Tone refers to the author's attitudes toward the characters and the story, and even toward the implied readers. This might be the most hazy area of literary criticism ever. For one thing, we can't read the author's mind. For another, we can't assume that the narrator's point of view reflects the attitude of the author. We have to make intuitive leaps. If we're lucky, we can find some juicy quotes from the author that help explain the tone, like this one from The Chocolate War's author, Robert Cormier:
The thing I'm trying to do is communicate with the reader – communicate the emotion I want him to feel. I sacrifice everything to that. I want to hit the reader with whatever emotion I want to portray, or whatever action that will make it vivid. […] I want the reader to feel the emotion of the characters. And I would use any word, any unpretty image, to communicate that emotion. (source)
This is not to say that there aren't other elements of Cormier's tone in this novel, but the dominant tone is emotional. As the quote stresses, he's trying hard to stir up our emotions, and let us experience a bit of what the different characters are feeling. Is he successful? Does The Chocolate War provoke strong emotions in you? If so, what are some of those emotions, and what actions or images trigger them? If not, why might this be? Do you want the stories you read to make you feel emotional? Why or why not?
The Chocolate War is very concerned with psychological terror. Archie and Brother Leon love messing with people's minds and are masters of psychological manipulation. They know what makes people afraid, and they know how to use this knowledge to make others do what they want. The novel traces the impact of this psychological terrorism on the students it's being practiced on.
This is perfect for a story in the Gothic genre, which usually features characters who become more and more physically and/or psychologically isolated as the story progresses. The physical and psychological violence practiced in The Chocolate War increases with every phase of the plot in The Chocolate War and drives forward the action. (Psst. If you need more info on Gothic literature, 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.)
Although some of the events in the novel might seem a bit fantastical (like the raffle at the end), Cormier makes a serious attempt to accurately portray the inner workings of the minds of the characters. Do you think the book is realistic? Are some high schools really this bad? Are the characters believable? We'll leave those questions up to you.
The Chocolate War is also a tragedy. For more on this, check out "Characters: Jerry Renault," were we discuss Jerry as a tragic hero.
The Chocolate War. Hmm. Sounds like what happens inside a chocoholic dieter faced with a platter of triple deluxe fudge truffles. Or maybe between rival chocolate manufacturers during the holidays. For the most part, "chocolate" and "war" aren't usually seen together, except maybe on ultra trendy dessert menus.
But, the combination of the dark and rich with the idea of bloody battle seems to reflect the general mood at Trinity. Here everything sweet and good is perverted and twisted; the kindness and innocence in boys' hearts is turned against them; lies, deceit, and strong-arm tactics are rewarded; even school spirit is made a complete mockery of. We could go on, but you get the picture.
To tell the truth, The Chocolate War isn't really about chocolate at all. Author Robert Cormier could have substituted anything for chocolate, but we're glad he didn't because chocolate gives us symbolic food for thought (see "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" for more). Similarly, there isn't really a war on – it's high school after all. But the idea of war shows up in so many ways, and it sure feels like a full-out war to the characters.
If we did compare the situation at Trinity to a war, it would be the kind where one or two citizens (Jerry and his few supporters) are revolting against the leadership (Brother Leon). Said leadership is already using a group of secret police (The Vigils) against other citizens (all students) to maintain authority. Out of fear that the rebellion will spread, the leadership then uses this same army to stamp out the rebellion. Pretty scary isn't it? It reminds us of books like The Hunger Games, Animal Farm, or 1984.
As in larger scale wars of this type, what's at stake at Trinity are things like personal safety, freedom to think and act on one's own, and freedom from daily psychological torture. Jerry is only half aware of this when he says "No!" to selling chocolates. He sees that things at Trinity are horribly wrong, but he doesn't consciously consider how to change them.
It's more like, when given the opportunity to defy the authority of both The Vigils and Brother Leon he takes it. Is this the smartest way to approach the problem? Probably not. As we see in "What's Up With the Ending?" Jerry makes lots of mistakes, in part because he doesn't have a clear goal. But, at least he's trying, shaking things up, forcing those around him to consider another way. Or, does he just make things worse? What do you think?
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.
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 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!
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 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.
Gothic literature often relies heavily on both the setting of the story (in this case, school) and on the inner state of mind of the characters (in this case, messed up) to create its horrifying or terrifying effect. (Psst. If you want to learn more about Gothic literature, 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.) In The Chocolate War these elements go arm and arm with the formal style of the book. Let's look at a couple of major aspects of this:
As noted in "Setting," the football field is just as Gothic and ominous than the rest of Trinity. Here Cormier recreates the language and practice involved in football, and then gives us a student's-eye view of it. Interestingly, lots of foreshadowing springs up in the football field scenes.
In "What's Up With the Ending?" we consider how early passages can inform our understanding of the ending. The very first line of the book is, "They murdered him" (1.1). Of course, this is taking place on the football field. In the same session Jerry thinks he's been "massacred by the oncoming players" (1.26). As discussed below, Cormier is fond of figurative language. Here he's using the language of football to foreshadow the beatings Jerry will get from Emile Janza.
There's even more foreshadowing in this scene. After he's knocked down we're told, "A telephone rang in his ears. Hello, hello, I'm still here" (1.4). We probably don't even remember this by the time we get to the scenes where Jerry's telephone stalkers are ringing his phone off the hook. Still, it subtly prepares us for those scenes, and gives a bit of unity to this rather disjointed story.
Can you find any other examples of foreshadowing in the novel?
Cormier is big on figurative language, and is constantly evoking death and other morbid matters with this language. It's an important part of his style in The Chocolate War and is often gloomy and/or disturbing, as it should be in the High School Gothic.
Here's an example from the scene where we first meet Obie and Archie, plotting and scheming in the bleachers. After their depressing conversation, Obie thinks:
The shadows of the goal posts definitely resembled a network of crosses, empty crucifixes. That's enough symbolism for one day. (2.74)
Obie has symbolism on the brain, maybe because he's studying it in school. Anyhow, crucifixes probably make us think of warding off evil of some sort, like the non-vegetarian vampires in Twilight. The crucifixes are "empty," suggesting they have no power to ward off evil. You could stick this under "foreshadowing" if you want, because it foreshadows Jerry's lack of power to ward off the evil at Trinity. Since Obie is the one seeing this as a symbol, it might also tell us something about how he sees himself, or at least Archie – as evil, even vampiric, and unstoppable. We might also think of the students at the raffle, hungry for Jerry's blood. They don't want to drink it or anything (though we wouldn't put it past 'em). But they do want to see it spilled.
"Mallan," Leon was calling out.
"Let me see now Mallan. Why, that brings your total to forty-seven. […]"
Goober shriveled in his seat. Next would be Permentier. And then Jerry. (30.4-7)
Cormier recreates the actual language and process of the roll call, a common school practice, and combines this with The Goober's inner thoughts. Like Goober, we are creeped out and uncomfortable. It almost feels like we're stuck in Brother Leon's class too, with no escape. Many, many chapters are framed by the roll call, or other similar activities.
Notice also that The Vigils' meetings go down in kind of the same way. Here's an example (which we've condensed):
"Your name?" Archie asked.
"Come on, Archie," Rollo replied, smiling at all this foolishness. "You know my name."
"Let's not have any crap, Rollo," growled Carter. "Let's hear your name."
Rollo shrugged, "Frankie Rollo." (27.2-7)
It's pretty clear, from this and other conversations, that Archie and Carter have learned all they know about intimidation in school, from guys like the coach and Brother Leon. Going before the Vigils is like going to the principal's office! Frankie is trying to show that he's independent by challenging The Vigils' authority. Like Leon with his pointer, Carter reasserts authority with his fists. It looks like Roll Call is an excellent way to showcase the twisted physical-psychological violence combo that The Chocolate War is so concerned with.
"[…] these are Mother's Day chocolates. […] I was – able to pick them up at a bargain price. [They're] in perfect condition, […] stored under the best of conditions since last spring. All we have to do is remove the purple ribbon that says Mother and we're in business." (4.6)
Does anybody else get the feeling that these chocolates are kind of funky, old, and second rate, in spite of Leon's claims about "perfect condition"? They've probably been stored in some stinky warehouse, melted and re-hardened who knows how many times. Symbolically speaking, these chocolates are unwanted. There are twenty thousand boxes left over. Nobody wanted them on Mother's Day, and nobody really wants them now. Sad isn't it. Poor chocolates.
Well, it gets even sadder. Something else happened last spring, something concerning mothers. That's right. We're told, "Jerry's mother died in the spring" (9.1), and we get a flashback of his anger and grief at her funeral. The loss of Jerry's mother is referenced frequently, and helps keep up the dark brooding Gothic mood of the story. Of course, Jerry doesn't know that the chocolates are from Mother's Day. Only Leon and Archie are in on that little secret. So, the chocolates are only symbolic of her death to the readers. This is an example of dramatic irony, where the reader knows things that the character doesn't.
The death of Jerry's mother and the Mother's Day chocolates aren't actually connected in any real way. But, they are connected symbolically. This symbolism also connects Jerry with the chocolates. Both Jerry and the chocolates have had the word "Mother" removed from their lives. "Mother" is strictly in the past. Now both chocolates and Jerry are thrown helpless and defenseless into the cruel world of Trinity with no "Mother" to protect them from Brother Leon and The Vigils.
The poster showed a wide expanse of beach, a sweep of sky with a lone star glittering far away. A man walked on the beach, a small solitary figure in all that immensity. At the bottom of the poster, these words appeared — Do I dare disturb the universe? (19.38, 28.61)
The line is from T.S. Eliot's famous poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," but Jerry doesn't know it. (Psst. You can check out Shmoop's guide to "Prufrock" here.) As with the Mother's Day chocolates there's some dramatic irony going on. Readers can analyze the significance of the poem, and its famous line, in terms of Jerry. But, Jerry can't because he's never read the poem. Still, the fact that he chose this particular poster to adorn his locker does say a lot about him. It tells us Jerry's interested in ideas, he's thinking about taking risks, and questioning established structures and routines.
Prufrock is a thinker, too, but he's fussy, indecisive, and doesn't actually do much. He seems stuck in a routine with which he has a love-hate relationship. He's either an old man being sad about the past, or a younger man imaging himself as an elderly man being sad about the past. Or both. (It's confusing.) He's trying to decide if taking risks is worth the pain that might result and/or trying to decide if he should have taken risks in the past. The poem seems to argue that we should act now, before we end up whiny, aging, and confused like Prufrock.
Jerry, on the other hand doesn't just think about taking risks, he actually takes them. Even though he "[hates] confrontations" (3.20) and is somewhat afraid of the world, he puts himself out there. His decision to refuse the chocolates beyond his 10-day-long Vigils assignment is totally spontaneous. He just does it. Calling Ellen Barrett is more planned out, but there's never any question of him not calling her. He botches the call, and might have done much better if he'd approached her in person, but he's still tries.
In any case, at the end of the novel, Jerry believes that it's better not to take risks. It just isn't worth the pain. It's better to do whatever it takes to keep yourself from getting hurt. Better be a live, boring old Prufrock than a dead or damaged risk taker. Do you think that's the message Robert Cormier is trying to send us, though?
Obie's notebook is "more complete than the school's files. It contain[s] information, carefully coded, about everyone at Trinity, the kind of stuff that couldn't be found in official records" (2.45). It's also where Obie records Vigils assignments, as well as the names of students chosen to carry out the assignments. The book is literally filled with symbols (writing, code) of what The Vigils are up to. Put all this together, and you can say that the notebook is a symbol of The Vigils' crimes.
We might also see Obie's notebook as a symbol of his talent, and how this talent is being warped by the Trinity atmosphere. In a healthier environment, Obie's skills – keeping good records, organizing, and writing in code – could be used for good. But, at Trinity, strengths are twisted into being used for evil purposes by The Vigils and the school administration. Take a step back and you could interpret the notebook as symbolic of every student whose potential for good is being perverted by the unhealthy atmosphere at Trinity.
Brian records and calculates the results of the chocolate sale in his account book. He's recording dollar amounts and number of boxes sold accurately. But, The Vigils tell him who gets credit for the sales. Often credit is given to students who sell little or nothing, like The Goober when he stops selling chocolates. In the real-world business, this would be considered fraud.
Like Obie's notebook, Brian's account book is a record of crimes. Of course, these crimes are harder to detect. Also, like Obie's notebook, it's a symbol of talent being perverted at Trinity. Brian is being pressured to use his time, talent, and energy for something which doesn't personally benefit him, and which doesn't benefit his fellow students. By the end of the novel, his actions become downright dishonest, when The Vigils force him to start cooking the books.
In the process, Brian gets caught up and begins to enjoy himself, and, perhaps, loses some of his personal dignity. And he knows it. After the sale ends, he plans to stay far away from everybody involved in the chocolate mess, but we think this will be harder than it might sound. The Vigils and Leon now see Brian as being valuable to their evil enterprises and easy to manipulate. We're guessing they probably won't let him go without a fight.
There are no locks on the lockers or the bathroom stalls at Trinity. This lack of locks is a symbol of the lack of privacy and security at the school. If you leave something in your locker and it gets trashed or stolen, it's your own fault. Although many of the students have a personal code of honor and would never steal from a classmate, many others don't. This seemingly small detail does a lot to enhance the Gothic mood. (See "Genre" and "Writing Style" for more.) Although locks can be used to confine and isolate, in this novel taking away the locks confines and isolates.
The phone plays an interesting role in The Chocolate War. Telephones are usually symbols of communication. That makes sense, right? One of the main ways we communicate is by talking on the phone. However, in this book the telephone's symbolic meaning becomes the total opposite of what it usually is.
We see this when Jerry takes a risk and calls Ellen Barrett. He's been checking her out for a while at the bus stop and has finally got up the nerve to call her. This sad attempt to communicate totally falls apart, though. He just can't make her understand what he's trying to tell her. She thinks it's a prank. And so the phone, a symbol of communication, becomes a symbol of miscommunication, and the loneliness that goes along with it.
The phone becomes a much more sinister object later on when The Vigils begin stalking Jerry. Through the phone, The Vigils are able to intimidate Jerry even in his own home. It doesn't scare them in the slightest when Jerry's dad answers. We're guessing this is exactly what they want. At this point in the book, it seems like the phone becomes a symbol of The Vigils' powers of intimidation. It kind of reminds us of the movie Scream. (OK, even The Vigils aren't quite that messed up.)
The destruction of Room Nineteen took exactly thirty-seven seconds. (11.12)
You remember Room Nineteen, don't you? You might have even giggled a little at the idea of unscrewing all the screws in the furniture, so it all falls apart at the slightest touch. But when we see The Goober trapped in the room, forced to sabotage the furniture against his will, this Vigils assignments is a bit less appealing.
There's something fascinating about the idea of all the furniture falling apart, the blackboard sliding down the wall, the general chaos. So, what's the big deal? Why does it hit The Goober and Brother Eugene so hard? Well, we don't see Brother Eugene's thoughts, but his tears speak volumes. We also don't know exactly what happens to him after his classroom is destroyed, but it's strongly suggested that he has "a nervous breakdown" (13.9).
The Goober tells Jerry that Brother Eugene took it so hard because, "Some people can't stand cruelty" (23.22). If The Goober is right, Brother Eugene is so devastated because it makes him think the students hate him so much, they want to tear up his class. Since he's a sensitive guy, this is a huge blow to his self-worth, as a teacher. It's no wonder he left the school, whether he has a nervous breakdown or not.
In any case, The Goober is suffering from guilt and from fear of being found out. He feels directly responsible, because he accepted the assignment. He also knows that if he'd refused, and if he refuses other assignments, it will result in personal pain. So, in addition to guilt, The Goober is suffering from a sense of powerlessness, and he's reminded of it every day. Room Nineteen, we are told, "would never be the same again. The furniture creaked weirdly, as if it would collapse again at any moment" (13.29). The room, then, becomes a micro-symbol of Trinity as a whole, a place so badly broken it will never recover.
The Chocolate War is told in the third person from the points of view of over a dozen different boys attending Trinity. Although quite flexible, the narrative is for the most part limited to the teenage mind. So, we never see into the mind of the super-sinister Brother Leon, and are left to guess what's going on in that creepy little mind of his based on the students' observations of him. Similarly, we can't see into the head of Jerry's dad, but Jerry's descriptions suggest that he's walking around in a fog of grief.
The narrator spends the most time in the minds of the main characters –Jerry, Archie, Obie, The Goober, Emile Janza, Brian Cochran, and Carter – giving us insight into some of their motivations. Except in the case of Jerry, none of this goes too deep. We sort of wish we got more background on Emile and Archie – something that could explain why they're such jerks. But, The Chocolate War seems more interested in connecting their devious behavior with their school environment, rather than connecting it with their home lives or their pasts.
With the other boys, we only get a brief glimpse, sometimes only a few paragraphs. Their stories are open-ended vignettes, or slices of life that influence the plot only in the most indirect ways. Still, they are important because they show us how other kids feel about selling chocolates, about Jerry's refusal to participate in the sale, about Trinity, about the Vigils, about life in general, and, quite often, about sex, which is kind of an underground theme in the novel.
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.