The Chocolate War
By Robert Cormier
The Chocolate War is the story about an all boys’ school that lacks discipline when students act in malicious ways towards each other. The school is run by a student formed gang called the Vigils. This gang not only influences other students to do certain assignments that involve pranks and other wrongdoings to the school, but they also influence teachers in scams and briberies. The novel starts out when a normal, freshman named, Jerry, tries out for the football team. After his experience at tryouts he is immediately selected by the Vigils to receive his first assignment. The novel is centered on this fundraising effort by the school that involves the sale of chocolates. Brother Leon, who is a corrupt teacher notorious for his tolerance towards the Vigils, is asked to lead the sale and make sure that all of the chocolate gets sold. Brother Leon, then, turns to Archie, who is an assistant leader of the Vigils, to make sure that the sale “runs smoothly”. Archie plans for Jerry to refuse to sell chocolates as part of his assignment until the tenth day he would give in. Jerry takes matters into his own hands when he starts to reflect upon personal matters that involve his mother’s death and his relationship with his father. From this point on, Jerry continues to refuse to sell chocolates for the school. When chocolate sales start to take a dive, the Vigils take matters into their own hands. Archie and Emile Janza, who is another bully at school not part of the Vigils, start to use physical violence and excessive prank phone calling to try and persuade Jerry to sell chocolates in order to drive the sales back up. Jerry continues to refuse to sell the chocolates, and both Emile Janza and Archie scheme a plan to raffle off Jerry’s chocolates through a fight that is performed in front of the entire student body consisting of Emile Janza and Jerry as contenders. On the raffle tickets, themselves, it determines the attacks that each fighter would take. The fight was pretty even until Emile Janza started ignoring the commands from the raffle tickets and started unleashing on Jerry eventually striking him in the temple. Jerry is then rushed to the hospital with a fractured jaw and internal bleeding. The novel ends as Archie becomes even stronger by portraying the hero in destroying Jerry’s reputation and orchestrating the entire plan on behalf of the Vigils. While, on the other hand, Jerry feels weak and feels that the school has betrayed him in that they allowed the Vigils to pursue their immoral acts.
Robert Cormier, definitely, chose his words careful when writing The Chocolate War because although the novel read smoothly and was fairly short, there is distinct detail within every chapter that one must pay attention to. For example, Cormier instinctively uses symbols such as the poster that says “ Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?” as a literary tool to help the reader experience what the character is feeling at that point in the novel. At that particular point in the novel, Jerry was debating whether or not he should go against the Vigils and follow his own path. It is interesting that in this novel the true hero is the one that is, actually, the outsider in the school. Jerry is not the most popular guy in school and is, in fact, he is very lonely. He dreams about having a girlfriend and even buys a pornographic magazine only to throw it away and question whether someone will ever love him back. Jerry seems to find his niche at school in the only way that he knows how to, which is to reject the status quo and refuse sell chocolates. Although Jerry becomes physically abused because of his actions, he becomes the hero of the novel because he is the only one that will standup against the wrongs caused by the Vigils. Archie becomes the classic villain of the novel because although he seems powerful for Jerry’s destruction, he is still following the footsteps of everybody else in the Vigil gang. In other words he is a clone of his surroundings in that he is just other gang member. The novel is a constant power struggle between the powers of good and evil. In this novel it seemed that evil conquered all by the end, but in actuality, Jerry’s courage is the model and the persistence in his motives is what causes the powers of good to ultimately win over evil. In summary, I believe that Robert Cormier uses his literary devices to his advantage by establishing symbolism through certain background pieces within the text that helps the reader get a glimpse into what the character is feeling. In addition, I think that overall, driving theme of the novel is that goodness prevails even when evil seems to take over because it is the actions and the model that one sets that is determined as great in the end.
Why is this book “dangerous?”:
The Chocolate War was banned due heavy use of profanity, sexual references, and references to bribery, distortion, and physical violence within the novel. There are many scenes in the book where the Vigils and other characters use extensive profanity. According to one, dissatisfied, parent’s estimation, there are 171 cuss words within the novel (www.freedomforum.org). There are two distinct sexual references within the book that involves the purchase of a pornographic magazine and an illusion to a masturbation scene when Archie blackmails Emile with a photo of him masturbating while sitting on a toilet. Throughout the book the Vigils use mafia type techniques to get whatever they want. For example, Carter, the leader of the Vigils, beat up a kid that would not comply with the Vigils. Unhappy parents believe that their kids will start to model this behavior. According to Robert Cormier, he says, “ The language and some of the controversial scenes are what gives the novel its credibility amongst young readers.” (www.freedomforum.org). Robert Cormier suggest that the public is only looking at the exterior language of the text and not what the overall message of the story has to offer. Considering that the book is placed on most eighth grade reading lists, there is no question that there are going to be some unhappy parents who believe that the book is just feeding their kids bad ideas. The Chocolate War remains at number 5 on the top 50 most frequently banned books according to Hebert Foerstel’s Banned in the USA (http://archives.cnn.com). The book is also part of the American Library Association 100 most frequently challenged books (www.ala.org). Robert Cormier devoted his life to keep his book off the challenged book list, but the book continued to receive criticism. Although the books does contain some explicit content on the surface, by reading the book for oneself one can see the author’s perspective and can grasp the overall theme and message that novel is trying to deliver.