catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 8, Num 6 :: 2009.03.13 — 2009.03.27


Standing alone

Do I dare disturb the universe?
- T.S. Eliot

In The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier, freshman Jerry Renault experiences the excruciating pain of standing alone when he dares to disturb the universe of Trinity High School. When the secret society, The Vigils, assigns Jerry to refuse to participate in the annual chocolate sale for the first ten days, Jerry gradually discovers this assignment to be an opportunity to strengthen his identity. Once the ten days are over, Jerry continues to refuse to sell the chocolates, much to the chagrin of the manipulative teacher Brother Leon and The Vigils, and thus Jerry suffers the emotional, social and physical consequences of having an upright character within a degenerate society, though Jerry doesn’t see it this way.

Cormier uses various perspectives in his narrative. Much of the story is told from the perspective of Jerry, but Archie (the leader of The Vigils), Archie’s secretary Opie, and another freshman named Goober are included, as well. Cormier’s text is concise, and requires the reader to constantly pay attention. Much is allusive. Once Jerry is called before The Vigils for his assignment, the reader does not learn what he is asked to do until he has already refused to sell the chocolates several times.

Despite its literary strength, Cormier’s text is one of the top three of the American Library Association’s “Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books in 2000-2007,” as a result of its language, mention of pornography, an accusation of homosexuality, violence and frequent references to masturbation. These are disturbing elements that evoke strong images and could prey on the imaginations of more sensitive readers. Because of these elements, I would not recommend this book to every young adult, nor would I encourage it to be read by a middle or high school class, though it is sometimes part of school curriculum. But there are many students who would benefit from Cormier’s clear depiction of the dangers of “group think” and the risks of standing alone, provided that the book was accompanied by discussion, or at least openness to discussion, of some of the subject matter.  

The questionable material is one of the techniques Cormier uses to develop his characters into whole people. For instance, in the first sexual reference, Jerry has just walked of the football practice field after being tackled. “The exhilaration of the moment vanished and he sought it in vain, like seeking ecstasy’s memory an instant after jacking off and encountering only shame and guilt.” This is not a gratuitous depiction of sexuality; it is a realistic metaphor that applies to both the character and the intended audience, though some readers may be so shocked by the metaphor that the point is missed altogether.

The Chocolate War is a fine, though disturbing, piece of young adult fiction that questions the purpose of adult life and makes little distinction between the corrupt natures of youth and adults. At one point, Jerry considers his father’s existence: “Was this all there was to life, after all? You finished high school, found an occupation, got married, became a father, watched your wife die, and then lived through days and nights that seemed to have no sunrises, no dawns and no dusks, nothing but a gray drabness.”  Was this Cormier’s question, as well? For although Jerry does disturb the universe (as his locker poster quoting T.S. Elliot challenges him to do), he is neither rewarded or affirmed at the end of the story. 

your comments

comments powered by Disqus