The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

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Themes

(Novels for Students)

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
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...

(The entire section is 2,328 words.)