The Chocolate War

by Robert Cormier

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Historical Context

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The 1960s/1970s Counterculture
The Chocolate War was written in the early seventies and published in 1974. Its story is told almost without reference to the world at large. Chapter 3 is therefore highly significant. In this chapter Jerry, after taking a copy of Playboy down from the top shelf of a magazine rack and surreptitiously browsing, has an exchange at a bus-stop with a confrontational drop-out. Cormier's description of the group from which the confrontational young man emerges is both specific and various. "They were now part of the scenery like the Civil War Cannon and the World War Monuments, the flagpole. Hippies. Flower Children. Street People. Drifters. Drop-Outs. Everybody had a different name for them." In other words, they are exemplars of the counterculture that thrived in America in the late 1960s and was still a strong cultural and social presence in 1974. Jerry is mocked by their spokesman as a "square," as someone hidebound by his smart uniform, his obedience to rules, and his sense of guilt (which has just been exhibited in his recollection of having to quickly get rid of the only pornographic magazine he had ever dared take home).

Cormier, it must be noted, refrains from using the words "protesters" or "draft-dodgers" in connection with this group. They are specifically not political protesters, but social dropouts. Fred Inglis, in his book The Promise of Happiness: Value and Meaning in Children's Fiction, writes that Cormier "sounds like another dispirited radical of the 1968 generation, of Miami and the siege of Chicago. The radical moral taken to heart after a term and a half on the steps of Nixon's Pentagon was that all structures of authority and institutions were deadly, and all would, in their super-ruthless and efficient way, break the spirit of the individual." However, cautious criticism of the book and its cultural context makes a distinction between the chord it struck with its audience in the resonances remarked upon by Inglis, and the deeper intentions of the author. Brother Leon's reprehensibly hypocritical classroom simulation of Nazi Germany is used by Cormier to incriminate both Leon himself and the other boys. Jerry, although he hates Leon from then onwards, is unaffected by the leaden political message of the lesson. His impulse has not been to protest, but to escape: "He wished he wasn't here in the classroom. He wanted to be out on the football field, fading back, looking for a receiver."

Fundraising and Private Education
Fundraising fulfilled, and still fulfills, a substantial role in the annual budget of a private school such as Trinity. It also plays a part in public schools, where parent and student groups work to fund extracurricular activities from sports to music to clubs. Participation by pupils in annual raffles, sales, or other revenue-producing activities is normally non-controversial. What makes the Trinity sale different is the application of quotas to students, the sudden doubling of the quotas (together with a doubling in the price of the chocolates), the compulsion to meet those quotas, and the corrupt duplicity of Leon's secret agreement with the Vigils.


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Set at a prestigious Catholic high school in New England, The Chocolate War takes place in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Beyond its broad philosophical and political concerns, the novel is most decidedly a product of its times. At the time of the novel's creation, American society had just begun to leave behind the 1960s, a period of great social turmoil during which government policy in the Vietnam conflict, civil rights reform, and other emotionally charged issues came under public scrutiny. Opposition to institutional decisions ran high; individual acts of...

(This entire section contains 206 words.)

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conscience and open defiance divided the country; and government, college administrations, and churches were frequently challenged. Cormier's observation that his novel illustrates the adage "to not resist is to assist" clearly echoes the often repeated 1960s slogan, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."

Even more appropriate to the themes of The Chocolate War is the notorious Watergate affair that shook society and toppled President Richard Nixon shortly before the novel's publication. Watergate quickly became a symbol of the abuse of power, the ability of small groups to influence policy, and the use of "dirty tricks" to silence opposition, an environment much like the Trinity School in The Chocolate War.

Literary Qualities

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The Chocolate War offers a harrowing glimpse into human society and relationships, conveying its powerful message through a wealth of literary techniques that give depth and emotion to the author's vision. Cormier's admiration of Ernest Hemingway's style and Graham Greene's genius for symbolism is evident in his own work.

The narrative's point of view regularly shifts from one character to another. Combined with frequent interior monologue, this technique illuminates complex character relationships and motivations. Like Hemingway, Cormier charges his dialogue and interior monologue with meaning. Simple and graphic metaphors---related in brief, crisp sentences---invariably suggest thematic elements. Even the seemingly ordinary description of Jerry Renault'stry outut for the football team in the first chapter foreshadows the challenges he will face. His choice between lying down or getting up and showing his determination soon becomes the novel's focal point.

"No. I'm not going to sell the chocolates." Cities fell. Earth opened. Planets tilted. Stars plummeted. And the awful silence. On a more sophisticated level, Cormier frequently alludes to Shakespeare, the Bible, and in one important instance, the work of the poet T. S. Eliot. In fact, some critics have compared Jerry Renault to Hamlet, a young man also indecisive but committed to taking action against the wrongs he sees in his society. The poster Jerry hangs in his locker contains a passage from T. S. Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" concerning man's inability to act on his ideals.

While most readers accept Cormier's denial of an anti-Christian attitude, it is not easy to deny his symbolic treatment of Trinity as the site of a distorted Christianity where church principles of charity and acceptance are secondary to personal gain and self-perpetuation. Even the cross that Brother Leon wears around his neck is hardly recognizable for what it is. Jerry Renault could even be seen as a Christ figure. Young, alone in his devotion to his ideals, and an inspiration to others, he nearly becomes the leader of a rebellion against religious and political authority. In addition, his principled nature leads him to destruction while authority looks on indifferently.

Still another symbolic extension of theme in The Chocolate War is Cormier's clever use of character names. Surely it is no coincidence that Obie "obeys" authority; that Archie's name evokes both "archbishop" and "archfiend," or Satan, a disgraced archangel; or that Leon's name suggests both blandness and the ferocity of a lion. The Vigils take power into their own hands like vigilantes and their meetings are religious "vigils" presided over by "Archie."

Social Sensitivity

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Controversy has surrounded The Chocolate War since its appearance in the 1970s. Critics, parents, and educators cited its political cynicism, its sense of despair, and the few but emotional passages containing sex and violence. Not many would accuse Cormier of deliberate sensationalism or pandering to "rebellious" youth, but he has been strongly criticized for attempting to convince young adults of the baseness and brutality of their peers as well as the adult world.

This "negative atmosphere" is vital to Cormier's theme and the nature of his characters, and adults and adolescents may find the novel far from explosive, given the tendency of recent novels for young adults to explore specific and sensitive sexual and social themes.

Objections to the novel, including school board attempts at censorship, have centered mostly on the pessimistic philosophy that Cormier seems to espouse. These critics have accused the author of painting a hopeless portrait of society, leading his readers toward depression and apathy, and suggesting that they to abandon any hope of challenging corruption and working for a better society. Indeed, The Chocolate War is a convincing demonstration that literature need not be constructed upon happy endings, heroic climaxes, or the familiar triumph of good over evil. Nor does Cormier lull his readers into believing that the "good guys" and "bad guys" are easily distinguishable. He offers readers a passage into mature literary creation, insisting that only an uncompromising vision of reality prepares young people to resist the evils his novel describes. Cormier's novel reflects a resolute effort to encourage acts of conscience and personal courage.

Media Adaptations

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The film version of The Chocolate War, produced by Jonathan D. Krane and Simon R. Lewis, and directed by Keith Gordon, was released in 1988, starring John Glover as Brother Leon, Han Mitchell-Smith as Jerry, and Wally Ward as Archie. Available from Management Company Entertainment Group.

A sound recording of an edited version of the novel was narrated by Andrew Jarkowsky and published by Westminster on a single audio cassette in 1977.

A complete, unabridged sound recording of the novel, read by Frank Muller, recorded on four audio cassettes, was released by Old Greenwich Listening Library in 1988.

For Further Reference

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Campbell, Patricia. Presenting Robert Cormier. New York: Twayne, 1985. A thorough critical study of Cormier's novels and stories. Incorporates interviews and discussions of style and meaning.

Clements, Bruce. "A Second Look: The Chocolate War." Horn Book (April 1979): 217. Reviews the storm of controversy concerning the novel.

Commire, Anne, ed. Something about the Author. Vol. 10. Detroit: Gale Research, 1976. A lengthy overview of Cormier's career and literary goals. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 12. Detroit: Gale Research, 1980. Encapsulates a broad spectrum of reviews and critiques of the author with a great deal of variety, particularly in the matter of The Chocolate War.

Donelson, Kenneth L., and Alleen Pace. Literature for Today's Young Adults. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, 1980. A brief overview of the novels and their relevance.

Evory, Anne, ed. Contemporary Authors, New Revision Series. Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981. Encyclopedic entry covering the early works.

Lukens, Rebecca. "From Salinger to Cormier: Disillusionment to Despair in Thirty Years." ALAN Review (Fall 1981): 3. Discussion of the change in perception concerning the adolescent in fiction.

Stanek, Lou Willett. A Teacher's Guide to the Paperback Edition of "The Chocolate War" by Robert Cormier. New York: Dell, 1975. Brief but interesting survey of the novel with teaching suggestions and analysis of style and theme.

Sutton, Roger. "The Critical Myth: Realistic YA Novels." School Library Journal (November 1982): 33. Focuses on realism and highlights Cormier as a realist.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Norma Bagnall, "Realism How Realistic Is It? A Look at The Chocolate War," in Top of the News, Vol 36, no 2, Winter, 1980, pp 214-17.

Fred Inglis, "Love And Death In Children's Novels," in his The Promise Of Happiness: Value And Meaning in Children's Fiction, Cambridge University Press, 1981, pp 271-291.

Sylvia Patterson Iskander, "Robert Cormier," in Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, Broadening Views 19681988, Gale, 1989, pp 34-51.

Nancy Veglahn, article in The Lion And The Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children's Literature, June, 1988, pp 12-18.

For Further StudyAuthors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 19, Gale, 1996, pp. 65-76. A full-length sketch which includes useful summaries of Cormier's other books and ample reference to contemporary reviews.

Betty Carter and Karen Hams, "Realism in Adolescent Fiction: In Defense of The Chocolate War," in Top of the News, Vol 36, No 3, Spring, 1980, pp. 283-85. A direct response to Norma Bagnall's essay in the previous edition of the journal.

Paul Hems, review of I Am the Cheese, in The Horn Book Magazine, Vol. Lm, No 4, August, 1977, pp 427-28 Hems, reviewing Cormier's next book after The Chocolate War, calls it "a novel in the tragic mode, cunningly wrought, shattering in its emotional implications."

Anne Scott MacLeod, "Robert Cormier and the Adolescent Novel," in Children's Literature in Education, Vol. 12, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp 74-81. An attempt to portray Cormier as a political novelist.

Anita Silvey, in an interview with Robert Cormier, Part I, in The Horn Book Magazine, Vol LXI, No 2, March-Apnl, 1985, pp 145-55. In this interview Cormier discusses his initial resistance to writing a sequel to The Chocolate War.

Joe Stines, "Robert Cormier," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 52 American Writers for Children since 1960, Gale, 1986, pp. 107-14. The entry covers all Cormier's work up to 1985, including his three early adult novels, and includes a page from the penultimate draft of Beyond The Chocolate War, showing the author's corrections


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Campbell, Patricia J. Presenting Robert Cormier. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

Coats, Karen. “Abjection and Adolescent Fiction.” JPCS: Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture & Society 5 (Fall, 2000): 290-300.

Gallo, Donald R. “Reality and Responsibility: The Continuing Controversy over Robert Cormier’s Books for Young Adults.” In The VOYA Reader. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1990.

Hyde, Margaret O. Robert Cormier. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005.

Ishandert, Sylvia Patterson. “Readers, Realism, and Robert Cormier.” Children’s Literature 15 (1987): 7-18.

Karolides, Nicholas J., ed. Censored Books, II: Critical Viewpoints, 1985-2000. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 2002.

Keeley, Jennifer. Understanding “I Am the Cheese.” San Diego: Lucent, 2001.

Myers, Mitzi. “’No Safe Place to Run To’: An Interview with Robert Cormier.” The Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children’s Literature 24 (September, 2000): 445-464.

Tarr, C. Anita. “The Absence of Moral Agency in Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War.” Children’s Literature 30 (2002): 96-124.

Veglahn, Nancy. “The Bland Face of Evil in the Novels of Robert Cormier.” The Lion and the Unicorn: A Critical Journal of Children’s Literature 2 (June 12, 1988): 12-18.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide