Books for teenagers represent a special genre that raises questions and gives answers on the issues that concern young people. They need to be different from “adult” literature by being especially credible and true to life. Peter Cormier’s novel The Chocolate War is one of such books that explore the darker side of teenagers’ school life. By means of such elements as the plot, the setting and the characters he reveals the struggle of a young person against the system and the aggressors in his environment.
The plot of the novel is so realistic because, like the main character, the author attended Catholic school, so had an idea about the controversies which took place there. However, his own experience is rather positive, because the staff of his school encouraged and supported him in becoming a writer. The basic for the book is the story of Cormier’s son who had a similar experience of refusing to sell candies on behalf of the school and faced hardships as a result. The story’s main character, Jerry Renault is a newcomer to Trinity School, who finds himself bullied by a local gang called The Vigils. The leader is Archie, who plans to get Jerry involved in the task of selling chocolates that was originally his. Brother Leon, a cruel teacher, who wants boys to sell chocolates to raise extra money for the school. It is clear from several episodes demonstrating his behavior that he has a touch of monstrosity in his character. Unlike others, Jerry refused to fulfill the task, which is quite unexpected even to him. The Vigils actually work for Leon, and he uses them as agents of his influence and closes eyes to their aggression instead. Thus, on his request, the Vigils need to convince Jerry sell chocolates, whatever methods it takes. They threaten and bully him in all ways, until the Vigils organize a fight between Jerry and Emile at night. Jerry’s friend Goober comes to help him, but he cannot do anything but wait for the ambulance to come. Archie and Obie get no punishment because Brother Leon protects them.
The author confines the setting of the novel to the school campus, although Jerry seems to have access to his family home too. This cramped space underlines the feeling of loneliness and isolation that the boy has. The school is actually a battlefield, as the title of the book implies. The secret and dangerous spaces, which school has on its territory, make it a place not to raise people but to destroy them. It is very illustrative that the book has few scenes of Jerry at home, suggesting that this space is no longer secure and welcoming, as well.
Speaking of the book’s characters, portrayed by the author, it is worth mentioning Jerry in the first place. He is the protagonist and the main rebel in the book, but he is like a single warrior against a mighty army in the battle. His mother died a year before, so one might guess that this was a traumatic experience for him. His father struggles to survive his own crisis after his wife’s death, so this is the main reason, why the two have lost their connection. In fact, Jerry is quite compassionate about people, so he avoids telling his father about his hardships at school. The theme of trust between parents and children is quite important in this perspective. Yet, he aims his rebellion not only against the school system of violence but against the dullness of mundane life that his father has. So, he protests against this kind of routine by being more courageous and non-conformist than his environment.
Archie Costello is, in fact, Jerry’s arch-enemy, which happens only for one reason: Jerry is the only one who does not subdue to his instructions. This boy does not have any kind of visible motivation for evil, although this is the only thing in life that pleases him. He is a truly classical villain, though in his early teens. However, he has his only villainous philosophy: he believes that there are only two ways to live in this world: either to humiliate or to be humiliated. He does not like the role of a victim, so he chooses to be an aggressor. His way of bullying is rather psychological pressure than the actual fighting because he does not fit enough. So, frightening people appears to be a working method for him.
Finally, if Archie is an open villain, Brother Leon is a mastermind and puppeteer of the whole plain. He is even more sadistic than Archie and his supporters because his techniques are more twisted and include both physical and emotional violence. At the same time, he manages to rule the process by hiding his true personality, though chances are that the other staff is just indifferent and closes eyes to his deeds. He is the one who starts the whole chocolate story, which is illegal, and he is the one who sets the Vigils on Jerry.
Thus, the above described literary elements of the novel contribute to the author’s message that he wants to deliver. Sadly enough, this message is quite pessimistic, as one can judge from the finale of the book. Jerry’s rebellion is worth respect, but it appears to be absolutely futile as the system is stronger. In fact, he is not able to change anything about it.
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