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Literature / The Chocolate War

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"Do I dare disturb the universe?"

A 1974 young adult novel by Robert Cormier.

At an all-boys Catholic School of Horrors called Trinity, a secret club known as the "Vigils" controls everything, with its members abusing their power for their own personal amusement. Brother Leon, a corrupt teacher who's trying to replace the current headmaster, makes a deal with them—if they can double the number of chocolates sold at the annual fundraiser, and he gets promoted because of the fundraiser's success, he'll give them unofficial backing and even more power. But what nobody's expecting is that one Ordinary High-School Student, Jerry Renault, will rebel and try to sabotage the club's power.

If you read a lot of young adult literature, you probably have one guess where this is headed. If you've read other books by Robert Cormier, you're more likely to have the correct guess—and also a good idea of why this novel shows up so often on banned-books lists.

This book was followed by an even more depressing 1985 sequel, Beyond the Chocolate War. Jerry is Demoted to Extra and transferred to a public school due to the cruelty of the Vigils, while Obie, the only sympathetic Vigil, takes over as protagonist in his attempts to take down Archie.

A movie of the first book was made in 1988, directed by Keith Gordon and starring John Glover as Brother Leon. However, it has been strongly criticized for its changes to the book's ending, as the movie gives the story a more happy ending.

This book and film provide examples of:

  • Absurdly Powerful Student Council: The Vigils, led by Archie, have quite a bit of power over the lives of the students at Trinity and can make life very difficult for those who don't obey their edicts.
  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: The movie gives the story a Bittersweet Ending in which Archie is forced to take part in the boxing match, and subsequently loses his position as Assigner.
  • Adaptational Karma: Archie remains untouched in the books and gets off scot-free in everything he does. In the film, Jerry beats him in a boxing match and Archie is subsequently demoted with Obie being able to lord over him.
  • Adults Are Useless: Except for Brother Jacques, the only sympathetic teacher among a staff that is either cowardly or evil.
  • Apathetic Citizens:
    • Deconstructed. Brother Leon (knowingly) falsely accuses a student of cheating in front of his class. When none of the other students defend him, he accuses them of being Apathetic Citizens. Never mind that he's a teacher and they are students.
    • Invoked again in Beyond the Chocolate War. After David Caroni commits suicide, Brother Leon tells the student body that they were guilty of not seeing any signs that their classmate was suicidal. He is then hit in the face with a tomato. The student who does it is never caught but is elected student body president the next year.
  • Arc Words: Do I dare disturb the universe?
  • Attempted Rape: Bunting tries to rape Laurie, even though he was told to only harass her.
  • Breaking Speech: Archie delivers a massive one to Obie near the end of Beyond the Chocolate War.
    "I am Archie. And I'll always be there, Obie. You'll always have me wherever you go, whatever you do. Know why, Obie? Because I'm you. I'm all the things you hide inside yourself. That's me."
  • Bittersweet Ending: The film. Jerry beats Archie in the boxing match, but ultimately feels everything he went through was pointless since in the end he ended up playing their games anyway. On a slightly more positive note, Archie is overthrown as the Assigner and the position is given instead to Obie, who gives relatively harmless, albeit immature and disgusting, assignments instead.
  • Broken Pedestal: Brother Leon is this for straight-A student David Caroni, which is implied to be the reason he later commits suicide.
  • The Brute: Emile Janza, the Vigils' enforcer of sorts.
  • Caught with Your Pants Down: Archie catches Janza masturbating in a bathroom stall, pretends to take a picture, and blackmails him.
  • Chaotic Stupid: Obie in the movie after taking over Archie's job as the assigner. He ends up giving out truly stupid assignments just for the sake of "It Amused Me."
  • Darker and Edgier: Beyond the Chocolate War, quite a feat considering how dark the first book was.
  • Deal with the Devil: Brother Leon, initially a vaguely sympathetic Stern Teacher, makes one with Archie to ensure the chocolates will be sold. By the end of the book, he's made his way to looking the other way when Archie arranges the fight between Jerry and Emile, despite the fact that the chocolate sale is over.
  • Determinator: Jerry for much of the first book. He's seemingly broken at the end of the first novel but in Beyond The Chocolate War he becomes one again.
  • Dirty Coward/Lovable Coward: Obie, Archie's right-hand-man, is with the Vigils just so he won't be one of their victims. His job is to pick whom to torment, but he never engages in the bullying and feels guilty about his actions (though not enough to stand up to Archie).
  • Doomed Moral Victor: Cruelly subverted. Jerry achieves nothing. Obie gets a nice speech about how Archie's luck will run out someday, but Archie knows the student body will never turn on him. The second book proves him right.
  • Downer Ending: The first book.
    • The same is true with the film adaptation, though there were minor changes made. Despite trying not to do what the Vigils wanted him to do, Jerry plays right into their hands by performing in the fight (even though he wins the fight, he still loses, as he notes). Brother Jerry appears to have retained his Headmaster position (and has gotten all the chocolates sold). Though Archie gets his comeuppance and demoted, Obie is now in Archie's position and appears to make assignments more horrible than anything Archie assigned (and the Vigils continue to retain power). Jerry still loses and the bad guys still won.
  • The Dragon: Bunting is this to Archie.
  • Dragon Ascendant: Bunting becomes this once Archie graduates with Janza becoming The Dragon.
  • Driven to Suicide: David Caroni.
  • Even Evil Has Standards:
    • Averted. Even though Archie maintains his stance against violence, the first book involves him setting up a one-way boxing fight, and the second book ends with Archie moving the Vigils towards bullying, extortion, and weapons. The only thing holding him back was ruining his reputation.
    • Played straight when Bunting tries to rape Laurie, an act which disgusts even Archie.
  • Groin Attack: One completely changes the course of events in the end of the first book.
  • Hard Truth Aesop: The first book teaches that the world is run by awful, corrupt people who abuse their power because they can. But don't try to buck the system, because you'll end up getting hurt, and nothing will meaningfully change anyway. (It has been speculated by some critics that this was in response to the "Fight the power!" ethos of the '60s, seeing as the book was published in 1974.)
  • Heel–Face Turn: Carter, the leader of the Vigils, turns against them in the second book. The appropriate consequences follow.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: In the film, Archie draws a black marble on his second turn, right before the boxing match he designed himself. He's then forced to sub for Janza and receives a No Holds Barred Beat Down from Jerry.
  • Humans Are Bastards: Archie believes this and loves to exploit it, particularly near the end of the first book when he holds a boxing match with a winning raffle of 100 dollars to the winning submission.
    "That's why it works, Carter, because we're all bastards"
  • It Amused Me: Pretty much the implied reasoning for Archie giving the rest of the Vigil's the "Environment Assignment."
  • Jizzed in My Pants: Tubs can have a climax without touching himself when thinking about his crush Rita.
  • Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: Brother Leon over the course of The Chocolate War.
  • Karma Houdini: Every single villain, with the possible exception of Janza since Bunting is planning an "accident" for him.
  • Luck-Based Mission:
    • Almost literally. Every time the Vigils assign a student to perform a task, the "Assigner" responsible for ordering it (Archie) must draw a marble from a ceremonial box. Out of the 7 regular marbles, there is one black marble. If Archie draws the black marble, then he will have to perform the assigned task in the student's place to ensure that the Assigner keeps the assignments reasonable. The second book reveals Archie simply palms his own white marble before drawing and presents it, though he notes there are a few times where he leaves it up to chance.
    • Invoked toward the end of the first book. Jerry and Janza are put into a boxing match on the football field where the assembled students buy a box of chocolate in exchange for turning in a raffle ticket. On the ticket, they write whom they want to make a punch and on what part of the body of the other person, thus making the entire fight "scripted". But in setting things up this way, Archie forgets about the black box, which Obie brings to the field in a last-ditch effort to stop everything before it's too late. Considering the tone of the book, unsurprisingly Archie draws two white marbles without skipping a beat, one for Jerry's place and the other for Janza's.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Archie never gets his own hands dirty, preferring to manipulate others to get the job done.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown:
    • Janza gives one to Jerry at the end of the novel.
    • In the movie Jerry delivers it to Archie instead.
  • One-Gender School: Trinity is an all-boys version.
  • Only Sane Man: Carter serves as this for the Vigil's for the most part. While he has no problems with majority of the Assignments Archie gives out, he becomes increasingly reluctant to compromise the Vigil's status. This conflict evolves in Beyond The Chocolate War.
  • Psycho for Hire: Janza and Bunting.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Even Archie is disgusted when Bunting tries to rape Laurie.
  • Revenge Before Reason: Obie becomes so obsessed with revenge in the second book that he even attempts to publicly kill Archie.
  • Sadist Teacher/Sinister Minister: Brother Leon isn't sadistic on the same level that Archie or Janza are, but he still comes across as sociopathic.
  • Saintly Church: While Brother Leon is a bad apple, the rest of the brothers are mostly good-hearted. Sadly, Good Is Impotent.
  • The Scapegoat: In Beyond the Chocolate War, Archie is this in the end for Obie. Obie tries to murder Archie for life at the school being miserable, even though Obie joined the Vigils on his own accord, and he enjoyed bullying the other students alongside him before he dated Laurie.
  • Screw the Rules, They Broke Them First!: During the boxing match, the rules require Jerry and Janza to throw punches as the lottery demands, with no blocking/dodging. Janza, confident that he is a better fighter than Jerry, is initially content with this. It is only when Jerry breaks the rules by blocking a groin punch that Janza thinks "To hell with the rules, then", and issues a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown to Jerry.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Both the stories and the movie are Shaggy Dog Stories. The first book even crossed into Shoot the Shaggy Dog.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Very much on the cynical side, to the point of being nihilistic.
  • Smug Snake: Brother Leon.
  • Teenage Wasteland: The adults aren't able to control the Vigils because of Archie's subtlety and intelligence.
  • Tragic Hero: Jerry Renault, the main character in the first book, is a rare Young Adult Literature example. His hamartia is when his determination leads him into participating in the raffle/boxing match at the end.
  • Tyrant Takes the Helm: Brother Leon becomes acting headmaster at Trinity when the actual Headmaster falls ill.
  • Villain Has a Point: Before Archie’s aforementioned Breaking Speech at the end of Beyond The Chocolate War, Archie points out to Obie that nobody forced him to join the Vigils to begin with, and he knew what he was getting himself into, so HIM pinning all the blame on Archie for the school being a living hell is bull.