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The Chocolate War

Robert Cormier
Plot Summary

The Chocolate War

Robert Cormier

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 1974

Plot Summary

The Chocolate War (1974), a young adult novel by renowned American author Robert Cormier, deals with the fallout from a young man’s decision to defy both the authorities and a gang of unruly pranksters at the Catholic school where he is a freshman.

Jerry Renault, a bright and athletic freshman at Trinity Catholic High School, is coping with philosophical, existential woes in the wake of his mother’s death. The reader also meets The Goober, his teammate on the school’s football team. Through Goober, the reader is introduced to the Vigils, an anarchic secret student society that assigns tasks to various students. If the student doesn’t comply, the consequences are said to be dire. The Goober’s assignment is to unscrew all the screws of the desks and chairs in a particular classroom so that when students sit down the next morning, everyone falls down. The Goober is traumatized by his own actions after carrying out this deed.

The reader also meets Brother Leon, the school’s vice principal and new headmaster. Each year, the student-athletes are tasked with selling chocolate to the townspeople to raise money for the school; Brother Leon declares his intention to sell twice as much chocolate as ever before. In his overarching ambition to run the school, Brother Leon uses unauthorized funds to pay for more chocolate so he can meet his stated goals. Nervous about failing, Brother Leon asks for help from Vigils leader Archie Costello.

Archie, a consummate prankster, accepts Brother Leon’s help, only to make a special Vigils “assignment” for Jerry, stipulating he must refuse to sell any chocolate for the first ten days of the fundraiser. Due to a school-wide fear of reprisals from the Vigils, Jerry agrees. At first, Brother Leon is puzzled by Jerry’s refusal until he realizes it is part of a Vigils assignment. Brother Leon can do nothing but sit back and wait for the ten days to be over; such is the power of the Vigils over the school, even at the administrative level.

At the end of the ten days, Jerry—prompted by a poster in his locker with the quote, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot—defies both Brother Leon and the Vigils by still refusing to sell chocolates. At first, some students praise Jerry for his defiance and nonconformity. However, before long, the Vigils—with the tacit approval of Brother Leon—proceed to make Jerry’s life as terrible as possible. They unleash a ceaseless barrage of pranks on poor Jerry. Before long, the pranks turn violent as the Vigils convince Emile Janza, the school bully, to attack Jerry one day after football practice. Virtually the entire school—fearful of reprisals from either the Vigils or Brother Leon—abandons Jerry. The only one who stands by him is The Goober, who has his own reasons for hating the Vigils related to his “assignment” from earlier in the book. Meanwhile, the Vigils are selling chocolate under the names of student-athletes at the behest of Brother Leon.

The book climaxes in a violent confrontation after Archie orchestrates a school-wide assignment targeting Jerry. He sets up a boxing match between Jerry and the much larger, stronger Emile Janza in which students write down the locations on the body where the two will hit each other. This takes place on the football field. Brother Leon is in attendance, doing nothing to stop the bloodshed. Blow after blow, Jerry is clearly at a disadvantage. Finally, a student stipulates that Emile punch Jerry in the groin. After this punch, Jerry keels over and is clearly suffering from serious internal injuries. Fortunately, the fight goes no further after a responsible teacher sees the whole school gathering on the field for the fight and shuts off the big electric lights.

Only The Goober is there for Jerry as they wait for an ambulance to arrive. Jerry’s words to his only friend at this point are momentous and deeply pessimistic: Don’t disturb the universe. It’s not worth it.

In a landscape of young adult novels designed to teach simple moral lessons that are often too painful or complicated to follow in reality, The Chocolate War stands out as a shockingly realistic and pessimistic story about what really happens when a person tries to stand up to a mob mentality. While Jerry’s actions are admirable, it is difficult to watch him become a social outcast who ends up in the hospital, all because of something as inconsequential as a chocolate sale. The novel’s thematic bravery and singular vision have made it a classic of its genre, inspiring a sequel, a movie adaptation, and countless positive reviews.

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