At an all-boys Catholic high school, a series of escalating conflicts surrounding the annual fundraising sale of chocolate bars as well as the unchecked power of a secret society known as the Vigils lead one student, Jerry Renault, to ask himself TS Eliot’s ageless question, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” By taking a stand against the sale, Jerry pits himself against the scheming leader of the Vigils, Archie Costello, and vicious Brother Leon, temporary headmaster of Trinity School. This standoff between the individual and the group exposes cracks not only in the school’s influence but also in the integrity and compassion of both its students and faculty.
Thoughts– Although its plot centers on a seemingly insignificant aspect of high school life, the annual school fundraiser, Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War tackles immense issues such as conformity, self-preservation, and defiance in the face of tyranny. He takes the everyday concerns of the average teenager—school, parents, jobs, sex—and uses those concerns to show the sometimes brutal truth at the heart of that experience.
For me, the two most masterful aspects of this novel are its tight, tense plotting and its shifting third-person omniscient point of view. As Jerry continues to defy the Vigils and Brother Leon, the stakes grow greater and greater. By the time I reached the final scene at the outdoor boxing ring, I could barely wait to find out what was going to happen and how everything was going to be resolved (or not, as it turned out). I think the tension Cormier creates through his careful plotting and the way the screw keeps turning tighter and tighter on the reader turn this fairly ordinary scenario into a thriller. I also believe it is one of the reasons this novel is timeless and still appeals to readers almost 40 years after its publication—quite simply, it is a page turner.
I also really admire the skillful way Cormier manages the shifting perspectives of the story. The most conventional (and probably the easiest) method of presenting this novel would have been to choose one character and have the reader see everything through the lens of that character, either through the use of first person or third person limited omniscient narration. Instead, Cormier uses a continuously shifting point of view that lets us see into the minds of not only the protagonist Jerry but also the other boys at Trinity—Archie, the Goober, Obie, Caroni, and Emile Janza. While we may not understand someone like Archie, telling the story from his perspective, even if only in snippets, allows us access to his thought process and the rationale behind his actions. I find it interesting to note that we are never given even a glimpse into the thoughts of the adults involved— Jerry’s father, Brother Jacques, Brother Leon, etc. For me, this lack of adult perspective does two things. First, it focuses the novel tightly on the teenage experience and how things that seem small to adults (like a chocolate sale) can take on epic proportions in the lives of teens. Second, it draws in teen readers by showing making the students in the story the most important players—sure, the teachers have their influence (Brother Leon coercing the Vigils to aid him, Brother Jacques ostensibly saving Jerry’s life by ending the fight), but the value here lies in these boys, their actions, and their emotions.
The Chocolate War, in my opinion, would be a wonderful tool for classroom instruction. Cormier’s skillful plotting, the ways in which both characterization and plot add to the overarching themes, the economy of language, and the sheer page-turning appeal would all work beautifully in the high school classroom, particularly with freshmen and sophomores. You could spend a whole class alone discussing Cormier’s use of the word “beautiful” and what that usage says about different characters (especially Archie). Also, the open-ended and bleak, bleak, bleak ending could fuel classroom discussion for DAYS. Admittedly, controversial issues abound—the ending, the frank discussions of masturbation (which I think would be a very difficult and delicate thing to broach in a classroom setting), the derogatory language directed towards homosexuals, the objectification of women—but all these topics are true and honest to the teen experience, and thus, valuable.