The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

“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, no matter what the posters say.”

Jerry Renault refuses to sell chocolates in the annual Trinity school fund-raiser. At first he is only following an assignment from the secret student-run organization known as The Vigils, but after the period of his assignment is over he continues to abstain from selling chocolates. His radical individuality initially inspires the students, but when Jerry defies The Vigils after they demand he start selling the chocolates again he finds the entire school against him. He pays a terrible price for his rebellion and individuality.

I like that this book refuses to compromise for the sake of fiction. Jerry is a genuinely sympathetic character, while his various enemies throughout the book, the manipulative Archie, the bully Emile, and the corrupt Father Leon are morally repugnant. We side with Jerry, and hope that these characters, especially Archie, have their comeuppance. But, alas, Archie wins in the end. He outsmarts all the people who resent him and want to see him fall, and Jerry barely survives being beaten to a pulp for his convictions.

One scene in particular stands out in my mind as a good example of thinking about the choices a writer makes when constructing a plot. As assigner of The Vigils, Archie invents elaborate assignments for random students chosen from the school population to complete. However, a catch exists to temper the assigners creativity; for each assignment he must select a marble from a box containing four white marbles and one black marble, if he selects the black marble he must take the place of the student assigned and complete the task himself.

In the last scene of the book, Archie forces Jerry and Emile to participate in an elaborate boxing match before the whole student body. One of the other Vigils who resents Archie and looks forward to the day Archie will experience justice pulls out the box right before the boxing match. It seems Archie’s plans will finally backfire. Various characters throughout the book have been hoping Archie will fail; it seems practically foreshadowed that an assignment will backfire, and this is the perfect moment. Many other writers I suspect would’ve taken the story in this direction, and it still would’ve been a good way to end it, if not a more obvious ending and a different message. I appreciate that Cormier doesn’t take his story in this direction, though. Justice doesn’t prevail. Archie selects a marble and the odds hold up in his favor. In fact, the novel ends with Archie bragging how nobody can take people like him down.

Jerry’s ideal to disturb the universe is admirable, but often in reality the rich and powerful and super intelligent win over mere ideals. Idealism fails in this novel. I can see many reading too much into this “message.” It is very easy to view the story as an allegory showing the foolishness of idealism as ever so much hippie mind-rot (after all, it is comments by hippies that set Jerry on this rebellious path in the first place). I think this would be a misinterpretation. As I mentioned the earlier we do genuinely sympathize with Jerry, and we do hope the likes of father Leon, Emile, and Archie will face justice. Rather than wholeheartedly denouncing idealism, then, the story reminds us that idealism has a price, and that as much as we may hope for it and they may deserve it, the good guys don’t always win in the end. It reminds us that life simply doesn’t work that way. The story is also fairly original in that it shows teachers can be morally corrupt as embodied in the character of Father Leon.

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