The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier was not written with a young adult audience in mind, but class sets of the book found their way into English departments all over the world. Though this is not my favourite Cormier novel, it remains his best known. Heavy in symbolism and discussable themes, The Chocolate War also makes for a good case study in juxtaposition. The novel begins with a juxtaposition in the title — chocolate is sweet and comforting; war most certainly is not.

There are many resources for teaching and studying this book in a high school literature class. This blog focuses on the storytelling: What writing lessons can we take from this young adult story from 1974, banned and beloved in equal measure?

Content Note

I feel readers deserve a content note about Robert Cormier novels, and about The Chocolate War in particular. This novel has been widely banned, but my reasons for the content note are probably different and girl readers in particular deserve this acknowledged: Cormier writes consistently from the male point of view and objectifies female characters as part of his commentary on how awful boys can be. Cormier never proved he could write well-rounded girls, to be fair. Even when he writes a female character (not in this book) she self objectifies or she is murdered or both. The Chocolate War contains implied rape of girls at the nearby girls’ high school. Archie, a psychopathic character, ‘usually manages to persuade one of them into his car’. He gives them a ride home ‘with detours’.

The older I get the more icky I find this. Here’s my exact beef: Robert Cormier and many other writers who imply/describe sexual assault feel the need to include girls — otherwise absent in the story — in order to amplify the awfulness of a particular boy character. This is done for characterisation reasons, yet that’s not how sexual assault works in real life and I expect a bit of mimesis here. Despite his heterosexual orientation, a character as awful as Archie does not need to prey on the girls at a different school entirely. If ever there was a clear psychopath in young adult fiction, Archie is it.

Archie was always puzzled about whatever there was inside of him that enjoyed these performances — toying with kids, leading them on, humiliating them, finally.

Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War

There are plenty of boys he can pick on to assert his sexual dominance, without leaving his own school. My problem here is the extent to which writers are comfortable with the implication of male on female sexual assault, but can’t seem to even fathom male on male sexual assault. Written in the 1970s, going this far may not have even crossed Cormier’s mind, or maybe he self-edited, who knows. Archie carries out his own version of sexual assault on Emile, pretending to take a photo of him after finding him in the toilets masturbating. But it’s never implied that he does the the other boys as he does to the girls. And I don’t think his heterosexuality has anything to do with that.

Archie’s 1970s pretend camera would be an actual camera in the 2010s. This kind of timelessness is why some schools continue to study The Chocolate War with modern teenagers, though I think the objectification and assault issue requires a discussion. Though uncomfortable to discuss, the problems with glossing over this aspect of Archie are two-fold:

  1. As a culture we underestimate the rate of male on male sexual assault (important emphasis: rape is about power over others, not about orientation);
  2. We become uncomfortably comfortable with the image of the assaulted female, to the extent where, as a culture, we have now learned to look the other way. To what extent is the male gaze designed to be titillating? Does it matter really if it’s not meant to be, and still is? At no point are readers encouraged to find descriptions of the boy characters titillating, regardless of the reader’s orientation.

These are not the exact reasons The Chocolate War has found infamy as a frequently banned book. This novel has been banned  due to:

  1. Frequency of sexual references
  2. Detail included in the sexual scenes e.g. masturbation
  3. Physical violence
  4. Bribery
  5. Negative portrayal of the institution of school
  6. Catholic schools in particular get a bad rap

But mostly? The issues in this book are so heavy they are difficult to discuss with 30 teenagers, some of whom will have been sexually assaulted themselves, some of whom will sexually assault/have already assaulted. I find it far easier to write about these issues on a blog than to manage a class discussion, and to have that discussion go in the right direction. When schools ban books, that’s sometimes a factor. The Chocolate War is one of those novels which requires the reader to bring their own morality to the table. We’re to look at these boys as an example of treating girls badly.

But when some readers do not have morality to bring? What then?

Three Types of YA Novels

Further to the banning, it’s important to note that Cormier did not intend The Chocolate War for a YA audience. The reading age happens to be 12, however. That was Cormier’s natural writing style.

The American Library Association classifies adolescent literature into three categories:

1. Books Written Specifically for Adolescents
2. Books Written for General Trade Market Which Have Adolescent Heroes and Heroines
3. General Books of Interest to Young Readers

The Chocolate War belongs to category two and was seen by many as a good text to study in schools.

THEMES IN THE CHOCOLATE WAR

There are many. Here’s a big one:

The “Do I dare disturb the universe?” quote is from T.S. Eliot, who used the phrase in a poem he wrote in his early 20s.

At its heart this question “Do I dare disturb the universe?” is about power. It serves as an apt metaphor for what adolescents often seek to know about themselves.
Jerry Renault takes up this question in Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War (1974). Jerry hangs in his school locker a poster of a man walking alone on a beach that bears the caption “Do I dare disturb the universe?”: “Jerry wasn’t sure of the poster’s meaning. But it had moved him mysteriously.” The Chocolate War explores the question of whether Jerry can disturb the universe–of what will happen to him if he dares assert his personal power.
[…]
In The Chocolate War Jerry Renault has power in agreeing to exist in harmony with the forces of oppression at Trinity High School, The Vigils and the teachers. He is defeated by novel’s end because he has chosen to break the contract and so be oppressed by the power structure. Foucault would say instead that rather than possessing a certain amount of power to begin with, Jerry actually exists in a chain of power, a chain that involves the selling of education as a commodity and that results in the commodification of the chocolates. Their sale is a means of production for the students. Jerry’s power in the situation is fluid: he both has and does not have power, depending on his relationship to the market forces at specific points in the novel’s time. When he overwhelms the market by providing a model for the other boys’ nonparticipation in the means of production, the market retaliates by attempting to obliterate him in a “war.” Foucault even supplies the term “war repression schema” as a synonym for the “domination repression” model of power; he makes much of the notion that “power is war, a war continued by other means”.
[…]
The Chocolate War is the same sort of dark adolescent fantasy that Lord of the Flies is: when adolescents achieve total control, they become totally corrupt. Both novels are metaphors for the concept that absolute power corrupts absolutely..
[…]
Anne Scott Macleod argues that what happens at Trinity is a microcosmic metaphor for American politics.
[…]
Perry Nodelman interprets the chocolate war as a metaphor for the Vietnam War.
[…]
Jan Susina interprets The Vigils as the Mafia.
[…]
Cormier himself has identified big business as the central metaphor of the novel. At the heart of all these interpretations is the recognition that The Chocolate War is a political novel. It is an investigation of social organisation and how individuals interact with that organisation. The novel communicates that institutions are more powerful than individuals, but that individuals who engage their own power can affect the shape of the institution. Cormier implies that as social organisations, institutions are not to be trusted.
[…]
When ideologies in YA novels focus specifically on government, they tend to convey to adolescents that they are better served by accepting than by rejecting the social institutions with which they must live. In that sense, the underlying agenda of many YA novels is to indoctrinate adolescents into a measure of social acceptance.
— Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

But is The Chocolate War any more political than your typical YA novel?

Few adolescent novels are as direct as Cormier’s are in addressing government as a form of social organization, although almost all adolescent novels are informed by ideologies that are political in nature. That is, all novels are influenced by their authors’ sociopolitical beliefs.

Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature

STORYTELLING TECHNIQUES OF NOTE

Juxtaposition and Irony

The Chocolate War is a story of irony and juxtaposition, which makes the title so apt. Examples from chapter one:

  • ‘A terrible stillness’
  • ‘Suddenly he loved that voice, “Show up tomorrow”.’
  • ‘A strange happiness invaded him.’

And in chapter two we get all the ironies of Archie:

  • ‘Archie the bastard. The bastard that Obie alternately hated and admired.’
  • Archie looks like an All-American Boy but it turns out he’s atheist, which is not very American at all, especially in 1974.
  • ‘That’s what baffled everyone about Archie — his changes of mood, the way he could be a wise bastard one minute and a great guy the next’
  • Although Archie is really mean, he ‘disliked violence’.

Norman Stanton: ‘a blustering bragging character with wild red hair and eyelids matted with yellow crap’

Roland Goubert: The Goober. Juxtaposition: Very tall yet like a child.

Brother Leon: Can control a class but Archie sees vulnerabilities. Assistant Headmaster but in Archie’s eyes he is simply an errand boy for the head. Not worthy of respect. However, like Archie, this man has two juxtaposed sides to him. “In the classroom, Leon was another person altogether. Smirking, sarcastic. His thin, high voice venomous. He could hold your attention like a cobra. Instead of fangs, he used his teacher’s pointer, flicker out here, there, everywhere. He watched the class like a hawk, suspicious, searching out cheaters or daydreamers, probing for weaknesses in the students and then exploiting those weaknesses.’ This man will make a good shadow character for Archie.

Leon is an ambiguous character. In Chapter Six we see him carry out a cruel taunting on a student then tells the class he’s delivered a lesson. He hasn’t delivered a lesson without causing the boy in question grief, so is this similar to doing something really mean and then calling it ‘a joke’? Another juxtaposition.

‘Emile was a brute, which was kind of funny because he didn’t look like a brute. He wasn’t big or overly strong. … Wise guys usually sat in back. Emile didn’t. He chose seats near the front where he’d be in better position to harass the teacher.’

‘Emile, you’re a beautiful person’, says Archie, watching Emile steal fuel from a weaker kid’s car. But Emile never knows if Archie is serious or not — in fact, stealing fuel probably does count as beautiful in Archie’s eyes, because Emile can be useful to him. At the end of Chapter Six, Emile is ‘somehow disappointed’ that the owner of the vehicle hasn’t caught him stealing gas. This is a different kind of irony — an emotion the the audience wouldn’t expect in most people.

The sale of chocolates is such a cozy thing to do — this part of the plot could easily be used in a middle grade novel set in a genuine utopia. But here, the chocolate fundraiser is juxtaposed against the evil of the school.

Goober is the reflection character for Archie. Whereas Archie is delighted at chaos, Goober is utterly bewildered by it, not comfortable at all. We are set to root for Goober because he is such an underdog, but we are equally keen to see what Archie gets up to, because Archie is interesting. Without each other, this book would feel too pathetic or too mean. These boys balance each other out for the reader.

Jerry Renault is the Every Boy — most readers have not lost their mother to cancer, but we can empathise with him because we feel our lives would look like his if we did. Apart from the ghost of a dead mother, nothing much stands out about Jerry. He’s like the Jerry Seinfeld off Seinfeld actually — the characters around him are more individualised.

Among the teachers, too, we have a replica of the classroom, with the Brothers responding in contrasting ways to the same event. Brother Eugene is the grown up Goober — sensitive and emotional and vulnerable. Brother Leon understands Archie the best, though Archie does not have a sociopathic equivalent on staff, which is good for him. The teachers have power by virtue of being teachers, so Brother Leon is still a formidable opponent for Archie.

STORY WORLD OF THE CHOCOLATE WAR

USA setting.

Obie describes the school as ‘a lousy little high school like Trinity’. This is a Catholic school. This is a school that revolves around sport. Football is everything. It is clear from this that we’re talking about a boys’ high school, with its particular brand of hyper-masculinity. Boxing turns out to be other other big sport at Trinity — another dangerous, combative pastime.

The Trinity brothers wanted peace at any price, quiet on the campus, no broken bones.

This is a run-down school — the football field needs seeding and the bleachers need replacing. This needs to be a run-down school because if it were wealthy the need to sell all those chocolates wouldn’t be as dire.

Within this school we have something akin to the mafia:

The Vigils kept things under control. Without The Vigils, Trinity might have been torn apart like other schools had been, by demonstrations, protests, all that crap.

The school is populated with a variety of teachers, some good, some not so good. Brother Eugene: one of the good brothers who teach at Trinity. ‘A peaceful sort’. He exists to contrast with Brother Leon.

The Vigils meet in a small room behind the gym.

Obie works at the grocery store stacking shelves for a part-time job. A friend of the family owns the store, suggesting a cosy, small town where everyone knows everyone.

But this version of American suburbia is an apparent utopia — underneath, things are rotten. Case in point: The Vigils. The gang headed by Archie. These boys run the town. Lead by Archie. President is another bastard called Carter. Obie is secretary and underdog.

For fun there’s the Teen-Age Canteen where the boys have the opportunity to meet girls, referred to as ‘broads’, because these boys objectify female characters as if they’re an entirely different species.

NARRATIVE TECHNIQUE IN THE CHOCOLATE WAR

In a novel, even the unseen narrator can be considered a character. I feel the narrative voice is masculine, perhaps someone who knows these boys really well, a stand-in for a fellow student at the school. He talks about girls as if they are a different species: “The girl was heart-wrenchingly, impossibly beautiful.” (Not the way girls usually describe each other.) However, he is also closely emulating the voice of the characters themselves. ‘Close’ third person.

This close third person narrator reminds us occasionally that he is telling a story. Here, he lampshades some pretty obvious symbolism. Perhaps as he was writing even Cormier thought the cross symbolism felt a little heavy handed:

The shadows of the goalposts definitely resembled a network of crosses, empty crucifixes. That’s enough symbolism for one day, Obie told himself.

Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War

Cormier is an all-knowing, misanthropic, pessimistic character who can zoom right into the psychologies of the characters as if he knows them better than they know themselves (he does), and that’s because he sees through their eyes. The narrator is one of them. However, The Chocolate War does not have the immediacy of voice common to most YA novels. Most are written either in first person right after the events, or occasionally in third person right after the events. Perhaps because this was never meant for the YA audience, Cormier’s narrator seems much older, as if he’s looking back in time as an unnamed student in this school, but with the psychological insight of a 40 year old man.

The advantage of this kind of narrator is that his wisdom can fill in the gaps for an audience who has yet to give much thought to how social groups and dominance works. A teenage narrator would seem preternaturally gifted in psychology to believably write this stuff.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE CHOCOLATE WAR

QUESTIONS AND REVELATIONS IN THE CHOCOLATE WAR

Cormier is a master of this technique:

If you have too many scenes that just set up questions and knock ’em down, then the story will seem plodding and episodic, and it won’t build a larger narrative. So you have to mix quick payoffs with longer mysteries.

Usually the question that ends the scene is a practical one that’s instantly answered by the circumstances of the next. But you should keep your audience looking further ahead, breathlessly wondering how the events they’ve just witnessed will affect the rest of the story.

Matt Bird, The Secrets of Story

Cormier was a master of the question and revelation sequence. He makes readers work just the right amount before handing over the information. I started to make detailed notes on how Cormier was achieving this, but it soon got so complicated I gave up the task. Just know that this book looks simple at first read but is extremely intricately plotted, with set ups and pay-offs, perfect foreshadowing and expert subtleties. If I planned to write a book similar to this I would persevere with my detailed notes.

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

Our protagonist (in its original, Greek sense — the character who gets the story going) is Jerry Renault. We see him getting beaten up in the first scene, straight into ‘action’, in its most widely used sense.

Hey Coach, you pit on me, Jerry protested. Stop the spitting, coach. What he said aloud was, ‘I’m all right, coach,’ because he was a coward about stuff like that, thinking one thing and saying another, planning one thing and doing another — he had been Peter a thousand times and a thousand cocks had crowed in his lifetime.

Robert Cormier, The Chocolate War

He is not the right body type to be playing football. Too skinny. Ironically, this is his dream.

Chapter two flips to Obie.

Obie was bored. Worse than bored. He was disgusted. He was also tired.

There we have them — Obie’s main psychological weaknesses in the very first line. Cormier is masterful the way he combines unexpected emotions. We can imagine how someone would mistake disgust for boredom, though may not of thought of this before.

The alternating points of view establish that this is not a story about any one character or hero, but about a community. The community itself is the main character, and this community has a dark, seedy underbelly.  Another story like this is Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx. Another is The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.

The boys in this story each has their own weakness, except for Archie, who demonstrates better than anyone in YA literature how psychopathy is an evolutionary advantage.

DESIRE

Archie is kingpin and has a very specific goal. It’s Archie’s goal which drives the story, making him the ‘main character’ in a sense. His aim is always to inflict as much psychological pain as possible on those around him.

Certain other boys desire the approval of Archie. Emile is another sociopath, though not quite as smart. I suspect circumstances have deprived him of empathy, whereas Archie seems ‘born evil’.

Goober just wants to be left alone to run.

Jerry doesn’t want anything at first but gets sucked into the drama and wants to passively aggressively claim some status for himself. He doesn’t have to do much to earn that — in fact, he has to do the opposite of something — nothing, so the little rebellions prove too tempting.

So in these characters we see the whole range of desire, from ‘leave me alone’ to ‘I’m going to turn this little community upside down.’

OPPONENT

The coach is Renault’s first opponent, though it remains to be see whether he is an ally. Teachers can swing either way — in fiction as in real life, they can seem mean but actually have students’ best interests at heart. This coach is a stereotypical mean guy. He looks like ‘an old gangster’ and even has a movie-star scar on his cheek. ‘But a helluva coach, they said’. Turns out the meanest looking coach isn’t the most dangerous adult in the school.

Obie’s arch nemesis is Archie. Archie is depicted as an ‘all American boy’, with blonde hair blowing in the wind, sitting in the bleachers. ‘Archie turned and smiled at [Obie] benevolently, like a goddam kind passing out favours.’ Archie is soon set up as the main force of evil — the true, evil villain of the story. Even the title is drawn from him — minions must buy him Hersheys or else get on the wrong side of him.

There’s no true friendship in this novel. When a pecking order is being established it has to be constantly maintained. Everyone is everyone else’s opponent. Though it appears Goober and Jerry could have been friends, they weren’t for the entirety of the novel.

PLAN

Each character has his own plan in an intricate battle for top of the hierarchy. The boys are each a different example of one way of going about gaining dominance within an institution. For instance:

Jerry — passive aggressively, by refusing to do as asked, then getting a bit addicted to the adrenaline of rebellion and taking it further.

Archie — like a sociopath, taking power from others, killing their spirits

Goober — Just trying to get along unnoticed, manoeuvring around the power plays of others

These characters are mirrored in the characters of the teachers.

BATTLE

The minor battles of the pranks and the refusal to sell lead up to the big fight — a literal battle scene which we suspect may have killed Jerry Renault. (You have to go back to the first sentence of the book to be sure, but it’s metaphorical — his spirit has been killed.) This fight has been set up by Archie to get Jerry back for refusing to start selling the chocolates again. He is pitted against Emile Janza, a strong physical opponent. Students can buy raffle tickets. They write on the tickets who gets to hit who and where. Things get out of hand when Emile loses control of himself.

SELF-REVELATION

Jerry is almost dead when he comes to some kind of understanding:

The knowledge, the knowledge: what he had discovered. Funny, how his mind was clear suddenly, apart from his body, floating above his body, floating above the pain.

‘It’ll be all right, Jerry.’

No, it won’t. He recognized Goober’s voice and it was important to share the discovery with Goober. He had to tell Goober to play ball, to play football, to run, to make the team, to sell the chocolates, to sell whatever they wanted you to sell, to do whatever they wanted you to do. … They tell you to do your thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not 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.

— The Chocolate War

This is a literal outworking of what John Truby advises when writing self-revelations: Make your character come to the absolute brink of (spiritual/actual) death before giving them their epiphany. Otherwise it won’t feel like they earned it.

Seelinger Trites makes use of the word ‘epiphany’ here, and points out that the self-revelation experienced by Jerry in The Chocolate War is completely typical of YA literature:

[The] intertextual question that lies at the heart of The Chocolate War — “Do I dare disturb the universe?” — is representative of an ethos that informs many adolescent novels. The chief characteristic that distinguishes adolescent literature form children’s literature is the issue of how social power is deployed during the course of the narrative. In books that younger children read…much of the action focuses on one child who learns to feel more secure in the confines of her or his immediate environment, usually represented by family and home. Children’s literature often affirms the child’s sense of Self and her or his personal power.

But in the adolescent novel, protagonists must learn about the social forces that have made them what they are. They learn to negotiate the levels of power that exist in the myriad social institutions within which they must function, including family; school; the church; government; social constructions of sexuality, gender, race, class; and cultural mores surrounding death. … In The Chocolate War, for example, Jerry Renault must negotiate his place within a family, in terms of a religion, and in his school.. Jerry’s epiphany is a recognition that social institutions are bigger and more powerful than individuals. The lesson he learns is a primary one in Young Adult literature.

Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature

YA literature reassures readers that the world is your oyster if only you can find the power within yourself to rise above it or up into it.

Symbol Web

To help lead a character (and readers) towards a self-revelation, authors often make use of a symbol which they return to again and again. In YA novels, it’s quite often photos. But it can just as easily be something else. In The Chocolate War, it’s “The Love Song of Alfred Prucock“. Jerry sees a poster with Do I Dare Disturb The Universe? (the inspiration for Seelinger Trite’s book on YA literature) every time he opens his locker.

This is a classic case of: The reader has the self-revelation even if the character doesn’t. When the character doesn’t have any revelation, the author has to use recursive tricks like a photo, a line from a poem, a stamp on a hand (in The Changeover by Margaret Mahy) to ram home the message for readers.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

I would like to point out that Jerry’s advice to Goober can be read two ways. It can sound like he’s saying, ‘buckle in, do what they tell you.’ But Seelinger Trites believes the message is yes, do disturb the universe:

Jerry’s final words in the novel echo the novel’s opening statement, “They murdered him.” His final lines are unspoken thoughts that he directs to his friend Goober: “Do whatever they wanted you to do…They tell you to do your own thing but they don’t mean it. They don’t want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too…. Don’t disturb the universe, Goober. Although Jerry appears defeated and is even possibly dead by novel’s end, the book still answers the question affirmatively: yes, he can disturb the universe. In fact, he should disturb the universe. Doing so may be painful, but Jerry has affected other people with the choices he has made.

Robert Seelinger Trites in her book Disturbing The Universe: Power and repression in adolescent literature

RELATED

The events in this novel ring very true to me. They probably ring true to you, too. Weird things happen in schools. This viral thread about the bread reminds me of the incidents in The Chocolate War, though doesn’t end as darkly.