The Chocolate War
by Robert Cormier
The chocolate addict, Archie Costello, might strike some readers as too villainous to be a believable character. He completely focused on committing evil deeds. If he had a moustache, we bet he'd be twirling it constantly. He's an equal opportunity bully – he doesn't discriminate. Students, teachers, nobody is safe. What's more, he doesn't feel guilty at all about any of the nasty things he does, even though he clearly understands he's hurting people. What's up with this guy?
Archie's Understanding of the World
Archie has one of the most cynical worldviews we've ever seen. He thinks, "The world [is made up of two kinds of people – those who [are] victims and those who [are] victimized" (15.41). Pretty frightening. And sad. It suggests that he's motivated by self-defense. He believes that if he victimizes everybody in sight, nobody can victimize him.
How did he get to be this way? We're not really sure. The book doesn't give us any details about his home life. All we know is that his dad operates an insurance company.
Perhaps, we are meant to look at Archie as a product of his school environment. We don't know what he was like when he came to Trinity as a freshman, but we do know that The Vigils were already in existence. Likely, he was bullied and required to perform an assignment too. Archie might have been trained to think about the world in terms of victims vs. victimizers, and could have seen The Vigils as a way to save himself from the brutality of teachers and other students. This is why he's frantically trying to keep his position in The Vigils secure. But what do you think? Could he have just been born this way?
Archie seems like a rather wimpy brand of bully in some ways. He's tall and looks fit, but he doesn't seem to exercise. We're told that he isn't into sports because "he hate[s] the secretions of the human body, pee or perspiration" (21.34). Oh yeah, and he thinks all athletes are pond scum. He's terrified by the prospect of having to fight either Jerry or Emile at the raffle. What's more, we never see him so much as touch another kid. What kind of bully is this? What gives him his power?
Early in the book, we're told, "Archie disliked violence – most of his assignments were exercises in the psychological rather than the physical" (2.28). Well, Archie might dislike physical violence, but psychological violence is totally his thing. He bullies people by messing with their heads. Occasionally, he does resort to physical violence, but he uses people like Emile Janza to do the dirty work for him. After all, beating someone up does involve coming into contact with those darn "secretions of the human body."
Archie successful because a) he spends all his time on it; b) because he's backed by The Vigils, who aren't afraid to beat a guy up; and c) because he's backed by the administration of Trinity high school. We see it clearly in the way Brother Leon uses Archie to make sure the chocolates get sold, then backs Archie up when he's on the verge of being in trouble with Brother Jacques after Jerry is beaten up at the raffle.
Archie and the Black Box
In the garish stadium light, the box was revealed as worn and threadbare, a small wooden container that might have been a disregarded jewelry box. (36.35)
The black box is the only control on Archie. For some reason, he respects its authority, and he seems actually prepared to step into any assignment if he draws a black marble instead of a white one. Although he delights in thinking up assignments, having to do it all the time is real pressure on him. The black box is an added pressure, because he thinks drawing a black marble will be the end of his position of power. The box is about the only thing Archie seems afraid of. Why?
Well, for one thing, the box is pretty Gothic. It looks like a coffin. This visual probably reinforces the idea that the box represents the symbolic death of his career as a Vigil. If he draws a black marble, he might lose all the power that allows him to be a victimizer instead of a victim.
See, the other Vigils and their victims believe in the box. As a group, they could overpower Archie, even if he didn't believe in it. Actually, they could overpower him anyway, but, like Archie, don't feel they can unless he draws black. The fact that he has never drawn black yet adds to his dread. It's as if his (figurative) death is always waiting in the wings, threatening to undo him at any moment.Timeline