The Chocolate War

The Chocolate War Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16-20

Brother Leon's ability to terrorize and coerce his students is again on display in chapter sixteen. David Caroni, another excellent student, has been given an F on a routine test. It becomes clear that the F was undeserved, and that Brother Leon is hanging it over Caroni's head to make him tell him why Jerry Renault is not selling the chocolates. Caroni lets Leon know that Jerry is carrying out a Vigil assignment, but that he is only supposed to refuse to sell the chocolates for ten days. Caroni hopes that the undeserved F will be reversed now that he has told Brother Leon the secret, but Brother Leon does not reassure him, which causes Caroni to think that "life was rotten, that there were no heroes, really, and that you couldn't trust anybody, not even yourself."

In chapter seven, Renault again refuses to sell the chocolates, though the period of his Vigil assignment is up. Brother Leon's face registers intense shock, and Jerry feels that he has jumped over a precipice by going his own way.

Chapter eighteen opens with Jerry trying to figure out why he would refuse to sell the chocolates on his own, independent of the assignment. He lies awake that night, unable to sleep, overcome with a feeling of claustrophobia. He cannot determine the exact motivation for his act of civil disobedience, but he questions whether it was inspired by his disgust for Brother Leon's taunting of weak boys like Bailey. Jerry hadn't planned to not sell the chocolates, but the refusal had just leapt to his lips when the time came. He recalls the hatred that he saw in Brother Leon's eyes when he passed him one day in the hallway. He has begun to see himself through the eyes of the hippie in the park who said to him, "You're missing a lot of things in the world."

In chapter nineteen Jerry is congratulated on the bus on the way to school for having the guts to refuse the chocolates. It is cold comfort, for Jerry feels sick from last night and is not convinced that he is continuing his refusal for the right reasons. Goober meets him at school and tells him that he is courting trouble. When Jerry gets to his locker, he looks at the poster he has hung in his locker which bears the line from T.S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land: "Do I dare disturb the universe?"

At roll call, Jerry once again refuses the chocolates, but this time the act makes him feel a wave of sadness.

Chapter twenty opens in Brother Jacques' history class. Every time the teacher says the word "environment," the entire class gets up from their desks and runs in place. The result is "pandemonium." This is clearly a Vigil stunt, and eventually Brother Jacques learns which word the boys are responding to. He works the word into his lecture as often as possible, thereby tiring the boys out and making the stunt a failure. Obie is in the class, and when he realizes that Brother Jacques is onto the Vigil stunt he begins to believe that Archie has tipped the teacher off to the prank. This angers Obie, and he vows to seek revenge on Archie.


The book thus far has been perfectly plotted, with very little excess action, to create the situation wherein Jerry refuses to sell the chocolates. Part of Cormier's mastery is that he reveals the reasons for Jerry's refusal slowly, so as to heighten the tension. In chapter thirteen, the reader does not know why Jerry refuses the chocolates. There may be an inkling that it has to do with a Vigils assignment, but nothing has been confirmed. Caroni then reveals the nature of Jerry's assignment to Leon, and the reader thinks that perhaps this will signal the end of Jerry's refusal. The subsequent "No" out of Jerry's mouth on the eleventh day carries a renewed surprise.

The circuitous route to the revelation also mimics the byzantine complexity of Jerry's reasoning. First and foremost, Jerry has lost his mother, setting him apart from the other boys. He has little to no support at home, for his grieving father is emotionally unavailable. His rightful disgust at Leon, who has tipped his hand by revealing his cruelty and grasping ambitions, has made him feel even more separate from the rest of the students. He has just experienced some success at football, which may have emboldened him. He is suffering under the double pressure of Brother Leon and The Vigils, and perhaps Jerry simply decides that it is too much.

For a boy of fourteen, without someone to guide him, the refusal to conform (especially when faced with threats to his self-preservation) is a bit surprising. But Brother Leon is partially to blame for Jerry's decision. If he had not accused the class of being "like Nazi Germany" as they silently watched Bailey be falsely accused, perhaps Jerry would not have been so willing to dissent. That lesson, misguided and cruel though it was, planted the seed of civil disobedience in Jerry's mind, and his other emotional pressures allowed him to follow Leon's reasoning to his own particularly disobedient, nonconformist solution.

The Vigil stunt in which the boys in Brother Jacques' class are compelled to leap up and jog whenever the word "environment" is used is an example of blatant irony. This word, which first came into vogue in the mid-1970s, was already being overused and occasionally misused in the media, and perhaps in textbooks. A growing awareness of pollution and ecology led to some fear-mongering and hand-wringing in certain educational materials of the time. But in addition to the ecological slant, changes in society were creating a greater awareness of environments within schools, and old repressive traditions were being replaced with newer, more open models of education and discipline. The "environment" at Trinity, however, is one of conformity, discipline and hypocrisy, shot through with secret and underhanded rebellion. In short, the environment at Trinity is a pressure cooker of stress over grades, the threat of physical violence, and fear of nonconformity. The image of the boys letting out their frustration at the warped environment at Trinity in their furious intermittent jogging sessions in Brother Jacques' class borders on the darkly comic.