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The Chocolate War | Context

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Realism in Young Adult Literature

Realism has not always been a paramount concern in fiction written for young adults. Victorian-era "boys' novels"—as such works tended to be marketed—often featured unrealistic plots that were manufactured to drive home moral lessons. The protagonists of Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson's novels, for example, are generally teenaged boys or young men who find themselves swept up in a quest of some kind. Scottish author R.M. Ballantyne, a pioneer of the genre, wrote dozens of such books, the most famous of which is The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean (1858). Like The Chocolate War, The Coral Island features a group of teenaged boys who make their way through a world largely bereft of adult help and guidance. Shipwrecked in the South Pacific, the three boys band together and successfully defend themselves from wild animals, pirates, and cannibals before their eventual rescue.

Late 19th-century authors, including Robert Louis Stevenson, often preserved the emphasis on adventure, escape, and cunning self-reliance at the expense of realism. David Balfour, the protagonist of Stevenson's Kidnapped (1886), is nearly shipped off from Scotland to America by his cruel uncle, who wishes to sell him into slavery. As is typical for the genre, Balfour outsmarts most of his adult adversaries and eventually makes his way homeward to claim a fortune. In Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883), Jim Hawkins likewise survives on a mixture of luck and cleverness. In the early 20th century, English writer Rudyard Kipling perpetuated this trend with his own series of "boys' novels." In Kim (1901) the adolescent protagonist outwits and outmaneuvers policemen, soldiers, spies, and bandits with remarkable ease. Though deeply concerned with the challenges of growing up, Kim can hardly be described as realistic.

After the violence and genocidal horrors of World War II (1939–45), however, increasing numbers of young-adult novelists turned away from the safe and uplifting adventure-story paradigm. A watershed work in this regard is British novelist William Golding's 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. In this novel, a bleak reimagining of The Coral Island, Golding depicts the pandemonium that ensues when a group of English schoolboys are stranded on a desert island. Unlike the Coral Island boys, who rise to the occasion by showing maturity and solidarity, the boys in Lord of the Flies degenerate into a bloodthirsty mob. Their society bears a closer resemblance to Cormier's secret society of Vigils than to French author Alexandre Dumas's swashbuckling Three Musketeers.

Novels such as American authors John Knowles's A Separate Peace (1959) and Tobias Wolff's Old School (2003) provide another important reference point for understanding The Chocolate War. Though not written specifically for young adults, both works deal candidly—as The Chocolate War does—with the dark side of life in a private school. In these semiautobiographical novels, Knowles and Wolff highlight the rivalries, cruel traditions, and secretive cliques that play such a large role in Cormier's work.

Cormier's Style

Robert Cormier has been both celebrated and criticized for his sober, realistic approach to young adult fiction. His work famously—or, in the view of his detractors, notoriously—refuses to skirt the issues parents have tended to find most off-putting in young adult literature. Cormier's teenage characters swear, often profusely and sometimes to a tastelessly excessive extent. The character of Archie is not merely a bad dude or a lousy friend; he is, Obie and the other boys seem to agree, a "bastard." Brother Leon's speeches are not merely phony, they are "bullshit." For better or for worse, Cormier is diligent and unapologetic in capturing patterns of teenage speech—even if this speech is sometimes showily vulgar. This same commitment to realism means the vocabulary of The Chocolate War's characters will also sound dated and quaint at times. Archie, for example, peppers his talk with the "hip" lingo of a "swinger," much to the annoyance of his underling Obie. Likewise, protagonist Jerry Renault encounters a hippie who calls him a "square" (a boring and uncool person).

Cormier is similarly unflinching in his presentation of violence, which he portrays as an inescapable fact of high school life. But the violence in The Chocolate War is not merely included for shock value, as some critics have maintained, and it is certainly not glorified or naively celebrated. Instead, Cormier draws a fine line between the "honest contact" of athletics—the tackling and blocking in football, the hooks and jabs in boxing—and the underhanded violence of bullying. The distinction is a purposeful one. As adolescents, the characters of The Chocolate War are increasingly capable of doing serious harm to one another if they do not control their violent impulses. Playing sports provides a healthy means of channeling these impulses, which might otherwise be turned to unhealthy and destructive ends. Jerry's successful self-control in the face of bullying is, in this light, one of the great moral victories of the novel; his eventual succumbing to violence is an equally great failure. Characters who use physical force as a one-size-fits-all tool, as Carter seems to do, are viewed with pity or even contempt.

Nor does Cormier shy away from sexuality, a part of the coming-of-age experience tacitly omitted by many earlier young-adult writers. To the disgust of book-banning crusaders, the novel's characters—almost all of them adolescent boys—fantasize about girls and make crude jokes about sex. They are, realistically enough, still learning to control their own desires and make wise decisions in the face of seemingly overpowering urges. Sometimes the prospect of sexual gratification lures them into behaving foolishly, as when Tubs Casper "borrows" money from the chocolate sale to buy jewelry for his girlfriend. Others, including both Jerry Renault and the bully Emile Janza, experience sexuality as a source of shame and guilt. Still others are opportunistic, even predatory. Archie Costello, the novel's archvillain, makes a habit of driving by an all-girls academy at the end of the Trinity school day, hoping to "talk one of them into ... a ride home." Arguably even worse is Howie Anderson, who leers at girls and "devour[s] them with [his] eyes." As this range of examples demonstrates, Cormier does not include sexual themes merely to shock or amuse readers, any more than he includes a boxing match to gratify readers' bloodthirstiness. Rather, The Chocolate War depicts sexuality as part of the growing-up process—a part in which adult guidance is conspicuously absent.

Because of its uncompromising realism, The Chocolate War has been among the most frequently challenged works of young-adult literature. It has been banned from libraries and stricken from school reading lists on numerous occasions. The book, detractors argue, is too violent, too profane, or too laden with sexual motifs to be appropriate classroom reading for adolescents. Still other challenges have cited The Chocolate War's criticism of authority, its unfavorable portrayal of Catholic schools, and even its pessimistic ending as traits justifying a ban. Despite this long and rather inventive rap sheet, The Chocolate War continues to be regarded as a classic and is frequently included in American high school reading lists.

Beyond the Chocolate War

Most of the central characters in The Chocolate War reappear in the novel's 1985 sequel, Beyond the Chocolate War. Though not as critically acclaimed as the original, Beyond the Chocolate War continues Cormier's investigation of the sinister forces dominating Trinity High School. The manipulative Brother Leon, now officially the headmaster of Trinity, continues to run the school through a mixture of intimidation and showmanship. The Vigils, Trinity's secret student organization, still dispense mischievous—and sometimes malicious—"assignments" to their classmates. Jerry Renault, meanwhile, is sidelined by the injuries he receives in the final chapters of The Chocolate War. The role of protagonist is taken up by Obie, The Vigils' secretary, whose grudge with Archie Costello deepens considerably in the early chapters of the sequel.

Criticism of Beyond the Chocolate War tends to center on its intensification of the aspects that made The Chocolate War both compelling and controversial. In The Chocolate War, physical violence occurs in distinct and striking episodes, but in the sequel it is omnipresent, to a degree some critics have found excessive. Likewise, in the original novel, Jerry's disillusionment is almost literally beaten into him, but in Beyond the Chocolate War, cynicism seems to pervade the very halls of the school. Noting these qualities, the book's Kirkus reviewer (1985) opines that "Cormier overdoes the gangland-style villainy and mayhem" but succeeds in giving Chocolate War fans "another dark, intense melodrama."

Considered as a continuation of The Chocolate War's plot, Beyond the Chocolate War is perhaps most interesting for its exploration of the infighting among The Vigils. In the original Chocolate War, Cormier sketches out the fault lines among The Vigil leadership, showing the other officers' growing frustrations with Archie, the group's leader. Archie, however, brushes off the prospect of his own downfall as "wishful thinking" on the part of the other boys. He continues to treat Obie with contempt and considers Vigils' president John Carter too thickheaded to pose a real threat. In the sequel, however, Obie and Carter are pushed to their respective breaking points. Carter begins warning the Trinity faculty of Archie's plots against them, and Obie's nascent relationship with Laurie Gundarson is ruined by a Vigils prank taken to a violent extreme. Like Jerry in the original novel, Obie finds himself lured into betraying his own principles, seeking a violent revenge for the wrongs done to him.

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