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The Chocolate War | Study Guide

Robert Cormier

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The Chocolate War | Themes


Manipulation and Control

Psychological manipulation seems to be the norm at Trinity, both within the classroom and without. Archie "assigns" pranks from which there is no backing out, and Brother Leon coerces students into participating in a "voluntary" chocolate sale. Although they operate in nearly opposite ways, these two Machiavellian characters have a shared goal: making their listeners feel they have no option but to obey them. Archie does this masterfully in The Vigils meetings in Chapter 5, where he "feeds" his victims their assignments "little by little," gradually stifling any chance for dissent. The Vigils meeting room, too, seems practically purpose-built to support this little drama of manipulation. Dimly lit, with a single exit, it has much in common with the interrogation rooms seen in police dramas. After entering the room, few have the nerve to stand up to Archie.

In conducting the chocolate sale, Brother Leon takes a different approach. He cynically emphasizes the students' freedom of choice, even though the choice is hardly an ideal one. They can accept the chocolates and win Leon's approbation, or refuse them and incur his hatred. Needless to say, virtually all of the students "choose" to take part in the sale, and in doing so they internalize a measure of responsibility for its success. Although selling the chocolates is Leon's goal, he induces them to think of it as theirs.

This is not the only time Leon uses psychological games to gain the upper hand. He employs similar tactics to divide his students, reinforcing his status as the sole wielder of power in the classroom. This is expertly displayed in Chapter 6, when Leon calls an innocent student to the front of the room and accuses him of cheating. A game of cat and mouse ensues, with Leon trying to extract a confession from the student via indirect, intimidating questions. The accused, Gregory Bailey, is humiliated in front of his classmates, even though he has done nothing wrong. The manipulation, however, goes deeper than that, as Leon reframes the entire encounter in terms of mob mentality and passive complicity. He proclaims the students "enjoyed" watching Bailey suffer and "allowed it to happen," and he compares them to Nazis.

On its own, this would be bad enough. Leon has foisted moral responsibility for his actions onto the students. However, Leon continues by instructing Bailey in how to feel about this mortifying episode. He tells the boy, "They cheated you today. They're the ones who doubted you—I never did." Unless he is exceptionally strong-willed, Bailey is likely to leave this scene with a newfound resentment and distrust of his classmates.


As it is set near the end of the counterculture era (approximately 1963 to 1973), The Chocolate War might be interpreted as a tale of a lone nonconformist in a society that demands his allegiance. Early in the novel, Jerry encounters a group of hippies—the ultimate nonconformists. Accosted by a young man with long hair, a sort of "flower child" spokesperson, Jerry is called out for being a "square" who does everything society expects of him. He goes to school, does homework, and wears a tie that makes him look "middle-aged at fourteen, fifteen." Insulted and flustered by these remarks, Jerry cannot shake the sense he is indeed "missing out" on something important in life. His refusal to fall into line and sell the chocolates is, in part, a response to this feeling of insecurity.

The Vigils, meanwhile, are tolerated by the school administration precisely because they promote conformity in the other students. This relationship is made explicit in Chapter 4, where Archie reflects on the group's history: "Without The Vigils, Trinity might have been torn apart ... by demonstrations, protests, all that crap." By dismissing expressions of nonconformist sentiment as "crap," Archie shows he is on the side of the teachers, who want "peace at any price."

A psychological bully who holds secret meetings in a storeroom might seem, at first blush, to be more of a rebel than an agent of conformism. Archie, however, is much more of a "stooge" for the establishment than he realizes, especially when he punishes boys for their own acts of rebellion. Superficially, Archie may make a mockery of the very idea of "school spirit," but his actions serve to promote a sense of almost herdlike unity among the student population. This may not be the school spirit Leon tries to create in student assemblies, but it's an acceptable substitute. As long as the chocolates are sold, Leon doesn't care whether the atmosphere at the school is familial or fascistic.

Others at the school, however, are aware of—and sympathetic to—the nonconformist ideals of their time. "This is the age of do your thing," junior class president Howie Anderson declares in Chapter 21. "Let everybody do his thing." Nonconformity is also the message Jerry extracts from the "disturb the universe" poster he hangs in his locker (Chapter 19). He chooses this poster as a decoration because it looks cool, not because he has given much thought to its meaning. As the "chocolate war" intensifies, however, Jerry contemplates the poster's message and decides to be like the solitary figure it depicts: willing to stand alone, daring to disrupt the existing social order. The vandalization of the poster in Chapter 28 is thus, in a sense, a pro-conformist message, one Jerry refuses to take to heart. When Jerry abandons his rebellious ways at the end of the novel, it will not be because he has seen the virtues of teamwork and cooperation. Rather, the rebel spirit will have literally been beaten out of him. The price of nonconformity will have become too great to bear.

Power Struggles

Life at Trinity High School is characterized by a constant struggle for power. Upperclassmen face off against teachers—and each other—for influence over the student body. The teachers themselves quarrel over how the school is to be run: how its funds should be allocated, how students ought to be disciplined. Jerry Renault, the novel's protagonist, does not really participate in this struggle directly. He does not seek, or even want, to influence the other students, to unseat The Vigils, or to challenge Brother Leon. He simply, for reasons he does not fully understand, wishes to make himself known and heard, to "disturb the universe" (Chapter 19). Though not quite a pawn, Jerry is implicated in the power structures at Trinity in ways that extend far beyond himself. His defeat at the end of the novel comes about not because he attempts to seize power for himself, but because he gets crushed between two powerful rivals.

The central conflict at Trinity might be described as "student versus teacher"—or, more specifically, "Archie versus Brother Leon." From Chapter 4 onward, Archie and Brother Leon are set up as opposing forces, each greatly influential within the school. Each is attempting to use the other to further his own ends, and each is at least vaguely aware of his opponent's intentions. Brother Leon, as he more or less admits in Chapter 4, wants to use Archie's unofficial influence to ensure the students' participation in the chocolate sale. Archie, meanwhile, wants to render Brother Leon complicit in The Vigils' activities, so that Leon will be forced to protect The Vigils if they find themselves in trouble. Each one fights to establish himself as the master: Leon via his power over grades and school discipline, Archie via direct contact with the other students.

Jerry's assignment—to boycott the chocolate sale for 10 days—is an act of calculated defiance on Archie's part, designed to show Brother Leon how much he needs The Vigils and their support. So is The Goober's assignment to sabotage Brother Eugene's classroom, an act that creates such a stir in the student body that Leon must postpone the sale by a week. Leon fights back against these reckless pranks by threatening to expose The Vigils: "If the sale goes down the drain, you and The Vigils also go down the drain" (Chapter 24). Ultimately, however, the two are caught in a stalemate, as the end of Chapter 38 clearly demonstrates. Leon successfully pressures Archie—and hence The Vigils—into "throw[ing] their full weight behind the sale," and the chocolates get sold as a result. The Vigils, however, are able to draw Brother Leon into the sordid business of a staged fight on school property. Having had such a disaster take place on his watch, Leon is susceptible to blackmail if he attempts to put The Vigils in their place.

Smaller-scale conflicts take place among the students and among the teachers. Again, these largely come down to the desire for power. Within The Vigils, Obie and Carter are Archie's main rivals. Though they have little in common, they share a distrust of Archie and a desire to see him taken down a notch. Their moves against Archie, such as forcing him to pick marbles from the black box on the night of the fight, are designed to check his influence and keep him from growing too powerful. Similar concerns prevail among the teachers, some of whom are worried about Brother Leon's position as acting headmaster. Brother Jacques, the only teacher to confront Leon directly, criticizes him for abusing his official powers while the real headmaster is in the hospital (Chapter 24). Like Obie and Carter, however, Jacques is ultimately forced to bide his time as Leon remains in charge, perhaps indefinitely.

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