is easily conned by Archie into believing in the imaginary photograph. So none of the three is an implacable, unconquerable force; all are subject to fears and weaknesses.

Why then does Jerry's lone refusal seem so very doomed from the beginning? Why does the contest seem so unequal; why does the action move so inevitably toward tragedy? The answer lies in the nature of what it is he is saying "no" to. What he is opposing is not Brother Leon, not Archie, not Emile, but the monstrous force that moves them, of which they are but imperfect human agents. The Goober gives it a name: "'There's something rotten in that school. More than rotten.' He groped for the word and found it but didn't want to use it. The word didn't fit the surroundings, the sun and the bright October afternoon. It was a midnight word, a howling wind word." The word is evil.

The unholy trinity of Trinity are studies in the human forms of evil. Brother Leon, who as a priest is supposedly an agent of the Divine, has sold his soul for power, even down to his exultation in the small nasty tyrannies of the classroom. Cormier has said [in Alleen Pace Nilsen's article "The Poetry of Naming in Young Adult Books" in ALAN Review] that he chose the name Leon, a bland, soft name, to match the brother's superficial blandness. "And so is evil bland in its many disguises," he adds. Leon's appearance is deceptive: "On the surface, he was one of those pale, ingratiating kind of
men who tiptoed through life on small, quick feet." "In the classroom Leon was another person altogether. Smirking, sarcastic. His thin, high voice venomous. He could hold your attention like a cobra. Instead of fangs, he used his teacher's pointer, flicking out here, there, everywhere." Leon's skin is pale, damp, and his moist eyes are like boiled onions or specimens in laboratory test tubes. When he blackmails Caroni into revealing Jerry's motivation, his fingers holding the chalk are like "the legs of pale spiders with a victim in their clutch." After he has demolished the boy, the chalk lies broken, "abandoned on the desk, like white bones, dead men's bones." The image that gradually accumulates around Leon is that of a hideous, colorless insect, a poisonous insect, crawling damp from its hiding place under a rock. Or perhaps he has emerged from even deeper underground, as Jerry suspects when he sees "a glimpse into the hell that was burning inside the teacher "

Archie is far subtler and will utimately, when he is an adult, be more dangerous, because he is not in bondage to ambition. True, he revels in the captive audience of the Vigils, but he is not really part of that or any political structure. "I am Archie" he gloats, Archie alone. For him, the pleasure is in building intricate evil structures for their own sake. "Beautiful!" he cries as Brother Eugene falls apart like the furniture in his room, as Leon squirms under the pressure of Jerry's refusal, as Jerry struggles ever deeper into the exitless trap Archie has made for him. Yet, Archie, too, is in hell, the hell of understanding only the dark side of human nature. "People are two things," he tells Carter. "Greedy and cruel." From this knowledge comes his strength, his ability to make anybody do anything. But it is bottomless emptiness. "Life is shit," he says without emotion.

Emile is the purest embodiment of evil. In him we see the horror of evil's essential quality: silliness. Emile loves to "reach" people. He giggles when he leaves a mess in the public toilet, when he secretly gives an already-tackled football player an extra jab, when he loudly accuses a shy kid of farting on a crowded bus. Essentially evil is pointless. Purpose and structure belong to goodness; evil can only turn back on itself in chaos. Archie and Leon have clothed their evil with intelligence and worldly power, but Emile's surrender to darkness is revealed in all its terrible nakedness. The others recognize his non-humanity quite clearly. "An animal," they call him.

Archie is amused by Emile's simplicity but also chilled by the recognition of a kinship he is not willing to acknowledge. Emile, however, in his perverse innocence, easily sees that he and Archie are "birds of a feather," and that their differences are only a matter of intelligence. An even more terrible innocence is that of the children whom Emile recruits to ambush Jerry. "Animals," he calls them in turn, and they emerge crouching from the bushes to do his bidding like the twittering hordes of little devils in a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.

Both Archie and Emile have crosswired their sexual energies into sadism. Emile wishes he could tell Archie how he sometimes feels "horny" when he does a particularly vicious thing. The sources of Archie's most maliciously creative ideas are found in his sexual energy, as Cormier made clear in a chapter that was never printed. In these deleted pages Archie, backed into a corner by thinking of Jerry's recalcitrance, attempts to masturbate, but his powerlessness against the situation renders him impotent. Finally he gets the glimmering of an idea—and an erection—and conceives the scheme for the boxing match that will destroy Jerry at the same moment that he achieves his climax. The chapter is stunning in its sensuality, but Cormier [as he admits in "The Cheerful Side of Controversy,"], on the advice of his editor and because he found he was reluctant to allow his own daughter to read it, removed it from the final manuscript.

All three villains are completely devoid of any sense of guilt. Indeed, Archie often congratulates himself on his compassion. Brother Leon is all surface; his soul is hollow, and he is the one character whose interior monologue we never hear. Repentance is totally foreign to him. Emile is even a bit defensive at being defined as a bad guy. "All right, so he liked to screw around a little, get under people's skin. That was human nature, wasn't it? A guy had to protect himself at all times. Get them before they get you. Keep people guessing— and afraid."

In chapter 4 Brother Leon mentions that Archie's father "operates an insurance business." This one shred of information is all we know about Archie's background. What could the home life of such a monster be? For that matter, what parent could live with Emile? Does Brother Leon have an aged mother somewhere? What were they all like as children? The questions are intriguing but pointless. [In "Interview with Robert Cormier" in Lion and the Unicorn] Cormier deliberately gives us no hint of the origins of their devotion to darkness. "People can't say Archie did this because he was a deprived child or he was a victim of child abuse. I wanted him judged solely on his actions." To understand is to forgive, and to forgive real evil is to make alliance with it. To render these characters psychologically understandable would be to humanize them, to undermine their stature as instruments of darkness, and therefore to erase the theme of opposition to the Implacable.

For those who would turn their eyes away from the ultimate and prefer a smaller and more comfortable theme, Cormier has thoughtfully provided an alternative. It is possible to view the book as an examination of tyranny. The pattern overlaps but is not identical. Seen this way, the trinity has a different cast. There are three structures of misused power: the school, as headed by Brother Leon; the athletic department, as headed by the coach; and the mob, as headed by Archie. Each has a passive assistant to tyranny, characters who have decent impulses but are ineffectual because they lack the courage to act. Obie is Archie's reluctant stooge; Carter agrees with the coach's approval of violence; and Brother Jacques despises Leon but condones his actions by not opposing. Shadowy outlines of the government, the military, and the Church might appear in this interpretation.

The question ultimately turns back, no matter whether tyranny or absolute evil is the enemy, to "How can we resist?" If evil had inherent power, there would be no answer. But Leon, Archie, and Emile all find their power source in their victim's own weaknesses. Leon even plays contemptuously with it in the classroom, when he tells the boys that they have become Nazi Germany by their fearful silence. Emile has very early discovered that most people want peace at any price and will accept almost any embarrassment or harassment rather than take a stand or make a fuss. "Nobody wanted trouble, nobody wanted to make trouble, nobody wanted a showdown." Archie, too, has realized that "the world was made up of two kinds of people— those who were victims and those who victimized." But the moment Jerry, of his own volition, refuses to sell the chocolates, he steps outside this cynical definition. In that is the source of hope.

Jerry at first has no idea why he has said no. "He'd wanted to end the ordeal—and then that terrible No had issued out of his mouth." But Jerry's life has been "like a yawning cavity in his chest" since his mother's death. His father is sleepwalking through his days, a man for whom everything and nothing is "Fine!," a pharmacist who once wanted to be a doctor and now denies even that such an ambition ever existed. Like Prufrock, he is too numb to live and too afraid to act. When Jerry looks into the mirror he is appalled to see his father's face reflected in his own features. The hippie and the poster dare him to disturb the universe, and when he finally says no he is taking a stand against far more than a chocolate sale. And it is Brother Leon himself who has taught Jerry that not to resist is to assist.

Jerry is the only one who has learned that lesson, and this is what makes his destruction inevitable. Evil is implacable and merciless to a lone hero, in spite of the folk myth to the contrary. But could it have turned out differently? What if the marble had been black? Or Jerry's first blow had knocked Emile out? But these would have been arbitrary tamperings by the author. Ironically, the key to the real triumph of good comes again from Brother Leon. If others had joined Jerry.... There are a number of places in the story where this might have happened. The Goober, of course, is often on the verge of acting on his friendship for Jerry, but in the end, like Hamlet, he only thinks, and doesn't act until too late. For a moment he even hopes that it will all end in a stalemate. The Goober speaks for all the others in wanting to avoid confrontation at any cost. Obie might have acted on his disgust for Archie: "I owe you one for that!" he thinks when pushed too far. In the end he settles only for hoping that fate will punish Archie with a black marble. Carter, too, might have used his simple strength to end it.

Any of these isolated actions might have started the group movement that would have saved Jerry and defeated Leon and the Vigils. Even without such a spur the school comes close to following Jerry's example at the midpoint in the sale. But the motivation is negative—they are tired of selling and selfishly individual—"let each one do his own thing." Without a conscious joining together for the good of all, they can easily be maneuvered separately back into doing the Vigils' will.
So here at last is Cormier's meaning. As [Renee Hoxie] has written [in a letter in Wilson Library Bulletin], "Jerry's defeat is unimportant. What is important is that he made the choice and that he stood firm for his convictions." Only by making that gesture can we hold on to our humanity, even when defeat is inevitable. But there is more—when the agents of evil are other human beings, perhaps good can win if enough people have the courage to take a stand together. Evil alliances are built with uneasy mutual distrust, but only goodness can join humans with the self-transcending strength of sympathy and love.

Source: Patricia J. Campbell, "The Chocolate War," in Presenting Robert Cormier, revised edition, Twayne Publishers, 1989, pp. 40-51.


Critical Overview