The Chocolate War, Robert Cormier
Negotiating Power Relationships Adults ISAs and RSAs Sexuality The Chocolate War as Preparation for Adulthood Disturbing the Universe The School Story
Negotiating Power Relationships: Similar to the stories in Judy Blume’s collection, The Chocolate War focuses on one of those events that marks the transition from childhood to adulthood. But even more importantly, Cormier explores the role of power in adolescent development. Part of the maturation process is learning how to negotiate the intricate power relationships we must all navigate on a daily basis with bosses, teachers, government entities, family members, etc. Adolescents must learn how to navigate these relationships as they are increasingly empowered to determine their own fates.
As a teen, Jerry Renault in many ways cannot determine his fate. The laws of our country define adults as being at least 18 years of age. On this birthday, the individual is permitted a good deal more control over his or her own life but is also expected to shoulder more responsibility. At 18, individuals can enter into legally binding contracts such as marriage or obtaining credit or joining the military and they can use tobacco products (but can’t drink alcohol until they are 21). They are also permitted to vote and can be drafted into military service or tried as an adult for crimes they commit. Yet we all know that there is nothing magical about turning 18. We don’t all receive our adult secret decoder ring that explains all of the mysteries of life. And indeed, a good many of us begin to understand these mysteries a lot sooner than when we reach the age of majority.
Fourteen-year-old Jerry Renault cannot determine where he will live or go to school, but has these things decided for him by his father. Trinity High School itself embodies two major institutions that regulate the behavior of adolescents with the goal of molding them into productive members of society: the church and the school. Another of these institutions (and there are many, by the way), is the family. Parents sacrifice in order to come up with the tuition money to send their sons to Trinity in the hopes that they will be transformed into young men with the moral and academic foundations to give them a head start in college, and later, in life. Trinity itself (and any school, really) is part of an increasingly more lengthy apprenticeship that prepares middle class adolescents for their adult roles. Of course, exactly when adulthood begins is a matter of debate. Children of the middle class are not officially adults until at least graduating from college, and at most, obtaining the first professional-level position that will allow them to be financially independent of their parents. But high school is a vital link in this extended apprenticeship. It is a time when adolescents learn more definitively about their sexualities and come to understand how they will eventually fit into the power structure of their cultures. Some time in grammar school, children learn that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny are not real. During high school, adolescents make a similar discovery when they learn that adults, those people who wield so much power over their own lives, are not infallible and unchanging towers of strength, but are human and flawed. They are capable of being weak, of making mistakes, or even of being monstrously evil. So those tasked with regulating them are not always right, and don’t always have their own best interests at heart.
These are the lessons that Jerry Renault learns during his first year at Trinity when he is desperately trying to answer the question “dare I disturb the universe?” (123). Jerry begins the term wishing to be a relatively normal high school freshman, hoping to lose himself in the routine of classes and football practice and to come to terms with his mother’s recent death. Yet the novel’s first chapter which shows Jerry during football practice doesn’t show us the supposedly well-ordered universe of sports, which is allegedly a marked contrast from real life in that participants are rewarded for playing by the rules and experience a transcendent team camaraderie. Instead, Jerry’s football practice foreshadows events to come in the novel. The open line of the chapter is “they murdered him,” (3), referring both to what his fellow players do to him on the field and what could be his fate after the novel closes. During practice, Jerry doesn’t lose himself in an organization much bigger than his individual world. Instead, the pain of being tackled makes him nauseous, and he thinks that “he had never felt so lonely in his life, abandoned, defenseless” (4). But the next chapter reveals that Jerry is not alone at all, but is being observed by members of the Vigils, a secret student organization that terrorizes and awes Trinity students. Obie and Archie, the leader and assigner respectively of the Vigils, watch Jerry during practice and make their nefarious plans for the year.
The Vigils are a group of students whose power derives from their ability to “persuade” others into performing pranks on the brothers. And while the Vigils aren’t officially acknowledged by the faculty of the school, they are nevertheless quietly condoned because they are part of the school’s complex power structure used to mold boys into Trinity students. During his clandestine meeting with Brother Leon, Archie realizes just why Trinity lets the Vigils exist. “The Vigils kept things under control. Without the Vigils, Trinity might have been torn apart like other schools had been by demonstrations, protests, all that crap.” (27). And really, the pranks the Vigils assign to fellow students serve the same function as the mind games some of the teachers play with their pupils. When Archie assigns Goober the task of loosening every screw in Brother Eugene’s homeroom and orders Jerry to refuse to accept the chocolates for the first ten days of the sale, he is demonstrating to the faculty the Vigil’s ability to wield power in its ability to disrupt the orderly running of Trinity. When Jerry openly refuses to participate in the voluntary chocolate sale, Brother Leon’s authority is openly challenged. And when everything falls apart in Brother Eugene’s room, it causes him to question everything he thinks about his own ability to control his very small universe, his classroom, as even the furniture seems to be rebelling. In fact, what happens in Brother Eugene's classroom is a microcosm of power relationships in our world--the screws that hold everything together are always there, but we are so accustomed to their presence that we don't even see them. It is only when these screws are loosened that we see these invisible connections.
Archie’s assignments aren’t that different from some of the brothers’ pedagogical techniques. One such incident is when Brother Leon accuses Bailey of cheating, claiming that his perfect score can only be an indication of duplicity since no one excepting God is without flaw. This accusation is made publicly in front of Bailey’s stunned classmates. But before dismissing class, Brother Leon then turns on his pupils as only one made a half-hearted objection to his treatment of their classmate. “you, gentlemen, you sat there and enjoyed yourselves. And those of you who didn’t enjoy yourselves allowed it to happen, allowed me to proceed. You turned the classroom into Nazi Germany” (44-45) when they failed to stand up for Bailey. Brother Leon’s demonstration is particularly remarkable as he is certainly no champion of students standing up to authority. Instead, this demonstration is one calculated to reinforce dominance. Brother Leon’s ability to disorient his students here is similar to training a dog. It is important to establish with puppies that the human is the master and the dog is the subordinate. This is achieved in part through disorienting the dog. Every time the master comes into the room, s/he should at the very least roll the puppy onto its back so that it must acknowledge the human’s presence, and realize that the human must always be paid attention to. And occasionally, teachers can short circuit the Vigil’s attempts to demonstrate their own ability to undermine faculty authority. One of the Vigil’s assignments is for students in Brother Jacques’ class to jump up and down and jog in place every time he uses the word “environment.” But Brother Jacques catches on quickly to what’s going on, and uses the word as many times as possible so that “he was in command, making the guys jump up and down until they almost collapsed in exhaustion.” (128).
Archie, who prides himself on being an astute judge of character, originally selects for an assignment over the objections of Obie. Archie quells Obie’s fears: “Don’t let him fool you, Obie. He’s a tough one. Didn’t you see him get wiped out down there and still stay on his feet? Tough. And stubborn. He should’ve stayed down on that turf, Obie. That would’ve been the smart thing to do.” (15). But when Archie makes his selection, he underestimates just how tough and stubborn Jerry is. Long after the assignment is over, Jerry continues to refuse to sell the chocolates because he just doesn’t want to, and his refusal disturbs Trinity’s universe so drastically that Brother Leon openly acknowledges the existence of the Vigils and gets them involved in trying to coerce Jerry back into the fold, since his persistent defiance has encouraged a similar stance in others, thereby undermining the authority of both the school and of the Vigils.
Archie and Brother Leon are representative of how white male power functions. On the surface, Brother Leon looks like one of those "pale, ingratiating kind of men who tiptoed through life on small, quick feet. He looked like a henpecked husband, a pushover, a sucker . . . But all of this was deceptive" (24). While Archie is tall and not too heavy, he doesn't like athletics at all (11), putting him in a situation where he could also resemble Brother Leon in middle age. Both characters are similar in how they use power. "Archie disliked violence--most of his assignments were exercises in the psychological rather than the physical" (12), and Brother Leon is similar in his approach to wielding power. Using psychological rather than physical coercion typifies how white upper class males use power in our culture. While there is always the threat of physical violence for non-compliance, that physical violence is administered by others beneath them. In Mean Girls, we see girls fighting in ways not visible to the naked eye, and they have been practicing this sort of girlfighting for quite a while when the film opens. The Chocolate War demonstrates how boys have to catch up to girls in this regard as they are typically taught to settle their differences openly and physically rather in this indirect and far more sinister way.
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ISAs and RSAs: Both the Vigils and Trinity provide excellent examples of the two types of institutions that regulate our behavior identified by Louis Althusser in his essay "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses"1: Repressive State Apparatuses and Ideological State Apparatuses. Think of them as the carrot and the stick. Repressive State Apparatuses (RSAs) are institutions that are visible, and have the ability to coerce us into behaving. Examples of RSAs include the police and the military. The police, for example, have the power to make sure that we all obey the speed limit in that they can issue speeding tickets to violators, or the military has the power to quell domestic disturbances through the use of force. For teens, the school itself is also an RSA. Failure to obey school rules can result in anything from receiving a detention to expulsion. Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs), however, are more complex and more numerous. They operate more on the level of controlling how we think about things rather than threatening us with violence. ISAs attempt to compel us to do something in the first place because we believe it is the right thing to do. Examples of ISAs include religious institutions and a more secular view of morality embodied in constitutional law. For example, someone might be reluctant to engage in premarital sex because she was taught by a particular religion that doing so was a sin and so now she herself sees this type of sex as wrong. The Vigils are an example of an ISA in that they "persuade" students to perform assignments through a subtle fear of the organization's own authority. This element of fear itself is quite remarkable since until the end of the novel, when Jerry's refusal to sell the chocolates openly questions the Vigils', and the school's, authority, they never resort to violence, but instead use more subtle intimidation techniques that act on the unconscious level. Both the RSA of the school and the ISA of the Vigils are important in running Trinity. Also note how Brother Leon himself uses some of their techniques in controlling his students. This is particularly apparent on the day he makes an example out of Bailey in class, then turns on everyone else. Or on p. 84 when he tells the class that selling the chocolates is strictly voluntary. Of course, students cannot be physically forced to sell the chocolates, or even expelled for refusing, but they can be manipulated into doing so when their choice is represented as one of supporting the school or opposing it. And finally, Archie and Emile Janza themselves are the embodiment of ISAs and RSAs respectively. Archie uses psychological coercion to pressure fellow students into doing his bidding whereas Janza uses brute force.
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Adults: Jerry himself isn’t able to articulate why he doesn’t want to sell the chocolates, but his refusal is linked to his emerging concept of self, of an identity distinct from that of his elders. Jerry sees his father coming home from work night after night and questions the validity of maturing according to his plan. “Was this all there was to life, after all? You finished 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. . . . Wasn’t each man different? Didn’t a man have a choice?” (61). But Jerry's father isn't the worst adult in this world. If his life is bland and uneventful, at least he is a good man. One of Jerry's classmates, Paul Consalvo, has similar thoughts. He "felt sorry for older people, stuck in their houses and tenements with kids to take care of and housework to do. He thought of his own parents and their useless lives--his father collapsing into his nap every night after supper and his mother looking tired and dragged-out all of the time. What the hell were they living for?" (95-96).
Other adults in charge of Jerry's universe, particularly Brother Leon, aren't so much bland and insignificant, but actively evil. It is Brother Leon who runs the school and turns a blind eye to the machinations of the Vigils. And when Brother Leon attempts to manipulate Caroni, his whole outlook about one type of adult, teachers, is transformed: "Were teachers like everyone else then? Were teachers as corrupt as the villains you read about in books or saw in the movies and television? He'd always worshipped his teachers, had thought of becoming a teacher himself someday if he could overcome his shyness. But now this" (112). Towards the end of the novel, we see how evil Brother Leon is when he watches Jerry get nearly beaten to death and does nothing to stop it. Had someone not called Brother Jacques and tipped him off, Jerry might very well have been killed. Brother Leon's response to the violence is that boys will be boys, with their high spirits that carry them away, but it's all acceptable in the end as the boxing match demonstrates their school spirit (261). And in 1974, when the novel was written, Jerry's father would just shake his head over the terrible thing that happened to his son, watch over him as he recovers in the hospital, and quietly pay the bill. Today, Brother Leon's failure to stop the fight would be suicidal. More than likely Mr. Renault would file a lawsuit for negligence against Trinity, and the school's insurers, knowing that the father would win such a suit easily, would be eager to pay a settlement. It is also likely that Monument's district attorney would file criminal charges against Janza, and perhaps against Archie and Carter.
Given the middle class adults in this novel that the teenaged characters have as examples about what it means to be an adult, it's not surprising that Jerry is fascinated with the hippies who tell him that he's "middle-aged at fourteen" (20). The hippies, with their old clothes and marijuana and lack of a fixed schedule, represent an alternative to the highly-structured and perhaps unrewarding life that Trinity High and his family is preparing him for. So refusing to sell the chocolates because he doesn’t want to is one way Jerry attempts to explore whether or not he has a choice, and to what degree he is able to control the trajectory of his life: when Jerry Renault tells Brother Leon that he will not sell the chocolates, "Cities fell. Earth opened. Planets tilted. Stars plummeted" (118).
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Sexuality: Jerry’s refusal to sell the chocolates is also tied to his sexuality. In Chapter 18, where Jerry first thinks about how he continues to tell Brother Leon “no” long after his assignment from the Vigils has expired, the passage concludes with his sexual thoughts about Ellen Barrett, a girl he’s seen downtown. And later, when Jerry is harassed by his classmates for his persistent refusal, his feelings are similarly linked to sexuality. But while Jerry’s refusal to bow to the Vigils and Trinity makes him feel powerful, and therefore worthy of thinking about a girl in a sexual way, the experience of being harassed puts him in the role of sex crime victim. The phone calls to his house where the caller is silent for a moment before laughing maniacally and hanging up feel like obscene phone calls to him. Emile Janza impugns his manhood by calling him a homosexual before arranging for some children to beat him up, and Jerry thinks of the experience “funny, somebody does violence to you but you’re the one who has to hide, as if you’re the criminal” (205) echoing the feelings of a rape victim. But the connection between sexuality and the taking of, or denial of power is not surprising since the two things are inexorably linked to becoming an adult gendered subject. Mature masculinity is tied to the subject’s ability to assert authority over others, or at the very least, determine his own fate.
Tubs Caspar is a less powerful male, as seen through his relationship with Rita, which compels him to steal from his father and to divert the money made selling chocolates into placating her. Tubs describes Rita as "so beautiful that she made [him] all shaky inside" (93), but she is able to use her beauty as a weapon to get what she wants. While on the one hand, Tubs sees her as "a sweet girl who loves him for himself alone" (93), he also notices that on the night he gave her some earrings, she brushed up against him, and furthermore, this contact was no accident (94). And she wants an expensive bracelet for her birthday, which Tubs knows he doesn't have to give her, but he is also aware of "the delights that awaited him" if he does, and that finally, to Rita, "the bracelet was more important than anything else" (94), certainly more important than her being with him. So Tubs is being initiated into a world of mercenary sexuality.
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The Chocolate War as Preparation for Adulthood: One might be tempted to view the power struggle in The Chocolate War between Brother Leon and Archie and between Jerry and nearly all of Trinity as unique. However, what is going on here is really no different from the sort of power struggles deployed in everyday life. When Jerry refuses to sell the chocolates, he sets a dangerous example that demonstrates to what degree we all participate in our own subjugation. Jerry's refusal to sell the chocolates then encourages other to "disturb the universe," to resist the pull of the ISAs on their minds. Other students begin to realize how sick they are of not only going to chapel, but having to sell things constantly and of being harassed by the Vigils. As a result, posters saying "Screw the Chocolates and Screw the Vigils" go up in the school overnight (183), expressing defiance of both the school and the Vigils. For this reason, Jerry's refusal is extremely disturbing to both Brother Leon and to Archie. Brother Leon describes Jerry as someone who has infected the students of Trinity with his refusal to sell the chocolates (155). Jerry's defiance shows everyone else that power is not something that one person possesses and uses against another. Instead, power is something also conferred by the ruled who consent to be governed. This consent can be withdrawn at any time, which could necessitate the use of stronger "persuasive" measures that might include violence. And there is always the chance that the governed could still resist (perhaps preferring to die, for example, rather than be ruled by someone else).
Brother Leon is doing more with the chocolate sale than raising money for Trinity. He is using it as a tool to assert his own authority in the absence of the head master, perhaps in an attempt to impress the board of trustees and convince them that he should be next in line for this position should it be vacated. This is the only plausible reason that Brother Leon has played fast and loose with the head master's power of attorney entrusted to him during his boss' leave of absence, and he has subsequently overextended the school's finances, putting it in a potentially financially disastrous situation. (162). What he has done is no different from what corporate executives do every day with the companies they serve, sometimes to the detriment of employees and stockholders.
Because Jerry's example is so dangerous, he must be made to submit. The Vigils attempt to physically coerce Jerry via Janza, but this isn't effective. While Jerry is humiliated when Janza arranges for several children to beat him up, he still remains defiant. This demonstrates to what degree RSAs are ineffective, and can only be used as a last resort. Using physical violence on an enemy only makes him/her more resentful and ready to openly defy authority. ISAs are far more effective, and this is the strategy that Archie employs when he creates the Raffle and the boxing match between Jerry and Janza. From an early age, we're taught that physical violence on an individual level is inappropriate, and that instead, this sort of violence is the exclusive prerogative of the state to use for the protection of the public. So it's not surprising that someone like Jerry is uncomfortable about being in a boxing match with Janza, even though on one level, he would love to beat the tar out of him. Jerry remains uncomfortable with his ability to inflict violence, even when he is completely angered by Janza in the ring. And this discomfort is his undoing. Archie has managed to use physical violence against Jerry, but in such a way that it appears official, or to at least follow some known rules of engagement that are supposedly civilized, rather than becoming a melee. Jerry and Janza are to square off in the ring while the purchaser of each raffle ticket gets to call the blows that one or the other participant will give. These viewers too recognize these rules of order, and become outraged when they seem to be violated after Jerry instinctively protects himself when Janza is directed to aim what is commonly viewed as an illegal blow at his body. Jerry's move to protect himself sends the signal to Janza that it is no longer necessary to play by the rules of this match, and so he just begins beating up on Jerry. Jerry does the same, and when he manages to pummel Janza, is shocked when the crowd begins booing him, as this is also in defiance of the prior rules of boxing he has come to accept, that the crowd is supposed to cheer the victor. When Jerry begins to question the value of trying to impress the crowd who wants him to lose, Janza gains the advantage and pummels him into unconsciousness.
Meanwhile, we see that Brother Leon has been watching the fight all along, and later that he approves of the violence. He chastises Archie for his role in the boxing match, but not in a very heart felt way, and is seems likely that Archie's prediction that "it was going to be a great year" (261) because Leon was on his side will prove true, in spite of Brother Jacques protestations.
The box too demonstrates the nature of power in a larger sense. Archie is always compelled to pull a marble from the box to make sure that he never goes too far in an assignment lest he have to carry it out himself. This demonstrates to what degree he and the other members of the Vigils are bound more through ideological rather than coercive forces, and isn't similar to the way the law works in the larger world (in theory, at least). No one, not even the law makers, are above the law which can punish us but is supposed to protect us all equally. Of course, Archie is always able to manipulate the box somehow, perhaps through some sort of nearly supernatural ability to come out on top.
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Disturbing the Universe: When Jerry is carried away, he tries to tell Goober to sell the chocolates because based on his own experience, it is not worth it after all to disturb the universe. The powerful are entirely too strong to successfully defy. Yet while Jerry might have been beaten, his fate isn't necessarily the detriment to disobedience that Archie and Brother Leon want it to be. Obie thinks that someday Archie will receive his comeuppance, either when the Black Box doesn't work for him, or when another person like Renault comes along.
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The School Story: The Chocolate War is an example of the school story. The school story is usually set in a boarding school, and follows the protagonist sometimes from childhood to graduation in this institution. A good modern example of the school story would be the Harry Potter Series since it contains many of the important elements of this sort of tale, such as a fight with the school bully, sports, and adventures outside of school. While the school story is a type of Entwicklungsroman in that it follows the protagonist through his apprenticeship to being on the cusp of young adulthood, its most salient feature is where the most significant learning takes place--not in the classroom, but instead, through interactions outside of the classroom. Also, I am using the male pronoun to describe the protagonist of the school story since most school stories are about boys.
In The Chocolate War, the most important lessons students learn at Trinity do not occur in the classroom, but are instead are part of the power struggles between the Vigils and the brothers who run the school. Inside the classroom the brothers fill their heads with math and literature and science, but they learn what they will need to survive into adulthood through interactions with peers and the brothers who teach them that life is not fair, and that they will either be dominated or have to seize for themselves what power they can. But The Chocolate War is also a type of failed school story where the hero does not prevail when he fights the bully, or the system, but is instead beaten down by it. If at the end of the novel Jerry is on the threshold of adulthood, he has been delivered a huge setback with the beating he has received.
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1 Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Ben Brewster, translator. London: NLB, 1971. pp. 121-73.