So you read The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. You liked it. Now, your teacher wants a Chocolate War analysis. You need ideas. That’s where I come in. I understand that it’s natural for students to consider their teachers as enemies, but this teacher is your friend. Soon, everyone will think you’re smart. Maybe one of the Vigils at your school will “let” you do his homework afterward.
Chocolate War Summary
Jerry Renault is an ordinary freshman at Trinity High School. He’s shy around girls. He’s unsure about life. He wants to play football. Archie Costello is not your ordinary senior. He’s the leader of a gang known as the Vigils, a gang that bullies students like Jerry Renault. Brother Leon is hopefully certainly not your ordinary high school teacher. He not only condones the behavior of the Vigils, he enlists them to make sure this year’s chocolate sale is a success. But there’s one problem. Jerry refuses to sell the chocolates.
Jerry’s act of defiance spreads and the chocolate sale looks doomed. That’s when Brother Leon and Archie save the sale and destroy Jerry.
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).
Symbolism in The Chocolate War
A book about a kid not wanting to sell chocolates wouldn’t sell. A book about a kid daring to disturb the universe and acting as an individual would. That’s why understanding symbolism in The Chocolate War is critical to the book’s success. That’s why this Chocolate War analysis is so helpful.
Room Nineteen: The destruction of Room Nineteen provides a microcosm of how the Vigils work. They set a plan in motion. They force someone else to take the risk. They intervene only when necessary. The students of Trinity High do the actual destruction.
The Chocolates: Brother Leon informs Archie that the chocolates were left over from Mother’s Day. All they had to do was remove the purple ribbon that said ‘mother.’ Jerry’s mother also died last Spring. Coincidence? No. Both the chocolates and Jerry become a means of manipulating Trinity students and both are used to maintain the power of the teachers and the Vigils.
The Goal Posts: “The shadows of the goal posts sprawled on the field like grotesque crosses” (13), a symbol of Trinity’s fall. It’s no coincidence that Jerry’s final destruction takes place in the shadows of the very goal posts described.
Jerry’s Poster: The poster is a symbol of individuality and freedom. At first Jerry’s poster is altered. Then it disappears.
The Black Box: The black box symbolizes checks on power. The fact that Archie is able to overcome the law of averages in never picking the black marble demonstrates the fallibility of law being able to overcome human wickedness.
Notebook: There are two notebooks. There’s Obie’s notebook that is more complete than the school’s files. Much like an intrusive government maintains information on its citizens to use against them if necessary, Obie’s notebook is used to find assignment victims. Brian Cochrane’s notebook also contains information, information on a bogus chocolate sale.
Locks: There is no privacy at Trinity High, much like there is no privacy in an authoritarian government. There are no locks on the lockers and there are no locks on the bathroom stalls. There is, therefore, no rights to own property (a key component of the Bill of Rights is the protection of personal property) and no rights to even one’s body as Emile Janza discovers when Archie snaps the photo.
The novel takes on a richer meaning when examined through symbols.
Setting, Mood and Conflict in the Chocolate War
Let’s wrap up this analysis by tying the ribbon around that box of analytical chocolates.
External Conflict: The primary conflict in The Chocolate War is the individual vs. Society–most notably, Jerry vs. Trinity High School’s power structure.
Internal Conflict: Much of the conflict that occurs in the novel occurs within characters: Jerry is unsure of himself and strives to be courageous; Carter and Obie are torn between their admiration of Archie and love of the Vigils and their hatred of Archie; Brian Cochrane is torn between wanting to please Brother Leon with high chocolate sales and his utter disgust for the entire operation; Goober is torn between fear of punishment and sticking up for what’s right; even Emile Janza acts like an animal but inwardly wants to be treated as a human.
Setting and Mood: The setting of the novel establishes an ominous mood. There is no point in the novel where the reader feels happy or optimistic of how Jerry’s going to end up. The dilapidated football field in chapter 1, the Vigils’ dark meeting closet, the rundown classrooms, the lockless bathrooms, the hippie infested bus stops, the isolated pathway, and the stink infested gymnasium all create a sense of foreboding.
Hopefully, this analysis of The Chocolate War has you feeling better than Jerry does at the end of the novel.
Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War. Alfred A. Knopf Publishers. New York: 1974.
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