Study Guide

The Chocolate War Themes

  • Education

    The students at Trinity, a Catholic high school for boys, are supposed to be getting a religious education. Instead, they're mostly being taught how physical and psychological violence can be used to manipulate others. Too bad it's not a school for super villains, because it'd the best in the world. The hero of The Chocolate War, Jerry Renault, makes a symbolic stand against the bad educational practices at Trinity by saying "No" to selling chocolates for the school. He suffers a lot for doing this, and the lesson he learns at the end of the book may not be the warm, fuzzy thing you might expect.

    Questions About Education

    1. What are some of the things Brother Leon teaches his students?
    2. Are there any good teachers at Trinity?
    3. What has Jerry learned at the end of the novel? Archie? Brother Leon?
    4. What speculations can you make about Brother Leon's education? What's your evidence? Is there enough evidence to speculate?
    5. Does Trinity remind you of your own school or a school you've been too? Why or why not? What are some similarities and differences?
    6. If you were to "clean up" Trinity, what would be your game plan?
    7. Should The Chocolate War be taught in school? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The "real world" is a ruthless place; Trinity is simply preparing its students for this world.

    Jerry models non-violent resistance for his peers.

  • Violence

    The Chocolate War looks at how physical, verbal, and psychological violence are blended together to create the seriously unhealthy environment at Trinity high school. Be warned: there is lots of violence in this book. For about half of the novel, the physical violence is pretty tame, though there's plenty of twisted mind games and verbal violence along the way. When the novel's hero, Jerry Renault, refuses to sell the chocolates for a school fundraiser, though, all hell breaks lose. The novel ends in a frenzy of violence and bloodlust, from which Jerry might never recover.

    Questions About Violence

    1. How would you compare and contrast the various forms of violence in the novel (i.e. physical, psychological, destruction of property, etc.)?
    2. What are the psychological implications of physical violence? In terms of the victims? The victimizers?
    3. How would you analyze Brother Leon's use of the pointer in the class? Would he be effective in dominating his students without it?
    4. Have you experienced violence in school? Do you think the violence shown in this book is realistic?
    5. Have you ever felt pressured into committing a violent act? If so, why did you succumb, or how did you resist? What were the consequences of either choice?
    6. Do Archie, Emile Janza, and Brother Leon bully because they were bullied? Why, or why not? If not, why do they do it? Does the book give us any clues?

    Chew on This

    The bullying problem is so huge at Trinity because Brother Leon is teaching kids how to bully, and encouraging them to practice what they've learned.

    The students at Trinity are being educated to victimize others when they go out into the real world.

  • Language and Communication

    Do you ever say one thing, even though you're feeling something entirely different? Have you ever wanted to say something, but couldn't find the words. Have you ever gotten totally caught up in what a really good speaker was saying and found yourself doing what they want, even though you think it's wrong? If so, you'll probably relate to what's going on in The Chocolate War. This book takes a hard look at how language can be used to manipulate. We also see how one student standing up and saying "No" can threaten a whole corrupt system.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. What kinds of messages does Brother Leon communicate with his pointer? His words? His eyes? His physical appearance?
    2. Are Archie's verbal skills a key factor in his power over others? Why, or why not?
    3. What are some of the things Jerry communicates when he refuses the chocolates? Does it mean different things to different people? Like what?
    4. Is Jerry a good communicator?
    5. Can you think of some examples of characters who think one thing but say something entirely different? Why do they do this?
    6. Why aren't Jerry and Ellen Barrett able to communicate when he calls her? Would they do better face to face?
    7. Do Jerry and his father communicate well with each other?
    8. What would this book look like if it was updated to include the latest in communication technology? You know, Facebook, cell phones, texting, twitter….

    Chew on This

    Jerry isn't a good communicator; he rarely says what he means. If he'd been more willing to talk with the other students about why he says "No" to the chocolates, he might have been able to make a real difference at Trinity.

  • Manipulation

    The Chocolate War looks at how violence, authority, and speech are used to manipulate the students of Trinity into doing things they don't want to do. Blackmail, extortion, psychological games, physical punishment – these are part of the curriculum at this school. When Jerry tries to cut through the manipulation by making his own choices, other students start to follow his lead. Since this threatens the power structure at Trinity, those in danger of losing their power (Brother Leon and The Vigils) unleash their most devastating tools of manipulation. The novel also looks at how with the right spin, something that everybody thinks sucks, like selling chocolates, can be transformed into the latest craze.

    Questions About Manipulation

    1. Is Jerry manipulative? Why or why not?
    2. Who is the most manipulative character? The least?
    3. Who is the most easily manipulated? The least?
    4. What are some of the tools used to manipulate Trinity students? Who uses them?
    5. Does anybody manipulate Archie? Brother Leon?
    6. Compare and contrast Archie and Emile's techniques of manipulation.

    Chew on This

    Archie and Emile Janza might seem to have different methods, but there is really very little difference.

    Without physical violence, Brother Leon, Emile Janza, and The Vigils wouldn't be able to manipulate anybody.

  • Identity

    In The Chocolate War, the characters in power (Brother Leon, The Vigils) want all of the students at Trinity to conform, be easily led, and not think for themselves. These characters make the atmosphere really oppressive at Trinity. When the hero of the book, Jerry Renault, goes against the grain and refuses to sell chocolates for the school fundraiser, we see him attempting to create his own identity. Of course, fighting to define who you are isn't always the easiest thing to do, especially when you're in a place as terrible as Trinity.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Are Emile, Archie, and Leon stuck with their identities as victimizers? Could they change? Why, or why not?
    2. How does the destruction of Room Nineteen impact The Goober's identity? Brother Eugene's? Archie's?
    3. Why does Emile want to be a Vigil?
    4. Why does Archie consider Emile an animal? Why does Emile take offense?
    5. Why does Jerry feel ashamed when he's a victim of violence?
    6. How does Jerry's relationship with his dad impact his identity? How about his run-in with the hippy/drifter/drop-out guy at the bus stop?

    Chew on This

    By forcing students to use their talents for dark purposes, Brother Leon is perverting their identities.

    Emile is right; he's not an animal. Bullying and manipulation are much more common to humans than to animals.

  • Power

    There is a definite power structure at Trinity high school. Brother Leon and The Vigils use violence and manipulation to control the student body and teachers who might have a problem with their awful tactics. Jerry, The Goober, and some other students try to destroy this power structure by refusing to participate in it. Unfortunately, it's not that easy. The Chocolate War shows just how hard it is for a small group or a single person to stand up to the majority – regardless of who's right and who's wrong.

    Questions About Power

    1. What gives Archie his power? Why is he afraid of losing it? Why is he so afraid of the black box?
    2. Does the existence of The Vigils give the Trinity school administration more power over the student body? Why, or why not?
    3. Who is the most powerful person in the novel? Back up your answer with quotes from the text.
    4. Does Jerry have any power? If so, what gives him power? Does the amount of power he has change over the course of the novel?

    Chew on This

    Jerry is empowered when he says "No" to selling chocolates, but he loses this power when he follows his violent impulses and punches Emile during the raffle.

  • Choices

    Trinity, the high school in The Chocolate War, is all about lack of choice. Brother Leon and The Vigils spend most of their time forcing the student body to do things they don't want to do. For our boy Jerry, the chocolate sale represents his total lack of choice. When he chooses not to participate, he sails into dangerous waters.

    Questions About Choices

    1. Why does Jerry choose to keep his problems a secret from his Dad? Would you do the same in his position?
    2. Does Jerry make the right choice when he says "No" to chocolates the first time? The second time?
    3. Why does Jerry choose to participate in the raffle?
    4. Why does The Goober choose to accept his Vigils assignment? What are some consequences of his choice? What do you think would have happened if he refused?

    Chew on This

    Jerry shouldn't have openly defied The Vigils and Brother Leon; behind-the-scenes investigation and planning is more effective than open defiance.

    Jerry's biggest mistake is choosing not to organize resistance with the other students.

  • Morality and Ethics

    Morality refers to personal, cultural, and social beliefs about right and wrong. Ethics is the study and practice of these belief systems. Some of the events in The Chocolate War are definitely unethical. We can easily see that Brother Leon, The Vigils, and Emile are unethical people. They will do anything to anybody in order to keep their positions of power. The book also raises some more complicated ideas about morality and ethics. It asks us to think about how we can act to benefit both the individual and the group. It asks us to consider how human emotions, like vengefulness, fear, and pride, can make us do things we think are immoral. It asks us to carefully consider our ethical responsibilities to ourselves and others, and encourages us to think about our own moral codes and how these shape who we are.

    Questions About Morality and Ethics

    1. How might you describe Brother Leon's moral code? What does he think is right? What does he think is wrong? Does he know he's a bad guy? Does he think he's doing the right thing?
    2. Jerry, The Goober, and David Caroni become very disturbed when they think they've violated their own moral codes. What could they do to make themselves feel better? Are they permanently tainted? Why, or why not?
    3. Should Archie be punished for his actions? Should Emile? Brother Leon? Carter? If not, why not? If so, what would be fitting punishments? Are there laws against what they do? Were there in the 1970s?

    Chew on This

    The novel asks us to consider whether it's ethical to take a public stand on any issue like Jerry does, if we don't follow through with other acts.

    The Chocolate War argues that the most morally correct actions are those which benefit both the group and the individual.