Excerpted from The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. Copyright © 1974 by Robert Cormier. Excerpted by permission of Ember, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
The following introduction to The Chocolate War was written by Robert Cormier in 1997.
The Chocolate War was written during weekday evening hours and Saturday mornings in parts of 1969, 1970, and 1971 while I was working full-time as a newspaper editor and columnist.
Writing the novel was a labor of love. Although the setting was a Catholic boys’ high school, I regarded the school as a metaphor for the world. On the other hand, I knew that, on its primary level, this was a story about a school chocolate sale. Who would be interested in reading such a story? I sometimes wondered. Yet I was having such a good time as the words leaped and danced on the page and the characters of Jerry Renault, Archie Costello, and Brother Leon came alive that I didn’t worry about it.
It seems incredible to me that more than two decades later, The Chocolate War continues to be read and taught (and to cause problems) in classrooms here in the United States and in such places as England, Australia, Sweden, France, and Japan, among others.
Yet the novel was almost stillborn and existed for more than a year in a kind of literary no-man’s-land. Seven major publishers rejected it over the course of thirteen months in 1972 and 1973. The reasons? Too complicated. Too many characters. A downbeat ending, which teenagers of the 1970s would find difficult to accept. Too violent. Not quite an adult novel, too sophisticated to be a juvenile novel. Too unbelievable. That frustrating “Not for us,” without further comment. One publisher, however, seriously considered accepting it if some changes were made, particularly to the ending.
I decided not to change or revise the novel. This was not a heroic gesture but an act of innocence. I knew nothing of the young adult market, was unaware of its then traditions and taboos, the domination of “safe” stories with role-model heroes walking off into the sunset of happy endings.
Although The Chocolate War does not have that hoped-for happy ending, its history has had happy moments and its share of heroes.
My son, Peter, inspired the novel when he refused, as a matter of principle, to sell the chocolates at his school’s annual sale.
Marilyn E. Marlow, my literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd., supported my decision against revisions and insisted that the novel, as written, would find its place in the world of young adult literature, convinced that the young adult market was entering a period of change, heralded by the earlier appearances of S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders and Paul Zindel’s The Pigman.
Finally, Fabio Coen, then publisher of Books for Young Readers at Pantheon Books and Knopf, the eighth publisher to whom the book was submitted, accepted it for publication in April of 1973.
I worried about revisions. Needlessly, as it turned out. At a brief “editing session” at Fabio Coen’s office, his suggestions were few and minor, scrawled on a single sheet of paper. But he was doubtful about a short chapter toward the end of the novel.
Astonished, I realized it was a chapter I had agonized about earlier, actually removing it at one time, then reinstating it. I had found an editor who shared my instincts and my intentions. The chapter was removed. Otherwise, the novel was published essentially as I wrote it, in April of 1974. Fabio Coen became my mentor and remained so until his retirement several books later.
The success of The Chocolate War is testimony to all the other heroes involved in its history–teachers who have taught the book in the face of censorship attempts that sometimes threatened their jobs; librarians who have had to fight to keep the novel available to readers; critics, writers, and educators who supported the novel in countless reviews and essays; all the young people who continue to write me letters, who call me up, who organize protests when the book faces yet another banning threat; Pantheon Books, followed by Knopf and Dell Laurel-Leaf, who have kept the book in continuous print in hardback and softcover.
Talk about happy endings!
Leominster, Massachusetts, 1997
1. Jerry places a poster in his locker that says, “Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?” At first, he doesn’t understand the meaning of the poster; he just likes it. At what point in the novel does it appear that Jerry is beginning to get the meaning of the poster?
2. Contrast Jerry’s definition of “his universe” at the beginning and the end of the novel.
3. How does Jerry become a martyr by disturbing his universe?
4. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Discuss how Jerry might interpret this quote. How does Emerson promote nonconformity and disturbing the universe? Debate whether Jerry leaves a trail at Trinity.
5. The Chocolate War is one of the most censored books in America. It is under perpetual attack because of Cormier’s “negative portrayal of human nature,” and because the ending appears hopeless. Discuss the objections to the book, and think about how Cormier “disturbed the universe” by writing the novel. Why do people fear a realistic portrayal of life? What is the relationship between looking at the “good and evils” of life to “disturbing the universe”?
6. How do gangs and secret societies like the Vigils use peer pressure to gain power and control?
7. What is the significance of the scene where Jerry encounters the hippies? Discuss how they make him question his place among his peers.
8. How is misinformation about the chocolate sale used to maintain peer pressure? Discuss how this tactic affects Goober, who quit selling the chocolates after 27 boxes.
9. Discuss the relationship between peer pressure and conformity.
10. Compare and contrast the peer pressure at Trinity with peer pressure in your own school. Brother Leon actually promotes peer pressure at Trinity. Discuss ways a school administrator should deal with peer pressure. What should students do if they feel they are the victims of extreme peer pressure?
11. Archie Costello, one of the leaders of the Vigils, doesn’t believe in violence. How does this make him different from the typical school bully? Which character in the novel best fits the typical school bully profile?
12. Discuss the difference between physical and psychological bullying. Which is more damaging?
13. How is Brother Leon a bully? Describe his quiet tactics, and his obsession with getting revenge on Jerry.
14. Why is Jerry Renault an easy target for bullies like the Vigils and Brother Leon? Why doesn’t Archie give “assignments” to most athletes?
15. Discuss why Jerry never explains the phone calls, the missing homework assignment, or the vandalism to his locker to his father.
16. Describe the power of the Vigils. How do they control the social order of the school?
17. Archie Costello is a legend at Trinity High School because he is the “Assigner” for the Vigils. How does this position give him power over the entire student body? How does Archie use manipulation to gain power? How is his power recognized and used by Brother Leon?
18. Brother Leon becomes drunk with power when he is named acting headmaster of Trinity. How is his desire for power in conflict with his training as a priest?
19. Discuss the relationship between power and corruption. How might Goober describe the corruption, or the evil, at Trinity High School?
20. How is Brother Leon’s corruption revealed?
21. How does the opening scene on the football field foreshadow Jerry’s courage?
22. Archie Costello is considered courageous and gutsy. Debate whether he is as courageous as he appears. Why does Archie fear that he may pick a black marble from the box? How might a black marble change his image and position among the Vigils?
23. Discuss how Goober deals with his fear. How might Goober describe Jerry’s courage?
24. How are the Vigils affected when Jerry doesn’t succumb to their fear tactics? Discuss how this leads to his ultimate downfall.
25. Discuss how Jerry might reflect upon his own courage at the end of the novel.
26. The first sentence of this book is "They murdered him." In what ways does this small sentence apply to the book as a whole? Who is murdered, metaphorically, in the book? By whom?
27. There are no main female characters in this book, partly because Trinity is a boys' school. Yet the Trinity boys often discuss girls. Jerry wishes he could talk to the girl near the bus stop. Janza watches girls as they walk by, and Archie won't let anyone touch him except certain girls. What function(s) do you think girls play in the novel?
28. Why do you think Archie is repulsed by human sweat? What do you think this says about Archie as a person?
29. Archie's greatest strength is in exploiting other people's weaknesses. Why do you think Archie does this? Why do you think he needs to manipulate every situation?
30. Discuss the significance of the title. Why is it a chocolate "war"?
31. Why do you think Jerry decides not to sell the chocolates even after his assignment is over? Have you ever dared to "disturb the universe"? What happened?
32. How do you feel about how Brother Leon treated Bailey? At the end of the class Brother Leon says that the students had allowed him to turn the class into Nazi Germany. Do you think this is a true statement?