Extra Nate: Revisiting The Chocolate War

It’s Extra Nate! With a topic nobody asked for or cares about other than me. Re-re-discussing the Chocolate War by Robert Cormier.

You remember that, right? The book I talked about like 4 years ago that only I read and Ben didn’t? I read it in high school and it stuck with me and I wanted to see how I would respond as an adult? Well let me give you a recap.

The Chocolate War stars Jerry Renault. He’s a young man coming of age at a Catholic school. His mom died and his dad is basically a zombie since then. Every time he asks his dad how his day was it’s always “fine” never “good” or “bad” or anything else, it’s just dreary like that. Jerry wonders if he’ll turn out like his dad and just kind of coast through life at some point. He also is starting to come into his really awkward teen sexuality and struggles with even talking to a girl who doesn’t know he even exists. That all makes sense so far.

Then we’re introduced to Archie and The Vigils, a secret society that everybody knows about inside the Catholic school. Archie isn’t the leader but he is the mastermind of the group. He’s the… I want to say “the assigner” but I refuse to look up his title because I don’t care. Basically he hazes kids. He comes up with some sort of punishment or thing they have to do, then they’re forced to do it with threats of violence. Now to make sure that Archie doesn’t overstep and assign a task too Draconian, he has to reach his hand into a box after each assignment is crafted. There are 5 white marbles and 1 black marble in the box. If he gets a black marble, then he has to do the task! Gasp! You may notice that I stole this idea for Words About Books whenever Ben and I give each other a book to read, so that we also don’t overstep. Anyway Archie has never ever drawn a black marble. That’s important, remember that.

Finally there’s Brother Leon. He’s angling for Head Master of the next school term because the current Head Master is ill and probably not coming back. Leon has an ingenious plan. He’s going to use the Vigils to help him sell double the chocolate at the annual chocolate fundraiser. See, he bought a bunch of chocolate last Easter (after Easter was over) and put it in the freezer and now he’s going to sell that at a double mark-up for double the amount of units. This level of financial genius and know-how will surely make him Head Master! With the Vigils backing the chocolate drive (through threats and promises) he gets Archie on board.

Now, the chocolate drive is entirely voluntary but everyone just pledges to do it every year. Except not Jerry! Long-story short Jerry was given a task to refuse the chocolates by The Vigils for 2 weeks and then accept the chocolates. But Jerry defies them by continuing to deny the chocolates. Social order disintegrates and anarchy ensues! Someone is defying the Vigils and Brother Leon!

So they hatch a plan to make selling chocolates the thing to do in the school. The Vigils enlist a bunch of outside help to sell the chocolate, except for Jerry’s, and then uses social pressure to evidently turn the entire school against Jerry. Yes, kids hate him for not selling chocolate even though they know deep down that they also didn’t sell any chocolates. Jerry is ostracized. He’s harassed non-stop at his home and at school. It’s a nightmare. Jerry is even taken off the football team because the offensive line keeps letting the other team (well it’s practice, so not the other team but whatever) tackle the hell out of him.

It all comes to a head when the final boxes of chocolates (Jerry’s) are sold as raffle tickets. Jerry is goaded into a fight with a bully (Emil Janza) who, at the behest of The Vigils, called a bunch of his friends to beat the crap out of Jerry. Jerry and Emil fight with each raffle ticket giving one of the two combatants a free punch. Archie has to draw TWO marbles before the fight, however, in a brilliant move by Obie the assistant to… oh he got two white marbles, okay the fight proceeds aaaaaaand Jerry got devastated. The other teachers come in to shut down the whole thing as this is happening on school grounds and Leon comes in to make sure that Archie won’t take any of the flak, his Head Master position secured.

Jerry, a beaten and bloody mess, tells his friend that you don’t disturb the universe. You don’t go against the powers that be. Just conform because it’s not worth it. The end.

Why Am I Talking About This Again?

Good question. I have a number of things I wanted to talk about. Such as what will actually happen after this, how the bad guys didn’t actually win, and a change that really should have made in retrospect.

To do that I’m going to quickly talk about the movie version. But first before I forget Ben mentioned something important when discussing the book in that podcast episode. That is: the offensive line intentionally letting the quarterback get destroyed on the field looks badly on them and not necessarily the quarterback. So Jerry’s coach must have been a moron (or Robert Cormier never played football).

The Movie Version and One Good Change

Alright let’s talk about the movie version. I didn’t see it. But I know in the movie Archie actually does draw a black marble on the second drawing. He replaces Emil in the fight and Jerry beats his ass. In the end Jerry realizes he still played their game and they still won, but Archie got his comeuppance.

I used to think that was a cop out ending but now I think that’s just the objectively better ending? Archie gets beat, because he’s someone who needs to get beat. I mean it undermines the message of the book, but the message of the book is objectively shit. “Don’t go against the grain, just fall in line” is a really stupid message.

I think the movie ending is better, but it can be even better using the power of math. So remember how I said Arche never drew a black marble? I find it hard to believe that nobody, not even Obie the secret Vigil genius, never thought for a second Archie was cheating. There’s a sequel that I never have and never will read where it was revealed that, yes, Archie cheated to always draw white marbles. I could have told you that.

He has a 5/6 chance of getting a white marble. Those are pretty good odds. It’s like rolling a 6-sided dice and not getting a one. But if you roll a dice, say, 10 times… you’re going to get a one. Look my math sucks but the internet says your probability of getting a one AT LEAST ONE of those 10 times, is 83%. Every time you roll the dice you’re taking another 1 in 6 chance that you’re going to get a bad roll. The fact that he’s been doing this for years and never got a black marble? Bullshit, and they should know it.

Obie conspires with Carter (the actual leader of the Vigils) to surprise Archie. Archie is, in fact, not surprised by what Obie does. Obie makes Archie draw TWO marbles, one for Emil and one for Jerry. Archie wins both marbles. That’s a 1/6 probability then a 1/5 probability of getting a black marble and he once again doesn’t get it

So what would I have done differently so that Obie and Carter and basically everyone can get one over on Archie? Well, replace the white marbles. Obie says “I’m not saying we cheat, I mean, where would we even get 5 black marbles? We’d have to go to every store in town!” 

Side note: I guess the times have really changed from their time. I can go onto the toilet, take a phone from my pocket, and order a pound of black marbles for $7, while taking a dump, and have it delivered to my door by tomorrow morning.

Anyway what should they have done to get one over on Archie instead? Just replace all the white marbles with colored marbles. If he has white marbles on hand stuffed in his sleeve that he sleight-of-hands (and he does) then you can trap him. He’ll pull a white marble from the box instead of a colored marble and then they got him. They give him the opportunity to fight either Emil or Jerry (both of whom hate him) and he’d do better fighting Jerry than the gorilla-man Emil and the book can end on a note similar to the movie’s note.

Moving Forward

Okay so that’s not the only thing I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about how the villains “won” and how no… no they did not.

First of all you have a kid who was beaten half to death, on school property, with the entire student body in attendance. Brother Leon seriously thinks heads won’t be rolling after that? And that his head won’t be on the chopping block front and center?

See, Jerry got his ass kicked earlier by Emil’s friends but he didn’t get hospitalized and he didn’t snitch. But he doesn’t have that option now. He’s being carted to the hospital, he lost consciousness, and the police were definitely called. He doesn’t have the option of not snitching because even if he decided to keep his silence… the entire student body witnessed his beating. Someone (probably the guy who had a fear of authority) will point the cops to Emil if the teachers don’t do that themselves.

Maybe Emil won’t snitch. In which case good luck in juvenile hall, idiot. If you’re lucky that is. Emil is a senior (I think) so he might actually be at the age of 18 so that might be jail time. You want to commute your sentence to assault and battery and get some probation? Tell us who put you up to this. Otherwise attempted murder looks pretty nice. What’s that? You were both wearing boxing gloves? Yeah that’s not how sanctioned boxing matches work. Sorry.

Emil snitches, or he doesn’t. That doesn’t matter because remember that thing I said just a few paragraphs ago? That thing where this happened on school grounds with the entire student body in attendance? That’s gonna look bad on the Head Mast… oh that’s right he’s ill. So who is the like, Vice Head Master? Oh that’s right, that’s Brother Leon.

So, Brother Leon, did you know about what was going down? Because either you did and you were complicit or you feign innocence in which case you’re probably responsible for gross negligence. Hope that Emil Janza doesn’t point the finger at Archie because if he does, Archie is going to definitely throw you under the bus because Archie is definitely 18 and definitely will implicate you.

Even if you can worm out of criminal charges, you don’t think this destroys your school brand? Who is going to want to enroll their kid in a school where a kid got brain damage and sent to the hospital as a bloody pulp? This is a private Catholic School for God’s sake. Literally, for God’s sake.

Plus all that chocolate money? Yeah Jerry’s dad is going to be loading all of that into your car, which he’ll then use to drive home from the courthouse. Again, this happened on your campus and all the student body was aware of it. Either your teachers were too stupid to be aware of it or they sanctioned it. Either way I’ll be seeing you in court for damages. It won’t be hard to connect this beating to all the harassment that has been happening to Jerry at his house and to his previous beating by Emil’s friends.

What I’m saying is: Emil is going to be lucky to get house arrest or probation but will probably get jail time. Archie will probably escape scot free or might get probation. Brother Leon? He’s fucked. His promotion isn’t “secured”, he’s going to have to step down once blame starts being pointed in his direction (and it will) for destroying his school’s reputation and losing all the hard-earned fundraiser money in a massive public lawsuit. The best case scenario for him is being forced to resign in disgrace before he can take on the role of Head Master.

What Did We Learn?

If you Disturb the Universe then you will get beaten up in a comical arena-style boxing duel. You’ll then sue the shit out of everyone who wronged you because there were like two hundred witnesses, it was on school property, and there is so much evidence that your case is basically a slam dunk. We learned that if you know basic probability math you’d know that it’s next-to-impossible to grab one of six marbles once every two weeks or whatever for two years and not get one black in a bag of whites. We also learned that ye olden times sucked because you had to go around the entire tri-state area just to get 5 marbles. I don’t know why I decided to write this blog. Probably because I had a lot more about this book that bothered me and that I used to like it a lot, but that was when I was a big dumb idiot in High School.

In conclusion… the end.

Nate Creed

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