“Champion” is a short story about boxing by Ringgold Lardner, who was an American sports columnist as well as a short story writer. He had three main subjects: sports, marriage and theatre. The story was first published in October 1916, Metropolitan magazine.
Lardner’s family was wealthy, he had to wear a brace on his foot until age eleven, he and his one wife had four sons and he died age 48 due to tuberculosis.
“Champion” starts out in Chicago (shortened to “Chi” later in the story). Midge moves around to other places such as Milwaukee, New York, New Orleans. The eventual setting fiction about Midge is that he also has a wife up in Canada (outside the range of the American media) with five sons, all ‘dead ringers’ for Midge: the ultimate dream for a man who has dreams of being all-powerful.
The pattern of domestic abuse isn’t so different from how it works today, with the following noteworthy addition:
“I’ll put you in a hospital where they’ll keep you quiet.”
Last century, sending ‘crazy’ wives and girlfriends to mental asylums was one strategy used by men to get rid of partners they no longer wanted. This was considered an alternative to divorce, for which the man could not be blamed. It was more common in the 1800s, but continued into the 1900s.
CHARACTERS OF “CHAMPION”
The cast of characters in “Champion” is a long one, because the point is that Midge goes through people like they’re nothing, one person after another after another. They are listed again at the end, to remind us of all the people he has screwed over.
For a full list of the characters, see here.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “CHAMPION”
This story is dialogue heavy and written in a working class Northern American lower class dialect of a century ago. All considered, it’s amazingly simple to read, and I’m sure it’d be satisfying to listen to.
Legend has it that his spelling wasn’t very good, though he was super smart academically. In those days, spelling alone could let you down in school.
Midge (Michael Kelly) is a man who uses violence like a workshop tool. He could be a sociopath, and this serves him well. Midge is more like a robotic horror opponent than a fleshed-out main man with human shortcomings and needs. I don’t even code his sociopathy as a shortcoming.
Instead, we see the cast around him suffer because of their own shortcomings. “Champion” is a good case study in stories which create a cardboard ‘main character’ then delve into how that person wreaks destruction on those around him.
Interesting that when this story was adapted for film in 1949, the screenwriters gave Midge more humanity.
Possibly we should be grateful that the makers of the film have sweetened the character just a little from the way he was in the tale, for Mr. Lardner’s Midge Kelly was as cruel and contemptible as they come.
New York Times
Reason given: the audience can put up with a one-dimensional psycho for main character in a short story, but watching him on screen for full movie-length would be highly unpleasant. In other words, you can’t get away with one-dimensional main characters in works of length.
Nothing stands in Midge’s way because he has the superpower gift of his fists. So when he gets in trouble for beating up his disabled brother, he simply leaves home to make his fortune. And so he does, going from strength to strength.
Because this guy is a fighter we see an endless stream of punches and kicks. There’s no big fight that will determine the course of this guy’s future — after a while we know he’s going to win.
Is it just me, or is everyone else waiting to see Midge get his punishment? I thought the industry itself might chew him up and spit him out. Most stories are conservative in their values — bad characters meet bad endings.
But this story subverts that expectation and ends with the following message: Once people are champions, their audience wants them to remain champions.
This is absolutely mimetic to real life. It works especially well for white men. We have seen it over the last few years in men who have been accused of assault then come back and keep on doing whatever’s been making them money. I’m sure Ring Lardner witnessed this himself, while working as a sports journalist. He must have wondered how such assholes can keep doing what they’re doing.
The answer, of course, is that an audience loves a champion.
It’s about wish fulfilment. We project our own wish to be famous and powerful onto celebrities and if they fall, we fall. There’s also the cognitive bias of sunk cost, in which we tend to stick with those into whom we’ve already invested our attention. It’s related to status quo bias, in which we prefer things how they are, even if that thing happens to be a patriarchy powered by toxic masculinity.
COMPARE AND CONTRAST
In one way this short story reminds me of the film The Wrestler, which is about how the modern American wrestling entertainment industry uses their wrestlers up and spits them out, without looking after them when their bodies become too broke to fight. But the main character of The Wrestler is a sympathetic figure and he is the underdog. Midge is no sympathetic underdog. Because I’ve seen The Wrestler, I know to expect he will get his comeuppance from the industry itself.
But no. Midge remains top dog. But even in The Wrestler, broken fighters remain top dog in the minds of the audience, and that’s what brings in the bucks.
If we met Midge at the end of his life, we might find someone looking more defeated, as Mickey Rourke looks in that poster.
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?
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 to 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 talk about, the problems with glossing over this aspect of Archie are two-fold:
As a culture we underestimate the rate of male on male sexual assault (important emphasis: rape is about power over others, not about orientation);
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:
Frequency of sexual references
Detail included in the sexual scenes e.g. masturbation
Negative portrayal of the institution of school
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 people badly. But what if some readers do not have morality to bring? What then?
Three Types of Young Adult Novels
Further to the banning, it’s important to note that Cormier did not intend The Chocolate War for a young adult audience. The reading age happens to be twelve, however. That seemed to be Cormier’s natural writing style.
The American Library Association classifies adolescent literature into three categories:
Books Written Specifically for Adolescents
Books Written for General Trade Market Which Have Adolescent Main Characters
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:
“Do I dare disturb the universe?”
from T.S. Eliot, 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’ non-participation 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 forAmerican 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 young adult 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
But is The Chocolate War any more political than your typical young adult 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
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 shortcomings in the students and then exploiting those shortcomings.’ 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
The Chocolate War is an American novel with a USA setting.
Obie describes the school as ‘a lousy little high school like Trinity’. This is a Catholic school. The culture 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 snail under the leaf setting — 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’s narrator 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 young adult 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 young adult 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.
The Chocolate War does not ask the young adult reader to trust in the voice of a single speaker or to accept a single, unchallenged view of events. In alternating chapters we are given thirteen different characters’ perspectives on events. Within some chapters, especially chapters twenty-five and thirty-five, the reader gets multiple points of view. Although Jerry Renault’s views are those most frequently shared, they do not account for even one third of the book. Despite the fact that no adult’s thoughts are represented (we never see into Jerry’s father’s or Brother Leon’s or Brother Jacque’s thoughts, for instance), the book does not limit itself to a single adolescent’s view of the world. The reader develops a sense of a complicated world through the recognition of competing positions and perspectives that are quite different from each other despite their all being “young adult”.
The Chocolate War is not written in first-person address, though the narrator reports throughs from the position of the characters being portrayed. We are told, for instance, that “The Goober was beautiful when he ran”. We understand that Goober himself considers this to be true in contrast with the rest of his life, including the moment under narration in which he attempts a terrifying “assignment”. Here we see what Gerard Genette would call indirect address.
Mike Cadden, The Irony of Narration in the Young Adult Novel
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.
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 shortcomings 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 shortcoming, except for Archie, who demonstrates better than anyone in YA literature how psychopathy is an evolutionary advantage.
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.’
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.
Each character has his own plan in an intricate big struggle 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.
The minor big struggles of the pranks and the refusal to sell lead up to the big fight — a literal big struggle 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.
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
When writing anagnorises: 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’ when describing the revelation that takes place in this novel, and points out that the anagnorisis experienced by Jerry in The Chocolate War is completely typical of young adult 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.
To help lead a character (and readers) towards a anagnorisis, 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 anagnorisis 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.
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
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.
Bobby Kent was a bully–a steroid-pumped 20-year-old who dominated his peers in their comfortable, middle-class Ft. Lauderdale beach community through psychological, physical and sexual abuse.
But on a summer night in 1993, Bobby was lured to the edge of the Florida everglades with a promise of sex and drugs. . .and was never seen alive again. The tormentor had become the victim in a bizarre and brutal act of vengeance carried out with ruthless efficiency and cold-blooded premeditation by seven of his high school acquaintances–including his lifelong best friend–and instigated by one overweight, underloved teenager who believed her life would be perfect. . .if only Bobby Kent were dead.
BULLY is a riveting story of adolescent rage and bloody revenge–all the more harrowing and horrific because its true.
My Summer Of Love is a 2004 film based on a novel by Helen Cross set in 1984. If you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures (1994), My Summer Of Love bears similarities: A relationship of romantic infatuation between two teenage girls from very different backgrounds.
This film puts the relationship between the girls to the forefront, making it a romance rather than a crime drama. My Summer Of Love is a love story but it is a tragic one.
GIRLS AND FANTASY LIVES
Picture books and middle grade novels are full of boys with rich fantasy lives. In these largely carnivalesque stories, the line between reality and fiction is blurred. But when it comes to young adult and adult fiction, what happens to all these dreamy boys? They disappear. Destructive, manipulative fantasies suddenly become a female characteristic.
At one point the girls enjoy a post-coital cigarette. This is such a Hollywood cliché that filmmakers themselves must be aware of what they’re doing. Here, the girls have themselves been influenced by the silver screen. Smoking in bed is what adults do, they have learned, and so they do it.
GIRLS AND MIND-ROTTING NOVELS
The girls’ whole summer is a construction of performed melodrama. There has always been handwringing about young women and the types of stories we let them read — a century ago many people believed novels would rot their minds. Ten years ago it was Twilight, more recently it’s sick-lit, and concerns (justified or not, I’m not sure) that 13 Reasons Why encourages suicide as a legitimate and successful form of revenge. Mona’s background in fiction includes horror films. As evidence we see her mimic the voice of a movie devil. But what has influenced Tamsin? She says she loves Edith Piaf. We also see she has made up melodramatic things about Piaf’s life. (Edith Piaf did lead a rather tragic life but she didn’t murder anyone, and not with a fork.) Tamsin’s mother may or may not be an amateur actress but in any case Tamsin seems to worship (real) actors, and has no doubt seen a lot of plays and films. Tamsin has been exposed to Nietzsche. She encourages Mona to read him, but soon shows that she doesn’t really know anything more than his name.
Perhaps boys continue with their fantasies but those take a different form and we no longer all them fantasies. Tamsin’s father is having a series of affairs. Perhaps we should compare this to the sexual fantasies and longing of his teenage daughter.
THE CHARACTER OF TAMSIN
Tamsin is an intriguing blend of savvy and naïve. Though she’s not all that dangerous yet due to her lack of power in the world, she is certainly a dangerous woman in the making.
IS TAMSIN A SOCIOPATH?
Is Tamsin on the sociopathic spectrum? Not being a psychologist myself, and with Tamsin not being a real person, I am free to speculate. I can certainly make a good case for it:
We know that Tamsin has been suspended from boarding school because apparently she’s a bad influence on others.
The scene which really makes me think Tamsin has zero empathy is the one where they visit the wife of the singer who was using Mona for sex at the beginning of the film. Tamsin revels in the misery she is causing this woman. (Neither of the girls are woke enough to see that this woman is not part of the man’s problem.)
Later she winds Phil around her little finger for laughs. (Anyone else think of that saying: “Men are terrified women will laugh at them; women are terrified men will kill them”? (Despite appearances, Tamsin isn’t old enough yet to know to be scared of men like Phil.)
Tamsin picks up that Mona is interested in horror movies and gives her a genuine scare by taking control of the Ouija board.
Tamsin’s fantasies about her sister being dead are creepy. It’s likely she has zero affection for Sadie.
Tamsin is charming, intoxicating and fun to be around.
Sociopathic women are not subject to the same body insecurities that most women are. That’s not the same as saying that any woman comfortable with her body must be a sociopath — think of it in the inverse: sociopathic women know exactly how attractive they are, unbound by society’s rules and expectations about femininity.
Sociopaths are more likely to use sex as power, and are therefore more likely to identify as bisexual, because power is the goal — gender of sexual target is irrelevant. (Again, not true in the inverse.)
The sorts of lies Tamsin tells are in line with what you’d expect from a sociopath. She lies to control others. She has no other reason to lie to Mona. Tamsin doesn’t need money or anything like that.
Since sociopathy is to some degree genetic, the philandering father is a possible sociopath in his own right. (We don’t learn enough about the mother.)
TAMSIN THE FANTASIST
The audience sees that Tamsin is a ‘fantasist’ before Mona does. The older you are, the earlier you see it.
Tamsin doesn’t change at all over the course of the film. She is a mendacious ‘bad influence’ at the outset and remains so. We know she will go straight back to boarding school, latch onto some new victim and continue to wreak havoc with people’s emotions.
SETTING OF MY SUMMER OF LOVE
Filmed in Todmorden, this story is set in a very similar Yorkshire town.
The book upon which this film is based starts in May, 1984. This was apparently a record-breaking heatwave for the area. Season is symbolic here — the extreme heat of this summer mirrors the ‘passion’ these girls feel for each other. Todmorden won’t see another heatwave quite like this one for a very long time. Likewise, we can surmise Mona won’t fall in love like that again.
The music, fashion and cars of the film make no attempt to take us back to 1984 — instead it looks like 2004. Nor is there anything about this that couldn’t be 1964 or even 1944, with a few surface-level modifications.
In 1984, gay relationships were illegal. In the film the girls are thrown out of the local dance establishment, not just for being high and interrupting the singer, but also for draping themselves all over each other. For the locals — be it 1984 or 2004 — two girls in love would have been a confronting sight.
But this is not really a story ‘about’ being gay, banding together against the wider, intolerant, heterosexual world. It would be a mistake to focus on this as a lesbian film. I regard this love as romantic but not erotic.
Yet the algorithms at IMDb reflect a tendency for filmgoers to focus on the salacious at the expense of seeing the story for what it is: Two (most probably) heterosexual young women playing out a love fantasy in what one of them thinks could replace real life.
THE FAKENHAM HOUSE
The aristocratic house is ‘creepy’ in Tamsin’s words, made even creepier by her made-up stories about it. At various points I thought of “Rapunzel“, though Tamsin had cloistered herself away in her upstairs bedroom largely by choice. (The dollhouse in Sadie’s bedroom is symbolic. )
I thought of Rapunzel again later when Mona’s brother literally locks her inside her bedroom. Tamsin chooses to cloister herself inside her bedroom, whereas the financially poor, working class and poorly-educated Mona is locked into hers. This is about more than the bedroom.
RICH AND POOR AS MIRROR CHARACTERS
A story instantly becomes more interesting when rich and poor come together in a story. A little Yorkshire village is the perfect opportunity for this — more so than London, probably — because country villages comprise tiny rows of cottages where the poorest people live, with ticky-tacky but newer cottages where middle-class people live (e.g. Mr Fakenham’s lover), but just beyond the town’s border lie the large homes of England’s aristocracy. The private-schooled daughter from the mansion down the drive is legitimately sharing the same country road as the girl from the pub.
NOTES ON THE STORY STRUCTURE
IS MY SUMMER OF LOVE A COMING-OF-AGE STORY?
[This is more] a movie that is about being an age, than coming out of age
What is a coming-of-age story? This isn’t an easy question because, at its widest interpretation, everything with a character arc is a ‘coming-of-age’ story.
What, then, makes My Summer Of Lovenota coming-of-age story, in Roger Ebert’s eyes? I guess it’s because 15-year-old Mona does not grow. Not in any desirable sense.
She certainly comes to a realisation. Mona is let down in love — again. She has no one in the world apart from a volatile, ex-crim brother. when she almost drowns Tamsin in the river she demonstrates that she has a bit of her brother’s murderous rage within her. When she walks down the road in that last scene — we don’t know to where — I feel her life will be just as terrible and deflated as she always expected it to be.
In this story there’s nothing of the psychological ‘growth’ characteristic of a coming-of-age story. Rather, Mona briefly saw grander possibilities for herself during a brief brush with a child of the aristocracy, and now she has shrunk back into herself. A feature of a coming-of-age story: the main character becomes equipped with the strength and courage and independence to face the world head on, and to move into adulthood living as her ‘true self‘.
Because we don’t get to see where Mona is going, the audience must extrapolate to achieve a sense of ending. Another viewer might see her attempted strangulation of Tamsin as a form of female empowerment, but I am not in that camp. I see this violence as a warning sign. (In domestic violence, strangulation is the best predictor of subsequent murder.)
The plot of the ex-con older brother’s religious conversion seems unrelated at first but over the course of the story we realise both get at the main question: What does it mean to be a genuine person? Failing to live up to his standards of Good Christian Person, Phil tells his church buddies to up and leave the premises. Like Mona, Phil too is probably back on the path to ruination.
SOME DIFFERENCES BETWEEN BOOK AND FILM
Mona narrates the book, so her Yorkshire dialect is strong. In the film we only see her idiosyncratic way of speaking when she actually speaks, and she doesn’t say that much.
CAST OF CHARACTERS
Mona and Phil — called Porkchop in the novel because he is fat — have a sister named Lindy. Lindy is getting married for the second time. The film suggests that there are more kids than just Mona and Phil, when Mona tells Tamsin about her future hypothetical life in which she’ll have a bunch of kids, wait for menopause, or cancer, seeming to mirror her own mother’s sorry life. The entire subplot of the wedding is gone from the film, probably due to the constraints on time. More story fits into a novel.
In the book we know Tamsin’s last name: Fakenham. It never comes up in the film. Being an allegorical name, this might be too on-the-nose.
In the book Mona is self-conscious of her appearance whereas her appearance is a non-issue in the film. Perhaps because Mona has red hair, is skinny and freckled the audience is supposed to ‘know’ her insecurity. Almost every 15-year-old who goes by that description in fiction has huge body image insecurities — the most famous being Anne of Green Gables. Mona bears other similarities to Anne Shirley — she is terribly alone in the world and has the ability to sink into fantasy. Perhaps Mona is Anne Shirley from another time and place.
DIFFERENCE IN SETTING
In the film, Phil is shutting down the family bar at the beginning of the story but in the book Mona works as a barmaid at the pub where the family lives.
Mona thieves, plays on the fruit machines and drinks alcohol to help her cope with the day. We see Mona smoking and drinking but the film doesn’t show her gambling and thieving tendencies. This makes her even more of a naïve puppet in Tamsin’s games.
Tamsin is home from boarding school and seems lonely, so Mona gets a ‘call to adventure‘ when Tamsin’s father Mr. Fakenham asks her to befriend his daughter.
In the book Mona is on her way to school when she decides to visit the Fakenham house. There is no mention of school for Mona in the film. We assume she’s left, or at least, she’s not going back. Her education is over. She seems a bit older than fifteen, too. Ages are not mentioned.
Mona finds Tamsin’s parents arguing about Mr. Fakenham’s affairs when she first visits the big house. In the film we don’t see Tamsin’s mother until the very end, and we find out about Mr Fakenham’s affairs through different means, left in the dark about whether this was actually going on, or if this too was another part of Tamsin’s fantasy.
IF YOU LIKED MY SUMMER OF LOVE CHECK OUT…
Heavenly Creatures is based on a true story which I feel is the main edge it has over this story. Peter Jackson utilises more stylisation in Heavenly Creatures, but the acting is on a par. Like Kate Winslet, Emily Blunt has gone on to be a big name.
Commentators have compared the book My Summer Of Love — with its emphasis on a sister’s wedding absent in the film — to The Member Of The Wedding by Carson McCullers.
Tonally, look to We Have Always Lived In The Castleby Shirley Jackson. Jackson’s narrator is a mendacious teenage girl, whereas the narrator of My Summer of Love is a more ordinary character. The setting, too, is similar. Merricat Blackwood is sequestered in her ‘castle’ but occasionally goes into the village.
If you enjoyed My Summer Of Love, check out Fish Tank, a film by Andrea Arnold.