Monday, September 14, 2009

YA classic: The Chocolate War

Bibliographic Data
Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War. New York: Pantheon Books: 1974. ISBN 0394828054.

Plot Summary
Freshman Jerry Renault bucks the system by refusing to participate in his school's annual 'voluntary' chocolate fundraiser. Archie Costello, leader of a secret organization known as the Vigils, declares psychological war on Jerry, with the unspoken approval of the assistant headmaster.

Critical Analysis
Jerry Renault has a poster in his locker that reads, "Do I dare disturb the universe?" (123) His life has been recently turned upside down by the death of his mother, and now he wonders if has what it takes to change the universe. His universe, up to this point, hasn’t been very satisfactory. After his mom’s death, his dad retreated into himself. The only emotional moment they’ve shared in the last few months was at Mrs. Renault’s funeral (57-58). Now Jerry sees a chance to change the status quo, his own little universe, at Trinity Prep School by refusing to participate in the traditional chocolate fundraiser sale. Unfortunately, he comes up against an assistant headmaster, Brother Leon, who has more at stake during this chocolate sale than he’s caring to admit. Archie Costello, the unofficial leader of the secretive group known as the Vigils, is coerced by Brother Leon into ensuring that all the chocolate gets sold. Resenting Brother Leon’s assumption that the Vigils will help him, Archie decides to strike back at Brother Leon. He assigns the task to Jerry of refusing to sell chocolates for ten days (81, 110). But when the ten days are over, Jerry continues to refuse to sell the chocolates. When he announces this decision on day 11 of the chocolate sale, the class is stunned. “Cities fell. Earth opened. Planets tilted. Stars plummeted. And the awful silence (112).

At first, the other boys at school think it’s a great idea. One after the other, they discuss the possibility of refusing to sell the chocolates, just like Jerry. But Archie’s also got a lot riding on this chocolate sale. He takes Jerry’s refusal to sell chocolate as a rejection of himself, the school, and the Vigils. Brother Leon is also on Archie’s back, wanting to know why Jerry won’t sell the chocolates that Brother Leon so desperately needs to get rid of. Archie, the master con artist, decides to exert peer pressure against Jerry by making chocolate selling the cool thing to do. But Jerry won’t be allowed to participate. He is beaten up, his locker is vandalized, and he is made to feel invisible. He enjoys the few hours of anonymity the invisibility offers him, but it’s over way too soon. Somebody tries to push him down the stairs at school. Boys start harassing him at home also, making threatening calls and standing outside at night calling his name. All this psychological harassment takes its toll on Jerry. He is persuaded by Archie to try and get his revenge against the school by fighting the school bully, Emile. But in the end, Archie is ultimately victorious. Mob mentality takes over the student body, and Jerry ends up being to the hospital in an ambulance after realizing that he has been reduced to no more than an animal performing for Archie and the other Vigils. And like the real world, sometimes, good doesn’t triumph over evil. Brother Leon, who was secretly watching the fight between Jerry and Emile, refuses to discipline Archie or even acknowledge that there is a problem at the school. A hard lesson to learn at the age of 15, one that Cormier’s readers are left wondering who besides Jerry learned anything.

The characters are true to life. Incidental characters are depicted as normal high school aged boys. My favorite character sketch is of Kevin Chartier in Chapter twenty-one. Kevin has developed the ability “to translate whatever [his mother] was saying into gibberish. She could talk her head off now and the words reached his ears without meaning. A wild trick” (131). The other boys talk about sports, girls, masturbate in their rooms at night, ignore their parents, and just want to fit in with the cool crowd. Even Emile, the ultimate bully, dreams of being accepted by Archie (49),

Brother Leon is the archetypical villain. He is the one responsible for loading the students down with double the amount of chocolate from previous years. He doubles the amount of chocolate for personal glory, i.e. to show he is worthy of being named headmaster after the current Headmaster is taken ill. He uses cunning psychological force to ensure that the sale goes as he wants it to, and when Jerry is punished at the end of the story, he smiles in sick pleasure from Jerry’s fate and awards Archie for doing his dirty work for him by letting Archie go unpunished for any wrongdoing (250). That’s part of the appeal of this self vs. society novel to young adult readers. The adults ostensibly in charge of the teenagers are either helpless, like Brother Jacques (250) or abuse their authority over the young people in their charge (Chapter 16). This book shows the YA readers that sometimes bullies win no matter if they’re your age or adults.

The theme of this tragic story is that even when we stand up for what we believe in, the world may sometimes beat us down. Jerry learns this lesson in a brutally traumatic fashion.

The setting, in a New England Catholic boys’ prep school, is important to the story. In today’s headlines, we read story after story of Catholic priests who have molested young men in their charge. While there is no allusion to sexual abuse in the story, the mental and physical abuse rings true to today’s headlines, contributing to this book’s reputation as one of the most challenged books for young adults.

Awards and Honors
Best Books for Young Adults, 1974 Young Adult Services Divison of the American Library Association.
Books for You: An Annotated Booklist for Senior High, Eighth Edition, 1982 National Council of Teachers of English; United States
Books for You: An Annotated Booklist for Senior High, Sixth Edition, 1976 National Council of Teachers of English; United States

Review Excerpts
"The characterizations of all the boys are superb... This novel [is] unique in its uncompromising portrait of human cruelty and conformity."-School Library Journal, starred review

"The novel is cleverly written with a good sense of the realistic and a good ear for dialouge, qualities which will attract any reader."-Bestsellers

"Robert Cormier has written a brilliant novel."-Children's Book Revie[sic] Service -- Review (

Discussion Questions
  1. There are no main female characters in this book, partly because Trinity is a boys' school. Yet the Trinity boys often discuss girls. Jerry wishes he could talk to the girl near the bus stop. Janza watches girls as they walk by, and Archie won't let anyone touch him except certain girls. What function(s) do you think girls play in the novel?
  2. Why do you think Archie is repulsed by human sweat? What do you think this says about Archie as a person?
  3. Archie's greatest strength is in exploiting other people's weaknesses. Why do you think Archie does this? Why do you think he needs to manipulate every situation?
  4. Discuss the significance of the title. Why is it a chocolate "war"?
  5. Why do you think Jerry decides not to sell the chocolates even after his assignment is over? Have you ever dared to "disturb the universe"? What happened?
  6. How do you feel about how Brother Leon treated Bailey? At the end of the class Brother Leon says that the students had allowed him to turn the class into Nazi Germany. Do you think this is a true statement?(Random House)
  7. Why did somebody cleanup Jerry's locker after it had been vandalized? What was this a precursor to?
  8. Why did the author have Jerry's mother die shortly before the book begins?
Sources The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier/Editorial Reviews. Accessed 9/14/2009 from
Random House, Inc. Teachers@Random. Copyright 1995-2009. Accessed 9/14/2009 from

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