Front cover of Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War
It’s 1:53 a.m. and I currently can’t sleep because of this book. I was going to wait and write about it in the morning, but I really need to engage in the cathartic process of writing in order to make sense of all of the thoughts that are fireworking in my head. I was expecting a tale that discusses the triumph of good over evil–a tale of empowerment for individualistic resistance over systematic injustice. I received the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, I think The Chocolate War has earned a place in my top-ten list of favorite YA novels, but I will warn you that the book is ultimately very bleak and depressing. If your positive judgment of a book depends on a happy ending, then I suggest that you skip this novel.
The Chocolate War is a book that is told from a subjective third person point-of-view, but this perspective carousels through the thoughts and emotions of particular students at Trinity School: a private, religiously-affiliated high school in the New England area. Although the story centers on the thoughts of various students in the school, it can be said that Jerry Renault is the novel’s protagonist, and he is also the source of the novel’s main tension. Although the Trinity School is technically run by the Brethren that teach and administer the educational system, the thoughts and actions of students are also dictated by a secret school society known as The Vigils, who use scare tactics and intimidation in order to secure their influence.
Students are often given “assignments” by The Vigils, which can be approached as a type of hazing that the secret society uses to assure that it is perceived as a force to be reckoned with. Assignments can include mundane things such as forcing students to get up from their seats every time a teacher mentions the word “environment,” to more serious matters, such as destabilizing all of the desks and chairs in a classroom. During the school’s annual chocolate fundraiser, Jerry Renault is given the assignment to deny selling chocolates for ten days–a problem, seeing as every student besides Renault decides to sell chocolate. The main issue in the novel arises when Jerry continues to resist selling chocolates after the ten day period in an act of defiance towards The Vigils and the school administration. The bulk of the novel focuses on the ostracism that Jerry faces when trying to defy The Vigils, and the measures that they take to assure their power and dominance in Trinity School. By taking a stand, Jerry tries to follow and understand the words of T.S. Eliot by asking himself whether he dares to “disturb the universe,” (see Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock“) a quote found on a poster that Jerry has in his locker.
The Chocolate War is a very gendered novel, which is partly unsurprising given the fact that Trinity School focuses on single-sex male education. Various elements within the novel emphasize maleness and the traits that are usually (and stereotypically) associated with it, such as power, dominance, and violence. Sports such as boxing and football are the most popular and revered activities that take place within the school; their practice often demonstrates how physical prowess often trumps intelligence and creativity in this environment. All teachers within the school are religiously affiliated men, and they are addressed as Brother by students. As a matter of fact, there is little to no feminine or maternal presence in the novel. When girls are mentioned by students, they are usually presented as objects of sexual attraction. Even Jerry is known for his lack of a maternal figure, since early in the novel it is established that his mother passed away during the spring before his freshman year (the time period in which the novel takes place). This lack of a feminine presence is in no way a mishap, and it actually serves as a motif to foreground the power struggles and dynamics that are in the heart of The Chocolate War.
The characters’ efforts to uphold a visage of traditional masculinity is overwhelming. Whenever certain characters, such as Archie (the novel’s twisted and manipulative villain), encounter another figure that is trumping them in terms of authority, they automatically regress into an irrational inner struggle of Patrick Bateman-esque proportions. Take for instance, Archie’s reaction when The Vigils’ president threatens him:
Blood stung Archie’s cheeks and a pulse throbbed dangerously in his temple. No one had ever talked to him that way before, not in front of everyone like this. With an effort he made himself stay loose, kept that smile on his lips like a label on a bottle, hiding his humiliation. (187)
Many other characters in the novel are unable to contain their fits of tears and frustration when encountering the many injustices triggered by the rule of The Vigils. However, the most salient trait that is exemplified through this constructed masculine space would be violence–not only subjective violence, as in fist-fights, bullying, and physiological reactions, but also objective violence as represented through hate speech and through the manipulation and control enforced by the secret society and the school administration (please see Zizek’s Violence for more information on these types of violence). At first, Jerry’s decision to refuse selling chocolates can be considered an act of resistance towards the objective violence that is systematically imposed upon all students at Trinity High. The downward spiral for Jerry, however, occurs when this objective violence flourishes into downright brutal and subjective violence. The moment of this transition is seen quite literally in the novel, when a bully by the name of Janza is blackmailed into harassing Jerry to the point that he reciprocates violence with more violence (rather than resistance). As can be seen in the following exchange between Jerry and Janza:
“Hiding what? Hiding from who?” [Jerry]
“From everybody. From yourself, even. Hiding that deep dark secret.”
“What secret?” Confused now.
“That you’re a fairy. A queer. Living in the closet, hiding away.”
Vomit threatened Jerry’s throat, a nauseous geyser he could barely hold down.
“Hey, you’re blushing,” Janza said. “The fairy’s blushing . . .”
“Listen . . .” Jerry began but not knowing, really, how to begin or where. The worst thing in the world–to be called queer. (211-212)
After this exchange, Jerry retorts by calling Janza a “son of a bitch,” which leads Janza to summon a group of kids that brutally bash Jerry. Note here that what fuels Jerry’s wrath is the fact that he is called queer. Up to that point, he had done a decent job of resisting the taunts and threats of his peers due to his refusal to sell chocolates. What I find interesting in this chapter is that in essence, Jerry can be approached as a queer (or non-normative) character due to the fact that he denies engaging in the activity that will make him normal or orthodox–if he didn’t want to set himself apart, all he had to do was sell chocolates. His resistance, however, can be approached as queer resistance because he wanted to break away from the norm: “Mainly, he didn’t want to fight for the same reason he wasn’t selling the chocolates–he wanted to make his own decisions, do his own thing, like they said” (211).
Despite his penchant for non-normativity, being called a queer was too offensive and disruptive given the masculine attitudes that permeate his surroundings. Thus, Jerry’s hatred towards Janza for calling him queer even pushes him to engage in the boxing match at the end, a boxing match that leads to his demise. The final chapters of the novel end with Jerry proclaiming his regret towards being non-normative, he proceeds to think about how one must ultimately comply with the will of “superior powers” and authority figures if one desires to have a livable life. He thinks about the new “knowledge” he has obtained as he lies bloodied and broken in the arms of his friend, Goober:
He had to tell Goober to play ball, to play football, to run, to make the team, to sell the chocolates, to sell whatever they wanted you to sell, to do whatever they wanted you to do. He tried to voice the words but there was something wrong with his mouth, his teeth, his face. But he went ahead anyway, telling Goober what he needed to know. They tell you to do your thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too. It’s a laugh, Goober, a fake. Don’t disturb the universe, Goober, no matter what the posters say. (p. 259)
The ending may be bleak and downright depressing, but I don’t necessarily think that the novel is designed to perpetuate a dislike of rebellion, nor do I think that it presents all resistance movements as futile. I think that Jerry’s loss of faith in himself and in his ability to disturb the universe rests not on his failure, but on the fact that he was left alone in his pursuit of non-normativity. What I found deeply disturbing is that nobody takes a stand for Jerry during the boxing match that leads to his demise, not even his close friend, Goober, who just sits and watches Jerry be beaten to a pulp with the rest of the students from Trinity High. Without a doubt, Jerry is presented as a scapegoat figure, meant to absorb all of the negativity, the tensions, and the evils of his community that are perpetuated through masculinity and through corrupt power.
The novel is ambiguous in terms of its stance on disturbing the universe. On one hand, we can accept Jerry’s defeat as a cautionary tale. On the other hand, we can accept it as a challenge to ourselves–a challenge that pushes us to question the extent to which we can or should disturb the universe ourselves.
Do yourself a favor, and read the book! And as always, please feel free to add to this conversation or to challenge anything discussed in this post!
You can purchase a copy of Cormier’s novel here.
Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War. New York: Dell Laurel-Leaf, 1974. Print.