The ending isn't pretty. Some readers even call it pessimistic and depressing. None of the bad guys see the error of their ways, and seem primed to continue their reign of pain. Jerry is beaten by Emile once again, this time under the bright lights of the platform on the athletic field, to the tune of his classmates blood-thirstily chanting, "kill him, kill him." Then Brother Eugene turns the lights on and Jerry is saved…or is he?
We know from the sequel, Beyond the Chocolate War (1985), that Jerry does indeed survive. But, author Robert Cormier definitely wants us to think that Jerry might have died. How can we be so sure about what an author wants? Our evidence is in the first line of the book, and the last lines we see from Jerry's perspective, just before he's whisked away to the hospital.
First Line: "They murdered him" (1.1). What a way to start a novel! It seems to scream, "Tragedy! The hero will die!" As we read on, the line seems like hyperbole (which is a fancy word for exaggeration). The line just refers to the rough treatment Jerry's getting during the football tryout process. This would be standard football language, right? Even football commentators use words like "murder," "slaughter," and "massacre, though not to refer to actual death.
Last Lines: These lines are strictly in Jerry's head. He wants to say these things to Goober, but he can't talk:
Take it easy Goober, it doesn't even hurt anymore. See? I'm floating above the pain. Just remember what I told you. It's important. Otherwise they murder you. (38.19)
Sure sounds like Jerry's dying, or like he thinks he's dying. People who have near death experiences describe this sense of "floating" above their bodies. We could still say Jerry is just exaggerating, still using the language of football, to dramatize his severe physical and emotion pain. This aspect of the ending wants us to see how serious, how potentially fatal the goings on at Trinity really are. It also wants us to be uncertain of the final outcome, to leave it to our imagination.
Here's another way to look at it. Jerry could also be referring to a kind of spiritual murder, or spiritual death. Here's what Jerry wants the Goober to remember (even though he isn't able to actually tell Goober this):
He had to tell Goober to play ball […,] to sell whatever they wanted you to sell, to do whatever they wanted you to do. […] They don't want you to do your thing, not unless [it's] their thing, too. It's a laugh […] a fake. Don't disturb the universe […] no matter what the posters say. (38.17)
The Vigils, Leon, the whole school has crushed Jerry's dreams. At least at this moment, the idea of being an independent person, a person with the freedom to make his own decisions, is dead to Jerry. He thinks it's not just dangerous, but impossible. Now, this isn't just because he got his tuchas (as they say in Yiddish) beat, nor simply because all his fellow students were calling for his death.
This is all part of it, but likely Jerry is so hopeless because he realizes that he has let himself down. He should have said "No!" to the raffle. But, he let Archie appeal to his desire for revenge, instead of continuing to refuse to play The Vigils' games.
He lets others push him into acting against his own interest. Like all tragic heroes, Jerry's downfall is, in part, of his own making. Realizing this is devastating, because Jerry feels he can't trust himself anymore, and he sure can't trust his fellows. So, what's the point? Better just to go along and keep your body intact.
This might not be as pessimistic as it seems. For one thing, we think Jerry is capable of revising those views. We're getting his thoughts at one of the worst moments in his life, in a year filled with worst moments. Likely, he'll realize that all is not lost for him. He just needs to find new strategies for maintaining his independence. Readers can use his tragedy as an opportunity to explore what Jerry could have done differently.
On the other hand, the novel does show how hard it is to break up an established, authorized system of cruelty, violence, and corruption like the one we see at Trinity. It shows the horrible effects that such a system has on everybody involved, and how impossible it is for one person to try to make a difference. Many critics and educators see the novel as an argument for group action. We can imagine how differently this might have turned out if students had organized, or if outside aid, in the form of parents, community members, even the news media had been called in to help.