One of the easiest themes to discern in The Chocolate War, if only because The Vigils create such an exaggerated environment, is resistance to a pack mentality. Brother Leon and The Vigils channel the herd instinct into negative rather than positive avenues, and - at least initially - do so with a remarkable degree of success. Archie believes that people are two things, "greedy and cruel," and feels that by using these principles he can control the mob and force it to bend to his wishes. Brother Leon does the same, using fear and blackmail to force the group along the path he has chosen. Jerry's rebellion against this collective activity is the driving force of the novel.
At various points in the novel, several characters - most notably Obie, Archie, Goober, and Carter - express the belief that the world is a horrible place, and that everyone in it is evil. Jerry is not immune to this feeling, especially when confronted with his father's aimless, grief-laden existence. Almost every character, when facing the daunting chocolate sale, the hypocrisy of the teachers, and the mob rule of The Vigils, considers that the world, or at least Trinity High School and all the people in it, are evil or wrong in some way. Goober says it most pithily when he calls Trinity "more than rotten." This theme is likely to resound with Cormier's predominantly adolescent readers, many of whom may be in the throes of a struggle with the same lingering feelings of distaste towards society.
A reader unfamiliar with Robert Cormier's history may entertain the idea that this book takes place in a French-speaking community. Cormier grew up in the French Hill section of Leominster, Massachusetts, and many of the families in that neighborhood were of French-Canadian descent. Monument, the fictional town in The Chocolate War that closely resembles Leominster, is similarly populated with people with French-sounding names such as Renault, Goubert, Leon, Parmentier, and Jacques. There are, however, several names, including Carter, Costello, and Caroni, that are decidedly not French, speaking to the mixed ethnic character of the community. There is a preponderance of French, Italian, and Irish names, reflecting the ethnic makeup of many of the families who chose to send their children to a Catholic school.
Jerry, Goober, and even Archie are all confronted by seemingly insurmountable authority figures, be it the school, Brother Leon, or The Vigils. It appears that no one save for Jerry ever combats the authority of Brother Leon or The Vigils, though many students seem to wish that they had the strength to do so. When Rollo, another student, finally follows Jerry's example and defies The Vigils, he exemplifies the exact kind of subversion The Vigils have hoped to quash. Their effective fear tactics have kept the student body in a state of unquestioning obedience thus far, and the fact that Jerry defies them by refusing to sell the chocolates (a negative action) shows that positive actions are ineffective against mob rule. Ultimately, however, Jerry's determination to negate The Vigils' authority has grave consequences for him, as he is severely beaten twice.
The Vigils, led by Archie, do indeed defy the authority of the school and Brother Leon, but only through guerilla tactics and pranks. In the end, Archie and The Vigils do exactly what Brother Leon wants: they sell the huge quantity of chocolates. Though Archie tries to make the chocolate sale subversive, and even attempts a blackmail of sorts on Brother Leon, it is clear that the authority of the school and the authority of The Vigils are unchangeable, held in balance by a kind of silent truce.
Throughout the novel, the action of the story is punctuated by athletic or violent physical activity. The book begins with football practice, during which Jerry is repeatedly tackled by bigger players. In order to handle his stress and to train for football, Goober runs through the streets - sometimes taking Jerry with him. When Carter grows angry at a Vigils meeting, he thinks about boxing and going hard at "the big bag." And of course, more than one fight and beating takes place between the boys.
Cormier effectively demonstrates how important physical activity, sports, and violence are to teenage boys - and especially to teenage boys under stress. The boys at Trinity choose physical activity to have fun, to achieve status, and to seek out revenge. It is their common currency. Only Archie, is arguably the most perverse - and perhaps least redeemable - of all the cruel boys at Trinity, refrains from physical activities and sports of any kind, and violence, when he sees it, sickens him. Although Archie is the cause of most of the real violence in this novel, he himself is a coward and is portrayed as strikingly unphysical in comparison to the boys around him.
There is an underlying satire to the makeup of the economic status of the boys at Trinity. Brother Leon sums it up nicely when discussing the chocolate sale with Archie. He says the boys at Trinity are solidly middle-class, not upper-middle or upper-class. Brother Leon implies that the goals and values of the school are in keeping with what that class of society wants - or what Brother Leon believes that they want. There is a strong emphasis on grades at Trinity (it is even implied that the emphasis is on grades rather than on real learning) and most people choose Trinity for their boys because it is the "best college prep around here." The goal for most Trinity parents is to get their sons into a good college so that they will go on to have solid, middle-class jobs. There is also a strong emphasis on sports and physical achievement.
While none of these goals are in and of themselves bad, at Trinity they often become perverted. No one seems to have a real love of knowledge, or a desire to learn for learning's sake. Nor is there an emphasis on spirituality or anything but the most punitive form of religion (Brother Leon actively blackmails a child with the threat of a bad grade). The message here is that at Trinity, middle-class values become twisted to the point where they are only mercenary and status-seeking, rather than educational or spiritual.
Lack of Parental Involvement
The boys at Trinity appear to conduct their affairs almost without the interference of their families. Seldom are parents even mentioned (and then only in passing, negatively, or, as in the case of Jerry's father, to show their ineffectuality), and they are never portrayed as powerful or particularly interested in their sons' lives. They parents who send their boys to Trinity appear to have taken to heart the "in loco parentis" notion that the Catholic brothers who run the school will make the necessary decisions for their sons' welfare. No boy ever appeals to his parents for help against the teachers or The Vigils. Caroni doesn't tell anyone that Brother Leon blackmailed him, and Jerry even shields the fact that he was brutally beaten from his own father. The boys of Trinity are adrift between the mob rule of The Vigils and the Machiavellian authority of Brother Leon.
Simplicity of Text
Very few multi-syllabic words are used in this novel, and Cormier employs almost no slang. He takes pains to make the language timeless and transparent, with no self-consciousness on the part of the speakers or identifying quirks of speech. Certain characters repeat certain words (Archie, for example, is fond of calling even the ugliest things "beautiful"), but idiosyncratic language is avoided almost to a fault. The result is a novel that may lack ambiance, but is rife with a sense of timelessness. The universality of the dialogue and speech patterns (within the confines of a white suburban Catholic high school, at least) makes the story and characters easily identifiable to a wide audience.
The Chocolate War Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Chocolate War is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.