Interpretation of Christian Beliefs within The Chocolate War
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 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...
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