Themes in the Chocolate War
A novel's theme is the underlying message or meaning of a literary work. It differs from a plot summary insomuch that a plot summary says what happens and the novel's theme interprets what happens. It would be impossible, therefore, to do a Chocolate War analysis without looking at themes in The Chocolate War.
Theme #1: The Fall of Man and Man's Inherent Evil
It's not an accident that The Chocolate War takes place at a Catholic High School and that religious symbolism is prevalent. In chapter 1, Jerry's cowardice is compared to Peter denying Christ as recorded in the New Testament, a statement on the inability of the human will to do what is right under loads of stress. In chapter 2, Archie gives his interpretation of Catholic Communion, which is the wafer means nothing to him. Even the school's leader, supposed holy men, are corrupted by greed and power, leading one student David Caroni, to ponder, "Were teachers as corrupt as the villains you saw in movies and television?" (107).
Even the setting takes on the characteristics of a fallen world: "The field needed seeding. The bleachers also needed attention--they sagged, peeling paint like leprosy on the benches. The shadows of the goal posts sprawled on the field like grotesque crosses." (13).
Theme #2: The Futility of "Disturbing the Universe"
Jerry has a poster in his locker, an allusion to T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Proofrock." In the poster, a man stands alone on a beach. In the poster it reads "Do you dare disturb the Universe?" Jerry does and as a result "Cities fell. Earth opened. Planets tilted. Stars plummeted." (112). Although Jerry doesn't initially understand the poster's meaning, he learns exactly what happens to those who disturb the Universe and those who defy the school's order.
It is with great disappointment that Jerry realizes the futility of his actions as he wishes to tell Goober, "Don't disturb the universe, no matter what the posters say." (248).
Theme #3: The Use of Fear and Psychological Manipulation to Gain Power
Brother Leon shows his class how the Nazis were able to seize and maintain power in Germany before and during World War II. He calls Gregory Bailey to the front of the class and accuses him of being a cheater. He manipulates the class into siding with him before telling them it was all a joke and that Bailey should be commended and the students condemned for allowing it to happen. This is the same method of fear, intimidation, and psychological manipulation the Vigils use to keep the student body in check.
The Vigils only resort to violence once in the novel to enforce their rules. Everything else is done via psychological intimidation--the secretive summons, the secret meeting room, the black box. Even Emile Janza, considered an animal, understands the power of fear: "He found that people had a fear of being embarrassed or humiliated, of being singled out for special attention." (48).