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The Chocolate War | Study Guide

Robert Cormier

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The Chocolate War | Motifs


Vigil Assignments

"Assignments" are one of the main tools The Vigils use to control the Trinity student population. These are pranks or stunts—some of them devilishly creative—students must carry out under orders from Archie, the Vigil "assigner." The three assignments given the most attention in The Chocolate War are those given to Jerry Renault and Roland "The Goober" Goubert. The Goober is tasked with unscrewing all the furniture in Brother Eugene's classroom, leaving it to fall apart at the slightest touch when the students walk in the next day. The scene in which this assignment is given, the most dramatic and detailed episode of its kind, takes place in Chapter 5. Jerry, meanwhile, is assigned (Chapters 12 and 13) to refuse to sell the chocolates for 10 days, a move Archie knows will irritate Brother Leon to no end. When Jerry continues to boycott the sale, he is not only defying Leon but thumbing his nose at The Vigils. Seeking to undo his mistake, Archie summons Jerry again in Chapter 25 and gives him a new assignment: sell the chocolates. Jerry ignores this request, signaling a decay of Archie's power as assigner.

Archie's influence within The Vigils—and in the school at large—comes in part from his seemingly endless capacity for concocting new assignments. The other boys, as earlier chapters reveal, eagerly wait to see what Archie will come up with. Then, in handing out these tasks, Archie comes into his own as a master showman: part entertainer, part police interrogator. The assignments themselves are thus merely the focal point in a process whereby Archie exerts control over the entire student body, including boys who never meet him face-to-face. Indeed, there are some students to whom Archie tends to avoid giving assignments, either because he expects them to resist or because he feels his talents will be wasted. Athletes, a group Archie regards with contempt and disgust, are at the top of this list.

In adopting the word "assignment," The Vigils invite a comparison between themselves and their teachers, who give out assignments in the usual sense of the term. Indeed, The Vigils are almost like a shadowy, parallel version of the school's faculty, enforcing their own set of rules and giving their own malicious homework. Brother Leon may insist on the "invisible line" between teachers and students, but Archie the assigner scoffs at such niceties.

Beatings in Football

Jerry Renault's participation on the football team serves as a microcosm of his life at Trinity. His eagerness to make the team is evident from Chapter 1, when his hopes and fears seem to hang on the coach's decision. When the coach finally invites him back for practice the next day, Jerry is elated: "Suddenly, he loved that voice, 'Show up tomorrow.'" At the same time, in continuing to play football, Jerry seems to recognize he is willingly submitting himself to social pressure: to be part of the team, he must not stand up for himself too much, or at the wrong time. Being too much of an individual—too much for Trinity's standards, anyway—compromises Jerry's standing on the team, making the other boys less apt to cooperate with him. The Goober captures this dynamic when, in Chapter 19, he asks Jerry, "What's more important—football and your marks or the lousy chocolate sale?" As The Goober astutely recognizes, Jerry's refusal to participate in the sale will isolate him from both his teachers (compromising his "marks") and his teammates. In Chapters 28 and 31, the other football players begin sabotaging Jerry both on the field and off, seeking to make an example of him.

Violence, in the form of tackling, may seem to be a mere part of the game—the price of admission, so to speak. There is, however, a world of difference between the "honest contact of football" (Chapter 28) and the abuse Jerry experiences, even if both take place on the same field with the same players. In this sense, the physical contact of football helps to dramatize Jerry's position within Trinity society. As Jerry grows ever more ostracized from his teammates, the violence becomes more gratuitous and sinister. Keeping Jerry in line becomes the players' goal, not winning a scrimmage or executing a play.

In Chapter 1, the first of the novel's "football chapters," Jerry takes a beating that Cormier describes as a "murder." This violence, however, serves a purpose that is clear and understandable to Jerry, and he undergoes it willingly: "A strange happiness invaded him. He knew he'd been massacred. ... But he'd survived." This sort of "massacre" is, as Jerry sees it, pure and sportsmanlike—a way of proving himself. Jerry continues to view his experiences in these terms in Chapter 12, when he is "dumped violently to the ground by Carter," a varsity guard, and struggles back to his feet. What matters to Jerry is not the indignity of being repeatedly knocked over by a stronger player, but the outcome of the play. When he realizes the play has succeeded, clinching his chances of becoming the freshman quarterback, Jerry experiences "a moment of absolute bliss, absolute happiness."

In the second half of the novel, however, "honest contact" gives way to outright abuse. Jerry continues to play the game according to the rules, savoring the "manly, prideful" contest of strength and speed between himself and Carter. His opponents, however—and perhaps his teammates too—are no longer following the rules. They strike him from behind after the play is completed, an action that fulfills no purpose within the game and serves only to weaken and intimidate Jerry. In a sense, the violence has leaked out of the safe confines of the game, meaning Jerry can no longer choose when and whether to submit himself to it. He is less and less a competitor, more and more a victim. Finally, in Chapter 31, the beatings migrate off the field altogether as Janza and his gang of neighborhood kids wait to assault Jerry after practice. The beatings have become uncoupled from the game of football and are part of a larger, crueler game Jerry cannot hope to win.

Roll Calls

Calling roll is one of Brother Leon's favorite devices for maintaining order in his classroom. From the beginning of the chocolate sale to the last of the classroom scenes, Leon begins every class by taking attendance in this fashion. In Chapter 13, he calls roll to determine which students will accept the chocolates and take part in the sale. All of them, he expects, will do so, as they have done in years past. Nonetheless, the roll call is more than a mere formality for Brother Leon. It is, to borrow a phrase from philosopher Noam Chomsky, a way of "manufacturing consent." The sale, Leon explains at the start, is "strictly voluntary," and the school "forces no one to participate against his wishes." Nonetheless, Brother Leon has the boys pledge their participation in the sale publicly, in plain view of their peers, rather than privately opting in. The result is a subtle cognitive dissonance that serves Leon's interests. Inwardly, the boys may feel pressured into complying, but outwardly they have made a "free" and "voluntary" choice to participate. Thus, in calling roll at the start of the sale, Leon gets the students to accept not just chocolates but responsibility.

Not all of the boys answer "Yes." Once Jerry gives his defiant "No" in Chapter 13, the roll call takes on a new and arguably more sinister function: pressuring him to fall into line. "Everyone else is doing it" is the unstated message of the daily roll calls in Chapters 14, 17, and 19, wherein Leon praises strong performers for their "school spirit" and initiative. The roll call becomes a kind of ritual drama in which Leon repeatedly offers Jerry the chance to give in, to become a normal member of Trinity society once more. Jerry refuses the temptation at every turn, but other boys—including Jerry's friend The Goober—come to resent the tension this decision creates.

A clue to the roll call's disciplinary function comes in Chapter 30, when Brother Leon persists in calling roll even though the chocolate sale has nearly finished. At this point, most students are bringing their proceeds directly to the sale treasurer, but Leon continues to "delight in the process, making a big deal of it." Leon has now, in all likelihood, abandoned any hope of getting Jerry to cave and accept the chocolates. His goal now, in following through with the roll call, is to underscore Jerry's status as a "public enemy" within the student body. All along, the roll calls have been a device for getting the boys to see the sale as their own project, rather than something foisted upon them from outside. By Chapter 30, the success of this approach is clear. The boys have come to regard Jerry's boycott of the sale not as a daring act of rebellion against Leon, but as an insult to themselves.

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