The Chocolate War | Study Guide

Robert Cormier

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The Chocolate War | Chapters 1–3 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1

Jerry Renault, an incoming freshman at Trinity High School, is trying out for the football team. As he tries to execute a series of plays, he is pummeled by the other players, but he struggles through the pain and keeps playing. On the third play, he is nearly knocked unconscious and decides to simply lie still on the field. "The hell with trying out for the team," he thinks, and he begins drifting off to sleep. When he hears his name called, however, Jerry stands up and—to his own astonishment—tells the coach he is fine. The coach tells him to show up for practice the next afternoon, signaling Jerry may have a shot at making the team. Elated but still in pain, Jerry makes it as far as the school bathroom before he collapses. Thinking of his recently deceased mother, he suddenly vomits into the toilet.

Chapter 2

Meanwhile, on the bleachers, a Trinity upperclassman named Obie is sitting with his notebook in hand. Bored and frustrated, he looks with a mixture of hatred and admiration at Archie, a smug and manipulative Trinity senior. Archie Costello, it soon emerges, is the "assigner" of The Vigils, Trinity's secret society. His job is to think of assignments—humiliating or dangerous pranks and stunts—to be performed by members of the student body. Obie, as secretary, keeps a dossier on the students and records Archie's assignments, including a few new ones dreamed up today. The assignments are cryptic, leaving Obie to appreciatively wonder what Archie has in mind. The Goober, a freshman whose real name is Roland Goubert, is assigned to "Brother Eugene's room," and Jerry Renault is assigned to "the chocolates." As their meeting winds down, Obie wistfully looks at the football field and wonders whether he should have tried out for the team.

Chapter 3

A few days later, school has begun and Jerry has endured another two days of football practice. As the scene opens, he is surreptitiously browsing a Playboy magazine in a convenience store. He wonders sadly if a girl will ever love him. Heading to the bus stop, Jerry is confronted by one of the hippies who have congregated in a neighboring park. The young, long-haired man accuses Jerry of staring at him and his fellow "flower children," then ridicules him as a "square boy." As Jerry climbs aboard the bus, relieved, the hippie continues his taunt: "You're missing a lot of things in the world, better not miss that bus." Pondering this statement, Jerry closes his eyes as the bus carries him homeward.

Analysis

The Chocolate War opens with a terse and arresting line: "They murdered him." This startling statement launches the reader right into the story by raising a series of questions. Who has been "murdered"? Has he been literally killed, or just roughed up? On the most superficial level, the mystery is quickly solved: Jerry has been "murdered" in the sense of enduring a physically punishing football practice.

The opening sentence, however, is more than a mere attention-grabbing headline. It also foreshadows the violence that will hound Jerry throughout the book. By the end of The Chocolate War, Jerry will still be alive, but he will have been physically brutalized by Trinity's reckless upperclassmen. The pain and disorientation he feels on the football field in Chapter 1 are a mere prelude to his suffering in Chapters 37 and 38. "They"—the group of people Cormier compares to murderers—will include the entire Trinity community, including negligent teachers, complicit classmates, and the two boys sitting in the bleachers in Chapter 2.

In a sense, Jerry will also be the victim of an even worse kind of "murder"—his independence of spirit will be crushed. Though he is initially mild-mannered and nonconfrontational, Jerry will rebel against the outside world's expectations by refusing to take part in the chocolate sale (Chapter 13). The exchange with the hippie in Chapter 3 kick-starts this growing-up process by prompting Jerry to wonder what he is "missing" in life. Seeing how dreary his own father's life has turned out to be (Chapter 9), Jerry will be further motivated not to repeat his example. He will, perhaps a little naively, draw inspiration from a poster that asks, "Do I dare disturb the universe?" (Chapter 19). But by the final pages of the novel, Jerry will come to see "disturbing" the social order as a terrible mistake, one for which he has been viciously punished.

"They murdered him" becomes, in essence, a three-word summary of the book's central plot trajectory. It goes like this: on the verge of adulthood, a boy discovers a previously hidden quality of independence, determination—even stubbornness—in himself. He stops simply taking orders from his elders and starts questioning what he is being told. He rejects the depressing example held up by his father and resolves, tentatively, to make his own way in life. This rebellious streak is, most would agree, an essential part of growing into an autonomous adult. However, Jerry's ability to make decisions for himself is suppressed at every turn, both by adults (Brother Leon) and by his fellow Trinity students. Jerry's sense of himself as a free agent, as someone who can "do his own thing," is stifled just as it is beginning to emerge.

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