The Chocolate War
by Robert Cormier
In a lot of ways, fourteen-year-old Jerry Renault is a pretty typical teen. He's trying to make quarterback and to do well in school. He's also trying his best to be a good son to his recently widowed father. However, his father's boring repetitive life is starting to freak Jerry out. He worries about ending up like his dad – always stuck in the same routine. This all changes when our boy Jerry starts his freshman year at Trinity, a boys' Catholic high school. Suddenly, the question of whether or not to conform and go with the flow becomes of life-or-death importance.
Why Does Jerry Say No to Chocolates?
We think there are four key events that motivate Jerry to say "No" to selling chocolates.
1. The Vigils assignment
This is the most obvious motivation for Jerry. The Vigils are the ones who first tell him to defy Brother Leon by refusing to sell chocolates for ten days. However, when Jerry's ten days are up, he defies both Brother Leon and The Vigils in one fell swoop by continuing to resist selling the chocolate, so his assignment can't be the only motivator.
2. The Gregory Bailey incident
The Gregory Bailey incident (which you can read about in "Characters: Gregory Bailey") is a vivid symbol of the psychological-physical violence combo Leon uses on his students. When Jerry's saying "No" to chocolates, he's really saying "No" to the entire system that The Vigils and Brother Leon have created at Trinity.
3. Jerry's encounter with the "Hippies. Flower Children. Street People. Drifters. Drop-Outs" (3.3)
Remember the hippies, flower children, etc. who hang out in the public square across from the bus stop? We're talking about them. Actually Jerry only talks to one of them (who we call "the random guy"). The random guy accuses Jerry of being a "Square boy. Middle aged at fourteen […]. Already caught in a routine" (3.17). Although Jerry doesn't think the random guy's seemingly aimless life is particularly cool, the words hit home, and he begins questioning all the routines in his life. He becomes more worried that he'll grow up and be trapped in the kind of boring life his dad lives.
4. Jerry looking in the mirror
Jerry comes to the realization that his father is stuck living a dull, almost unhappy life. He looks in the mirror and "see[s] his father's face reflected in his own features" (3.31). At this moment, Jerry realizes that "He [doesn't] want to be a mirror of his father" (9.31). Of course, it's not like he doesn't love and appreciate his father. He definitely does. Jerry just doesn't want to live a life with no excitement, no risks, no change from the routine.
These four events can be seen as a basic foundation for Jerry's defiant "No." When he's suddenly presented with the opportunity to break out of the routine at Trinity by refusing to sell chocolates, he takes it, spontaneously, before he even knows what he's doing. Can you think of any other experiences that might have motivated Jerry to refuse the chocolates?
Isolation is also a big part of what motivates Jerry. Throughout the novel, Jerry goes through phases of being isolated, and then becoming less isolated. Let's check out what happens.
Isolated: When we meet him, Jerry is isolated by his mother's recent death. He's lonely, angry, sad, cut off from happiness and life by the tragedy. We don't hear much about Jerry's relationship with his mom, but it's obvious he loved her deeply. Watching her waste away, lose her hold on reality (from pain and pain medication), and then disappear forever from his life was a heart wrenching experience. Luckily, he had some time to recover on a Canadian farm belonging to a distant relative, and is pretty fresh when he starts Trinity.
Less isolated: While her death still isolates him (it's only been a few months), Jerry seems well balanced and clear-headed at the beginning of the school year. He also seems to realize that he's lonely. Playing football, trying to find a girlfriend, being friends with The Goober – these are some of the things he does to try to connect with people, to ward off isolation, to be involved the world.
Isolated: The general scene at Trinity increases Jerry's feelings of isolation. Between the manipulative bullying of the teachers and The Vigils, all the students at Trinity are isolated. Just think of being in the classroom with Brother Leon, or in the storage room with the Vigils. You are trapped with cruel people, and you can't get out. You feel like nobody can help you. You feel like a victim.
Less Isolated: Jerry's "No" is a move toward decreasing this isolation, for himself and his classmates. He's poking a little hole in a massive wall of the isolation that separates most everybody at Trinity. At first, it works. Kids are coming up to him and congratulating him. People are talking. Everyone's feeling a little less intimidated.
Isolated: Things get worse again when Leon and The Vigils feel directly threatened by Jerry's act. And thus begins his period of deepest isolation. Jerry becomes a single No in a sea of Yeses, and he thinks he has to save himself from drowning all on his own.
Less isolated: Interestingly, although Jerry's act isolates him from his classmates, it connects him with a whole bunch of other people – all those people who said and say "No." People like Rosa Parks who said "No" to sitting in the back of the bus. It connects him with people who do what they think is the right thing, even when it's not the popular thing. In that way, Jerry is a hero. Would you have the guts to stand up and say "No" to the chocolates, to Brother Leon, and to The Vigils?
Jerry is an excellent character to look at as a tragic hero. The ancient Greeks were the first to write about these doomed souls. Sophocles's Oedipus is the most perfect example – at least according to Aristotle (who admittedly wasn't around long enough to experience some of our other favorite tragedies, like Shakespeare's Macbeth or Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.)
But how is Jerry Renault in any way similar to the heroes of Greek tragedy? Well, dear Shmoopsters, they share a little thing the Greeks liked to call hamartia. This word is often translated as "tragic flaw," but it's more accurately translated as "a missing of the mark" or a "mistake made in ignorance."
Hmm. Very interesting. Can you think of any times when Jerry, who is generally a pretty admirable guy, "misses the mark" or "makes a mistake in ignorance"?
For us, what jumps to mind of the boxing match/raffle at the end. Why does Jerry agree to participate in the match? We think it's a bit of vengeance, which is a very human emotion, but isn't always a healthy one. Jerry goes to the raffle because he wants revenge. And this is when things start going wrong. Jerry's hamartia leads him to be seriously hurt in the boxing match.
Another key word in Greek tragedy is anagnorisis. According to Aristotle, tragic heroes are supposed to also have a moment of recognition, or anagnorisis. This is supposed to be a moment where the hero realizes the terrible mistake he's made and usually moans about it a lot. This happens to Oedipus (in Sophocles's Oedipus the King) when he realizes that he's inadvertently killed his father and slept with his mother. (Whoops.)
You could argue that Jerry has a realization during the boxing match, in Chapter 35. Jerry realizes that Archie has set him up. He realizes that the rules are bad and that he shouldn't have fallen for the trick.
At the end of Chapter 38, Jerry comes to another realization: "They tell you to do your own thing, but they don't mean it. They don't want you to do your thing, 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" (38.17). How does this make you feel about Jerry?
Jerry and Sex
The Chocolate War is a frequently banned book in part because of its mentions of sex. It's also a big reason critics think the novel is realistic. Jerry hasn't had sex, but he thinks about it often, really often. Jerry wants to look at magazines like Playboy, but he feels so guilty about it that he can't enjoy it. He doesn't understand why he feels guilty, because he's seen such magazines openly on display in his friends' parents' homes. We also learn that "The one devastating sorrow he carried within him was the fear that he would die before holding a girl's breast in his hand" (3.2). TMI? Yeah, kind of.
But maybe that's the point. One way to look at it is this: Jerry is caught between opposing camps. His friends' parents are trying to make sex and sexuality an open topic. They are part of what is often called "the counterculture." The counterculture does just what it says it does. It counters, or challenges, what most of society thinks is true. In this case, it challenges the cultural belief that sex is something to keep quiet about and that sexy nude pictures are taboo. Jerry isn't sure where he stands on these controversial issues. But Robert Cormier seems to be interested in discussing sex pretty openly.Timeline