The Chocolate War
by Robert Cormier
Where It All Goes Down
Trinity High School, Fall, Early 1970s…
The main setting of Robert Cormier's 1974 novel The Chocolate War is Trinity, an all boys high school in an unnamed New England town. As we discuss in "Writing Style" and "Genre" the various locations in Trinity are Gothic spaces. The students are trapped inside them, and only bad things seem to be happening. Because of what's going on at school, and because of the recent death of Jerry's mother, and the zombiefied state of his father, his home is also a Gothic locale. It turns even more Gothic when The Vigils and Emile Janza start stalking him.
The spaces in between home and school are also important, as we see below, and help us get a feel for the historical period. Although the time period isn't named, it's dated by a reference to the song "Let it Be http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1cfHhAoj3P4," from The Beatles' 1970 album of the same name. The Chocolate War was written and published in 1974. Since there's no reason to think Cormier is waxing futuristic, we can assume the setting is sometime between 1970 and 1974. The present action of the story happens during the school's fall semester, with some flashbacks to the previous spring, which is when Jerry's mother died from cancer.
Trinity High School
Trinity is a Catholic all-boys school, and it's not a nice place. While on the surface it may seem like a normal school, when you dive a bit deeper you find that it has a dark streak. Brother Leon, the sadistic Assistant Headmaster, is behind much of this. His blackmailing and bullying cast a spell of fear, anxiety, and powerlessness over the students. The Vigils also contribute to this atmosphere, and might even be a direct result of it. They seem to use strategies similar to Leon's – a combination of physical and psychological violence – to keep other students under their thumbs.
The Vigils almost seem like the school's private, secret army, which they use to stamp out any challenges to authority. These guys are being encouraged, even forced into some of the bullying activities by the teachers and administrators. Imagine the pressure inside Trinity. And since it's a school, meaning the students have to go to class every day, there's no easy escape. No wonder all these students explode at the raffle!
Trinity's Scary Sporty Places
The gym, athletic field, and the pathway between the field and the school are dangerous places. These areas are separate from the school building and act as a command center for The Vigils. Obie and Archie scheme and plot in the bleachers. The Vigils hold their "secret" meetings, where "assignments" are doled out, in the supply closet behind the gym. We like to look at these locations as "Gothic" spaces. Now, let's go through a few of these sporty places, one by one.
The Closet: This is a very Gothic space – cramped and isolated, with a single exit. Since assignees are admitted to the closet one at a time, there's always a ten-against-one scenario, with the Vigils exerting group psychological pressure and the threat of physical violence. Even though the assignees clearly think The Vigils are ridiculous, they can't help but be afraid. The supply closet is a major tool for The Vigils' success. (Click here for a short definition of Gothic literature. For a slightly longer discussion, check out this University of California, Davis website, and see how many similarities you can pick out between a typical Gothic novel and The Chocolate War.)
The Isolated Pathway: This path is in between the school building and the field. Importantly, it's where Jerry is brutally beaten by Emile Janza and about ten other guys, under Archie's orders. This path is a transition between the two areas of Trinity. Likewise, Jerry's beating is a transition between the two major phases of the plot. In the first phase, we watch Jerry seem to move closer and closer toward danger. In the second phase, marked particularly by the first beating, he's in danger.
The Field: The danger peaks back on the athletic field at the raffle. But this time there's nothing secretive going on. Rather, Jerry is in the spotlight, being made a spectacle of. Everything that was previously hidden is now out in the open. The violence and cruelty practiced in secret is now on public display. This time, in part because of the sports motif, it's sanctioned by the majority of the students. Interestingly, relief (if you can call it that) comes for Jerry only with a return to darkness, when Brother Jacques turns out the lights.
The World Outside Trinity: The Bus Stop
The bus stop is an important place for Jerry for two reasons. First, it's where he sees Ellen Barrett and becomes mildly obsessed with her. Since he's in a boys' school, his opportunities for meeting girls are few and far between. His crush on Ellen provides a little subplot, and since Jerry's attempt to talk to her falls flat, it adds to the atmosphere of failure and powerlessness.
The bus stop is also where Jerry watches the "Hippies. Flower Children. Street People. Drifters. Drop-Outs" who hang out in the public square until the weather turns cold. In addition to helping us feel the 1970s, this scene is important because of Jerry's encounter with one of these people, a young man of about nineteen. Offended by Jerry's staring, the guy chews him out:
"Square boy. Middle aged at fourteen, fifteen. Already caught in a routine. Wow. […]
"Go get your bus, square boy. […] You're missing a lot of things in the world, better not miss that bus." (3.17; 19)
Although Jerry's doesn't appreciate the nasty tone, he can't help agreeing with the guy on some level. He doesn't want to be trapped in a routine, and do as he's told. He wants to make a difference in the world, but doesn't know how. The street guy's comments intensify these feelings and probably are behind Jerry's ultimate refusal of the chocolates. This goes to show how a seemingly minor incident can have a major impact on the plot. The sense of freedom Jerry sees in the street people also presents a vivid contrast to the sense of confinement we see in the Trinity boys.