I wanted to put up a more complete summary of The Chocolate War so that we can be as fair to this book as possible. I was going to go more in depth with this, but Ben read the outline and didn’t care for it. That’s why we turned it into a discussion of school assigned readings and The Chocolate War was pushed to the background.
The book is told from the perspective from two main characters and a handful of minor characters. The protagonist is Jerry Renault, the guy getting killed at football practice in the opener. He’s a freshman at an all boy’s catholic school (called Trinity) in the 1960s. He thinks himself a coward, saying one thing but really thinking another. Planning one thing but not following through. Over the course of the book he becomes friends with a guy whose last name sounds like “Goober” so they just call him “The Goober”.
The other point of view is from Archie Costello or his toadie Obie. They’re part of a not-so-secret society within Trinity whose big thing is just to haze the shit out of people. The society is called “The Vigils” and Archie is the man in charge of selecting who to haze and what to haze them with. Then they summon the victim, tell them their assignment, and also basically tell them “this is normal, this is what everyone has to go through, snitches get stitches though.”
Archie himself is described as intelligent and quick with words. He’s also a total douche. He comes off to me as a guy who is smart but never applies himself and 10 years after highschool they’re bragging about how they’re a genius despite having nothing to verify or show for that claim.
Anyway, he selects Jerry as one of the guys to haze because “he should’ve stayed down” when he got the shit tackled out of him in football but he was stubborn and got back up, so… fuck ‘em.
Brother Leon is introduced as also a horrible person. He teaches come classes and he’s the vice-headmaster. He bought a bunch of Easter candy last year on discount (and later we find out he used money he wasn’t supposed to use) and wants to sell it for double the price of previous years at double the amount of boxes of the previous years. If he succeeds he might permanently become the headmaster (the current one is sick) and if he fails then he’s going to have to answer for all the money he blew.
You might think it’s a bit dishonest to buy old chocolate from a year ago and repackage and re-sell them. Just in case you think this guy is on the up-and-up there’s a scene in which Leon bullies a child. One of the kids Leon’s class gets a perfect score on a test so Leon singles him out and accuses him of cheating. When the kid says he didn’t cheat, Leon says that only God is perfect and asks if the kid is putting himself on the same level as God. The kid says no, obviously, so Leon says he must have cheated. The whole class gets a kick out of this mental abuse at the hands of a teacher. Finally as the bell rings someone shouts to “give the kid a break”. Leon snaps at whomever that was and then tells the class that he knew the kid didn’t cheat but he says nobody defended the kid until it was “too little too late” and then compares the class to how Auschwitz happens. He says the kid was brave for standing up for his ideals and admonishes the class before dismissing them.
As I said in the podcast: Goober is summoned by The Vigils and his task is to loosen all the screws in the room. Carter (The Vigils leader) is there to reign in any crazy tasks the Assigner (Archie, remember) comes up with. That’s where the 5 white marbles and the 1 black marble come in. This is a tradition inside the Vigils passed down through the years. It’s a check on Archie’s power. In the sequel it’s noted that Archie cheats, I don’t know why that never crosses their mind.
So Goober loosens all the screws in a teacher’s room. Everything in the room collapses and the teacher suffers a nervous breakdown while Goober feels severe anxiety and guilt over what he did. He goes to far as to quit football and tells Jerry that he will refuse to try out for track in the spring
Finally let me introduce the bully character: Emil Janza. His introduction is that of being a piece of shit. He talks about how nobody likes confrontation and so he can get away with whatever he wants. He also notes that the world is full of either victims or victimizers. So he sucks. But later in the book, at almost the last possible moment for this character, he thinks he’s the good guy and he is upset that nobody takes his feelings into account. Which, yeah, you suck dude. Nobody cares about the feelings of the guy who beats the shit out of other people and steals gas directly from their car. Also there’s a photo of him that Archie has (but it turns out he doesn’t actually have it) that he uses to blackmail Emil. The photo is of Emil trying to jerk off in the bathroom at the school.
Jerry’s homelife is “fine”. Every conversation he has with his father about results in his dad saying that everything was “fine”. His dad works at a pharmacy and Jerry thinks that his dad is dead inside. He reflects that his mom died of cancer and his dad might’ve died with her. Jerry thinks about football and that it means he’s part of something. He wonders about what life is like after school and if you kind of just die after that but your body sticks around.
Leon announces the chocolate sale. Says it is entirely voluntary. He calls people in a roll call to get their chocolate. They say either “yes” or “no”. The socially acceptable thing to do is to say yes, but Jerry says no. Every day there’s a call where every kid says a number representing the amount of boxes sold. There’s a general anxiety in the class because every time it gets to “Renault” Jerry just says “No”. Day-after-day.
A short aside chapter shows that Leon gives an F to a guy who is normally an A student “because the question could’ve been wrong if read one way but maybe it was right I dunno.” and he asks why Jerry keeps refusing the chocolates. The kid spills the beans, he heard a rumor that it was a Vigil assignment and Jerry is supposed to refuse for 2 weeks before taking the chocolates. This kid learns that teachers can be evil assholes too. There’s a lot of one-off chapters from a different perspective from kids whose names I don’t remember or care to write down.
Leon is happy because Jerry will start accepting the chocolates because the assignment is over. Except Jerry doesn’t. Jerry doesn’t even know why, when questioned by The Goober. He also keeps a poster in his locker that asks “Do I Dare Disturb the Universe” by T.S. Elliot. He’s even thinking about maybe talking to this cute girl at his bus stop (I glossed over the sexual frustration that this book talks about. He figures out her name by some name tag and decides to call her, what with the phone book being a thing. And she doesn’t know who he is, obviously. And he hangs up, embarrassed he even tried. So perhaps this is something that I resonated with as well in high school. Being embarrassed as fuck to talk to anybody. I’m okay putting that in this blog because nobody will read this anyway except for maybe Ben).
Jerry’s small-scale revolution causes similar revolt throughout the school. People question why they have to sell all this fundraising chocolate and sales are down. It’s determined that Leon paid for the chocolate with money that he shouldn’t have used and one of the other teachers, Brother Jacques, is on to him. So Leon is desperate and threatens Archie that if Leon falls, they both go together. Also some guy stands up to the Vigils because of this Jerry thing. So Carter, the president, beats the shit out of him. He tells Archie to fix the problem with Renault and the stupid chocolates.
Jerry is summoned to the Vigils either before or after the above incident and he’s asked to sell chocolate, rather than told. Jerry says he will and then continues to not do that.
So the Vigils “make it cool” to sell chocolate. They enlist a bunch of outside aid and sell chocolate. They sell boxes and give credit to everyone else. They hold elaborate celebrations for those who hit the 50 boxes (even though nobody did), and they start alienating Jerry. People start giving him shit at school, trashing his locker, sabotaging him on the football team, calling his house to harass him, going to his house to honk horns and keep him up, giving him the silent treatment, and trying to shove him down the stairs. He’s the only one not selling chocolates (even though nobody else is either, Jerry is just not getting credit). The school turns on Jerry really fast. The final straw is Archie enlisting Emil to beat the shit out of Jerry. Emil enlists some neighborhood boys who beat him up. Leon encourages this silently in class. A kid asks Jerry if “he thinks he’s better than us” and Leon asks Jerry to explain himself to the kid and basically let’s Jerry tie his own noose. Because it turns out Leon actually doesn’t give a fuck about people standing up for themselves, like he said in the Auschwitz example above, he just wants people to fall in line and he likes being a bully.
So Archie stages a big show. He and Emile will fight in a boxing match with rules and stuff. He just has to show up. And hey it’s a raffle to raise funds for the school. And like… nothing bad will happen. He goads both Jerry and Emile into fighting.
Suddenly: rule change. It’s a raffle. When your raffle ticket is drawn it designates a fighter and a type of punch to determine how the fighters will fight. The person with the knock-out blow gets 50 boxes of chocolate. Jerry can’t refuse because he’d look like a coward so he accepts.
Just then Obie presents the black box. Archie draws a white marble. BUT that was just for Emile. He has to draw a second marble for Jerry… and here’s where the world diverges. There’s a movie of The Chocolate War (which I haven’t seen) where Archie draws a black marble and has to fight Jerry and gets the shit kicked out of him. Jerry then realizes that he stooped to their level and did what they wanted him to do so even though he beat up Archie, he still lost. In the book Archie just draws another white marble.
Maybe this is another reason the book stuck out in my mind. The hero does not win. And in fact the villain of this piece gets away without consequence. This moment where he draws a second marble would, in another book (or the film), be a black marble and he would have to fight Jerry. But he doesn’t. He draws a second white marble and the fight goes as planned. Perhaps that was powerful for a younger me, to see a story that looks like it hits its lowest point in Act II and come back triumphantly only for Act III to be the final nail in the coffin.
It is said in the 2nd book (which I have not read) that Archie cheated. He fakes the white marble every time with slight of hand. Obie and Carter talk before doing this to Archie and Carter wonders if Obie is planning on rigging the box. Obie says “where would I find 6 black marbles?” so I guess it was hard to find marbles back in the day. My thing would be: why not replace all the white marbles with marbles of any color other than black? If he pulls out a blue and a green, he’s good. If he pulls out a blue and a black, that counts as pulling the black. If he pulls out two whites, you know he’s full of shit and you put him in the ring. I dunno, my first thought was that Archie is cheating.
So the fight goes as planned for about 4 punches. A raffle is drawn for a groin punch, Emil goes for it, Jerry blocks because that’s an illegal move, and the crowd is pissed that Jerry blocked. So Emil just starts kicking his ass. Jerry fights back and gets some nice shots in but ultimately he’s pummeled. The lights then go out. Brother Jacques is there with other teachers to shut down the party and get Archie in trouble.
But Leon shows up, and he has the clout. He says “boys will be boys” which… ohh man is that relevant as hell in today’s society. I think in the 2nd book Jerry isn’t the main character and is only mentioned and shows up briefly. I think his dad sues the fuck out of the school because… yeah. Leon is an idiot who risked all that precious chocolate money on a fight (I should mention Leon was present for the fight, hiding on some nearby darkened hill so this makes sense).
Leon protects The Vigils. The Goober comes to Jerry’s side. Jerry wants to tell him to just do what he’s told. Play football, run track, do it because if you don’t life will beat you down until you conform. Jerry can’t say this though because his face is hamburger and he’s on the verge of passing out. The book ends with Archie victorious sitting in the bleachers where it all started, being a douche with Obie.
So what did we learn? Well I think Robert Cormier is maybe trying to show that adults and teachers can be evil and flawed too. I also think that he thinks maybe “disturbing the universe” will end badly. I got that only because I saw a lot of his other books were huge downers. But I could be wrong, what did you think of The Chocolate War if you read it?