The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

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.

Setting

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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 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...

(The entire section is 2,265 words.)