Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2328
Courage and Cowardice
"I've got guts," Jerry murmurs to himself in the opening chapter, after hitting the ground following a heavy tackle on the sports field. Tackled three times in succession, Jerry is insulted by the coach, but he leaves the field determined to make the team. This opening scene establishes Jerry as a character who has the courage to withstand physical pain. He can get up again after being knocked down and come back for more. But there is another pain afflicting him. In the same opening chapter we discover that his mother is dead. It is the painful memory of her death, rather than the bruising he has received on the football field, which induces the nausea that ends Chapter 1. The straightforward physicality and competitiveness of football—in Chapter 28 it is called, from Jerry's point of view, the "honest contact of football"—is throughout contrasted with the psychological and emotional leverage exerted by both the Vigils and Brother Leon.
Archie is not without courage. Though he has never picked a black marble from the box (which would require him to carry out an assignment himself), the possibility is always there. He has the courage of his own convictions, especially in Chapter 27 when he resists Carter's insistence that the time for psychological tactics is over and the way should be cleared for straightforward physical bullying. Cowardice is found in the general student body of Trinity, among those who would like to join Jerry in the boycott but are too scared to do so. Some boys, John Sulkey, for example, are committed to the chocolate sale, either because they see it as a personal challenge or because they have been convinced by Brother Leon's sermons. The vast majority, however, would drop out if they could. Ultimately, they carry on not out of respect for the school, or fear of Brother Leon, but because they do not have the courage to stand up to Archie and the Vigils.
Peer pressure is an important theme in the novel, particularly the pressure to remain silent and toe the line. When Brother Leon gives his lesson in political connivance (the encouragement of evil by the failure to condemn) in Chapter 6, Cormier manages to convey several things at the same time. The irony of Leon being the agent of the message— "You turned this classroom into Nazi Germany for a few moments"—is not lost on the reader. As the book develops one can see fascist techniques being applied by both Leon and the Vigils to control behavior. In the later stages of the chocolate sale, misinformation is a key factor in maintaining peer pressure. False figures regarding individual progress towards quotas are announced. Those directly affected are flattered to have their sales figures inflated and therefore keep quiet. Others feel under increased pressure to persevere with the selling. The most poignant individual response to this particular pressure is that of Roland Goubert "The Goober" who, as a silent and secret act of solidarity with Jerry, has stopped selling chocolates after twenty-seven boxes. When he is falsely announced as having reached his quota he shrinks away without saying anything: "He willed himself to feel nothing. He didn't feel rotten. He didn't feel like a traitor. He didn't feel small and cowardly." Cormier, however, does intend the reader to see cowardice and treachery in both the individual and group behavior.
Victim and Victimization
The conversation between Archie and Emile Janza (two-of-a-kind in some respects) in Chapter 15 is seen from Archie's point of view. Archie is victimizing Janza, pretending that he holds an incriminating photograph. Janza is observed victimizing a young freshman, forcing him to run off and obtain some cigarettes. "The world was made up of two kinds of people—those who were victims and those who victimized." This is Archie's observation. His self-awareness and lack of self-deception are key characteristics. Brother Leon is far less straightforward, but Cormier juxtaposes the chapters in the novel very carefully. It is significant that in Chapter 16 we see Leon smoothly victimizing David Caroni into releasing information about Jerry's Vigil assignment. Leon, outwardly the respectable Assistant Head of a boy's school, is just as corrupt as Archie and Emile, and Caroni is left to wonder, "Were teachers as corrupt as the villains you read about in books or saw in movies and television?"
In Chapter 6 Leon hypocritically praises Bailey for being "true to himself." When Jerry exhibits just this quality, Leon does all that he can to break him down. It is important to understand that Jerry's boycott of the chocolate sale is at no stage based on a point of principle relating to the sale itself. To begin with he is simply acting in accordance with a Vigil assignment. Continuing the boycott beyond the ten-day assignment is an act of individual defiance which Jerry is unable fully to explain to himself. His individual stand arises out of the circumstances of his personal life—the recent loss of his mother, the apparent tedium of his father's existence as a pharmacist—and from his fascination with the poster hanging in his locker (with its quote from T. S. Eliot, "Do I dare disturb the universe?"). It has little to do with any specific opposition to Leon's fundraising appeal. In conversation with Goober, Jerry says, "It's not the Vigils, Goob. They're not in it anymore. It's me." At the end of the book, after the sale has succeeded and Jerry has been seriously damaged by Janza in the boxing ring, Jerry is anxious to pass on some newly-acquired knowledge to Goubert but cannot speak. However, the reader is allowed to share Jerry's point of view. For all of authority's inducements to develop individualism and to "be true to yourself," and the exhortations of hippies not to be "square," Jerry has discovered, "They don't want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing too." And more importantly he has discovered what happens if you try: "They murder you."
Good and Evil
Brother Leon's manipulative, sadistic nature is demonstrated in Chapter 16, when he deceives Caroni to get information about Jerry; in Chapter 24, when it is revealed he misused the school's finances to purchase the chocolates; and in Chapter 38, when he dismisses the brutal beating of Jerry by declaring, "Boys will be boys..." Archie exerts a malevolent control over Trinity through his role as The Vigils' Assigner. Manipulation, fear, and intimidation force the other students to carry out his orders, which often prove destructive to those involved. By even allowing The Vigils to exist, the brothers allow corruption to flourish at Trinity. Brother Leon's willingness to share power with The Vigils, as when he asks for help with the chocolate sale, further erodes moral authority. Cormier also makes it clear that by acquiescing to Archie and Leon, the students at Trinity in essence cooperate with forces of evil, as in Chapter 6 when Leon torments Gregory Bailey while the other students remain silent.
Jerry functions as a traditional hero. He is a typical high school student with ordinary skills and talents who must overcome tremendous pressure with little to rely on except his own will. By refusing to help with the chocolate sale, Jerry stands in opposition to the corrupt, established order. That he is ultimately defeated is perhaps less important than the idea that he stood firm in his convictions, although some critics have argued that the book ends on a despairing note, as evil triumphs over good.
God and Religion
There are several biblical references in the opening two chapters. Jerry's habit of thinking one thing but saying another is compared to Peter, who denied Christ before the Crucifixion: "he had been Peter a thousand times and a thousand cocks had crowed in his lifetime." In Chapter 2 it is quickly established that the story takes place at a Catholic school, where the boys regularly participate in confession and receive communion. Obie, looking out at the football field, compares the shadows formed by the goalposts to empty crucifixes. Obie thinks to himself, "That's enough symbolism for one day," and Cormier does not press the religious theme in the rest of the novel.
Point of View
The shifting narrative point of view is one of the most distinctive features of The Chocolate War. Its chapters are mostly short, and it is unusual for one character's point of view to be pursued in the following chapter. Despite this, there is no doubt as to the "hero" or main character of the novel. The opening chapter encourages the reader to identify with Jerry Renault, the young quarterback who bravely gets to his feet after a number of heavy tackles and who dreams of making the football team. Those early incidents on the football field, and Jerry's handling of them, suggest that we are to encounter a conventional hero who, through determination and courage, will overcome obstacles and achieve his objectives.
The novel has a very large cast—most of Jerry's class group is mentioned by name. The other boys from whose point of view we regularly see parts of the action are Archie Costello, Obie, Emile Janza, and Roland Goubert. However, there are still more points of view used for single and precise purposes. Two examples of these are David Caroni, who in Chapter 16 is used by Cormier as the agent for revealing Brother Leon's inherent corruption, and Brian Cochran, who in Chapter 22 and elsewhere, as treasurer for the sale, discovers and mulls over the accounting irregularities. Occasionally the narrative point of view further fragments so that one chapter will present a composite viewpoint. Cormier uses this technique to convey the ongoing chocolate sale, as in Chapter 14. The result is a book with a much more complex narrative structure than the majority of adult novels, let alone young adult novels. The deployment of multiple points of view has since become Cormier's trademark as a novelist. In The Chocolate War his use of this technique is so skillful and finely judged that the reader never becomes confused and, more importantly, never loses the underlying identification with Jerry.
The reader's sympathy with Jerry, in a book told from multiple points of view, is sustained by key interludes which occur at regular intervals throughout the novel. These interludes are different in kind from the circumstances in which other characters are put Jerry is the only character who is observed having a life outside of school and the chocolate sale. A number of minor characters are depicted in scenes removed from school life, but they are either having telephone conversations about the sale or are out on their bikes trying to find buyers for the chocolates. Jerry has a personal life (he is grieving for his dead mother, he looks on the petty life of his pharmacist father with disdain, he fancies a girl at the bus stop, he looks at adult magazines) and, most importantly, he is the one character with conventionally noble aspirations. He aspires to be on the football team, and he is inspired by the poster hanging in his locker to stand alone and make an individual protest against the prevailing order. The structure of the novel is such that we increasingly see the story as a battle between the individual versus authority. The undercurrent of physical bullying in the school, represented by Emile Janza, encourages our expectation that the larger battle will end in a key confrontation.
Robert Cormier is on record as saying that he loves detective stories because "they always deliver a beginning, middle and end, a satisfying climax or epiphany." The ending of The Chocolate War is certainly climactic. But it is also unconventional. Our expectations of a classic confrontation, in which the hero will perhaps get bloodied but will emerge victorious, are mocked by the surreally absurd terms on which Jerry and Emile are made to fight one another in the closing scene. They have to take turns throwing punches, as directed by the crowd. Animal instincts are kept at bay by these balletic rules for only so long, and once they are let loose Jerry is brutally destroyed. The sudden eclipse of the hero and the collapse of his motivating belief in doing his own thing and daring to disturb the universe, combined with the equivocal exit of Jerry from the book (the reader is left guessing as to the seriousness of his injuries), make for a downbeat conclusion. The novel's denouement has been criticized by some commentators on children's literature for purveying the message that evil prevails. Taken at face value, the climax to The Chocolate War, and indeed the endings of many of Cormier's other novels, can be used to support this criticism.
Symbols and Imagery
Cormier's use of imagery in this novel emphasizes the fact that these events take place at a Catholic school, and religious symbolism underwrites much of the action in the novel. We do see Jerry's defeat as a kind of crucifixion, but there is certainly no simplistic allegory or correlation intended. Rather, the gently insinuated biblical references encourage us to view the events of the novel in global or even metaphysical terms.
Most of the action in The Chocolate War takes place at Trinity, a Catholic boys' school. Other than knowing that it has an athletic and football field, the reader is given very little visual description of the school. Cormier concentrates on character rather than place. But it is important for a general understanding of Cormier's work to know that he has chosen to set nearly all of his young adult fiction in and around the small town of Monument, a fictional equivalent of his own Massachusetts hometown. Trinity is not in Monument, although one of the pupils has recently transferred from Monument High. But the surrounding district is conceived as typical of suburban America, and the closed, claustrophobic environment of the school is a microcosm for the world at large.