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The Chocolate War | Symbols

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The Teacher's Desk

Large, imposing, and usually situated at the front of the room, the teacher's desk is the traditional symbol of classroom authority. In the topsy-turvy world of Trinity, however, students have seized much of the power, and ordinary teachers are no longer safe—even behind their desks. Cormier shows this shift most vividly through the "unscrewing" of Brother Eugene's homeroom in Chapters 8 and 11. When the other furniture in his classroom starts mysteriously collapsing, Eugene runs "to his desk, that haven of security behind which a teacher always found protection." The desk does not fall apart as the chairs and the blackboard do, but it nonetheless offers Eugene no reassurance of stability: "At his touch, the desk swayed drunkenly, shifted gears into a ... strange tipsy angle." This serves as a fitting image for the dynamics of power at Trinity, where everything seems to be skewed from its usual axis. Notably, this tipsy, tilted world is the handiwork of The Vigils, who have undermined Eugene's authority as surely as they have sabotaged his physical classroom.

The Vigils, meanwhile, have a teacher's desk of their own, abandoned to their use in the storeroom they use for meetings. This piece of furniture gets less attention than the "drunken" desk in Room 19, but it helps to underscore their dominance of school society. Unlike Brother Eugene's wobbly, precarious desk, the teacher's desk in the Vigils room is sturdy and solid—it can absorb Carter's enthusiastic gavel blows without complaining. The Vigils' authority, it seems fair to say, is on sturdier ground than that of most faculty members. The sole exception is Brother Leon, although he prefers to pace threateningly about the classroom rather than sitting behind his own desk.

The Black Box

Perhaps the most memorable symbol in The Chocolate War is the black box the Vigils use at their meetings. The box, which toward the end of the novel is revealed to be a small and rather shabby affair, contains six marbles: five white, one black. Each time the Vigils issue an assignment to a student, the "assigner"—Archie—must draw a single marble at random from the box. If he selects the black marble, he must take the assignee's place. If the marble is white, however, the assignment goes through as ordered. In his time as assigner, Archie has never yet drawn a black marble.

For Archie, the black box is a kind of impersonal "nemesis," something to "conquer." It embodies the ever-present threat that someday he will get his comeuppance. For the other Vigils, the box is what keeps Archie in line, at least in principle. He is, they believe, "overdue" for a black marble and must therefore avoid going too far in dreaming up cruel assignments. Obie, the Vigils' secretary, views the box not just as a check on Archie's power, but as an emblem of hope and frustration. Each time Archie must "try for the marbles," Obie hopes the black marble will come up and spell a potential end to Archie's reign of terror. Each time, Obie is disappointed. This reliance on random chance for "revenge" helps to underscore Obie's standing as a coward, a "stooge" who will never pose a real threat to Archie.

In the final chapters of the novel, Obie and Vigils president John Carter force Archie to draw two marbles, even though he has not formally "assigned" Jerry and Janza to fight. If either marble comes up black, Archie—unathletic and not a fighter by nature—will have to enter the ring against the remaining combatant. Furious at being caught off guard, Archie nevertheless realizes he has no option but to draw. To refuse, he recognizes, would make him look like a coward in front of the entire student body. Although the marbles both come up white, the moment is a close call for Archie, a reminder of how much his position depends on chance.

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