The Chocolate War: Essay Q&A
1. At one point in the novel The Goober says that something is “rotten” at Trinity High School. What exactly has gone wrong at Trinity?
As a Catholic school, Trinity should be a place that teaches Christian values such as charity, kindness and honor, but these values are lost or distorted at Trinity. In Chapter Two, the image of the goal posts as empty crosses suggests that true leadership is missing at Trinity. Brother Leon is more interested in becoming the headmaster than he is in shaping students’ characters. He makes the chocolate sale sound like a crusade for the good of Trinity, when he is actually using it to make himself look good. He preaches about personal integrity, yet he condemns Jerry for standing up for himself. And he allows Archie and The Vigils to haze and intimidate students who do stand up for themselves. Archie uses kindness and his brand of charity only as tools for manipulating students. He speaks kindly to boys he chooses to haze, then turns businesslike and ruthless when he pronounces their assignments. He pretends concern for Obie, while also “sticking the needle” into him. He convinces Jerry that he can regain honor by fighting Emile Janza, when he is really just conning Jerry into betraying his honor. Even boys like The Goober and John Carter—well-liked, athletic boys—cannot muster the courage to stand up to Archie and the system at Trinity. Both Brother Leon and Archie Costello have made Trinity a place where charity, kindness, and honor have been replaced with greed, hatred, and cowardice.
2. Cormier portrays Jerry Renault as a normal teenage boy rather than as a hero. Why does Cormier portray Jerry this way? What statement is Cormier making about heroes?
Cormier provides several details that paint Jerry Renault as a fourteen-year-old boy struggling with normal adolescent issues. At the beginning of the novel, he is trying to find a place at school by making the football team; football is, to Jerry, an “honest” sport in which hard work is rewarded. Like the other boys, he is interested in finding a girlfriend, he is curious about sex, and he longs to rebel in some way, although he is not sure how. He keeps his longing for his dead mother to himself; he cannot express his feelings to his father. Even when Jerry decides to rebel, he does not do so in a “heroic” way; in fact, he does not feel like a hero. He does not intend to lead some glorious, school-wide rebellion for a good cause. And even when he is persecuted, he does not keep his resolve, as a true hero would; instead, he betrays himself and tells Goober not to disturb the universe. By having “the mob” triumph over a normal, truly good boy, Cormier offers readers a blunt, realistic view of bullying, one in which there are victims and those who victimize, but no shining heroes.
3. How does the poster in Jerry’s locker symbolize both the good and the bad aspects of daring to disturb the universe?
The poster in Jerry’s locker shows a man walking along a deserted beach and includes the caption “Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?” The universe is symbolized by the vast ocean, while the man symbolizes those who dare to walk their own paths in the universe. At first, Jerry sees this poster as encouraging. Those who disturb the universe, who take on the ocean, are brave individuals. They are not afraid of what the universe might throw at them; they are determined it will not drown them. Jerry discovers, however, that disturbing the universe is a very solitary act—and dangerous. He is alone as he confronts Brother Leon and The Vigils, who try to make him feel invisible and try to “murder” him psychologically. When the bullying turns physical and Jerry suspects that they might really murder him, Jerry understands that the ocean/universe is a dangerous, even deadly place for a single person, no matter how brave he or she may be. In the end, the ocean/universe sweeps Jerry off his feet, and it is doubtful whether he will ever walk the same, brave, solitary path again.
4. How is chocolate used as an ironic symbol in The Chocolate War? Why did Cormier choose chocolates, rather than other fundraising objects—such as books, magazines, or t-shirts—to be sold in the novel?
Chocolate is an ironic symbol on several levels in The Chocolate War. Chocolate in itself brings to mind images of sweetness that contrast with images of war. Who fights over chocolate? Who uses chocolate to wage a war? Only Brother Leon and Archie, for whom chocolate symbolizes power, can turn a sweet dessert into an object of war. The chocolates that Brother Leon buys are leftover Mother’s Day chocolates, intended for honoring mothers, yet in Brother Leon’s hands they become tools for making him more powerful. In Archie’s hands, the chocolates become a means for persecuting a motherless boy. By devising the raffle, Archie fully intends for Jerry to pay with his blood for those chocolates that he did not sell. The original, tender purpose of the chocolates has been perverted into a monstrous purpose: to keep in power those who are already in power.
5. In Chapter One, Jerry feels guilty, like Peter betraying Jesus, when he tells the football coach he is fine, although he is in crippling pain. How does this image of Jerry as Peter foreshadow what happens to Jerry at the end of the novel?
Peter betrayed Jesus by denying that he knew him. He did this because he was afraid of what people would do to him if they discovered that he was one of Jesus’ disciples. Jerry is afraid that the coach will not allow him on the team if he is not tough enough, so he denies that he is in pain in order to appear tough. This lie bothers Jerry, however, because it means he is not being true to himself. He is trying to be something he is not in order to belong at Trinity. Once Jerry commits to being true to himself and refuses to sell the chocolates, he is euphoric; standing up for himself, doing what he really wants, is a wonderful, empowering feeling. But Archie Costello, as the architect of evil in the novel, cleverly baits Jerry into betraying himself. He dangles the prospect of revenge in front of Jerry, and Jerry is sucked into thinking revenge would make him feel better about himself. Too late, after he is brutally beaten, does Jerry realize that Archie brought him down to his level. Like Archie, he had become someone who acted out of hatred, rather than out of honor. Like Peter, Jerry had given in to peer pressure rather than standing up for what he believed in—the good within himself.