Early chapters of The Chocolate War introduce our hero, Jerry Renault who's beginning his freshman year at Trinity, an all-boys high school. Jerry seems like a nice guy, minding his own business, trying to make the football team and deal with the recent loss of his mother. Soon, though, Jerry begins to encounter the novel's villains, especially the sadistic Brother Leon and the creeptastic Archie Costello. We all get the distinct impression that something's rotten in Denmark, er, Trinity, and that something smells suspiciously like chocolate…
At Trinity, you can't use the restroom without running into conflict. Between giving bullies their lunch money, doing Vigil "assignments," and surviving Brother Leon's class, kids on the low end of the totem pole live lives of constant conflict. They're torn apart inside because they're being bullied, bossed, and battered, but they don't have any idea how to stop it. Jerry's Vigil's assignment – refusing to sell chocolates for ten days – isn't extraordinary, and doesn't cause him any immense grief. It's not like he wants to sell chocolates. But he'd rather sell than be on Brother Leon's bad side. The assignment dramatizes the general climate of domination. At Trinity, every decision seems like the wrong one.
So, when the ten days are up, Jerry just keeps on saying, "No!" Nothing like this has ever happened before at Trinity. Most of the students think selling chocolates is about as fun as a hot air balloon ride in a tornado. But, nobody has ever seriously considered not doing it.
OK, let's clarify. Plenty of kids don't sell, or barely sell the products. But, they say they'll do it, and they pretend to care about it in public, and make the best of it in private. Nobody takes a stand, and nobody gets hurt. There's no real motivation to take a public stand. Or is there?
Well, for Jerry there is, even though he doesn't consciously realize it until later on. His refusal is on impulse. But, by continuing to refuse the chocolates he's also refusing both Leon's authority and the authority of The Vigils. This is important because both of those parties are abusing their authority, and nobody is trying to stop them.
The climax stage comes fairly late in this book. The pressure is on for Archie. Brother Leon and the other Vigils are threatening to turn against him if he doesn't make sure that a) all chocolates are sold, and b) that Jerry Renault pays for disobeying them. So, arrangements are made, and Jerry's downfall is plotted in a very organized fashion. From the random attacks on the football field, to the near fatal push down the stairs, to the ceaselessly ringing phone, Jerry seems destined for pain.
At the same time, Trinity is in the throes of chocolate mania. As Brian Cochran observes, "the chocolates had suddenly become a vogue, a fad" (29.4), the popular thing to do. As with Jerry's stalking, the chocolate sale is a highly organized endeavor, on the part of The Vigils.
The climax of the climax, if you will, occurs when Jerry is brutally attacked by Emile Janza and at least ten other guys. Luckily they seem to have an aversion to vomit because they leave when he barfs. This scene makes us realize just what a dangerous position Jerry is in. In terms of chocolate mania, the climax of the climax is that moment when all the chocolates, except for Jerry's fifty boxes, are sold.
We see Archie planning this mysterious raffle, and we know it has something to do with Jerry, Emile Janza, and Jerry's unsold fifty boxes of chocolates. We also know that Jerry should not, under any circumstances, go to this thing. But does he listen to us? No! And so we turn the pages in agony as he moves closer and closer to what just can't be good – a raffle/boxing match, a bleacher-load of angry boys, Emile Janza, and Archie, Carter, and Obie as MCs. No thank you. Run, Jerry, run. Run while you still can. Yep. This is what good suspense is all about…
Jerry, for the love of revenge, attends the raffle and is severely beaten. He would be beaten even more if Brother Eugene didn't turn off the lights, breaking up the party. This is very similar to the climax because of all the physical and emotional intensity. But, it doesn't drive any of the action, because the action is basically over, so it doesn't qualify as a climax in terms of plot, or the structure of the story. Wounded and waiting for the ambulance, Jerry wonders if standing up to Brother Leon and The Vigils was worth it.
Some readers are left wondering if Jerry even survived the beating. Jerry is rushed away in an ambulance, and that's the last we read of him. Luckily, that nagging question of what happened is answered in the sequel, Beyond The Chocolate War.
But as far as this novel goes, we're left with Obie and Archie still locked in their creepy relationship. While Jerry is being whisked off to the hospital, they're in the bleachers again, just like when we first met them. Then they walk off into the night, unscathed and unpunished. This is pretty chilling, because it suggests that life at Trinity will continue unchanged.