Summary of The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier (Dell-Laurel Leaf Edition, 1974)
Summary, Chapter One, pages 1-6
Jerry Renault is a fourteen-year-old freshman at Trinity High School, an all-male Catholic school in his New England home town. He is trying to make the football team as quarterback, but he is getting “murdered” on each play. He tells the coach that he is all right, and this lie bothers him because, like Peter denying Jesus in the Bible, he is essentially betraying himself each time he says he is okay.
Jerry is encouraged when the coach sends him to the locker room but tells him to come back tomorrow. As he drags himself to the locker room, however, he is overcome with pain and nausea. He thinks about how his mother, dying of a painful cancer, was so drugged at the end of her life. Jerry calls out for help, but everyone is still on the football field. He makes it to the locker room, collapses in the bathroom, and vomits.
Told in third-person omniscient point of view, each chapter in The Chocolate War focuses on a particular character or characters. Chapter One centers on the novel’s main character, Jerry Renault. The very first sentence, “THEY MURDERED HIM,” foreshadows what will happen to Jerry by the end of the novel: But who are “they,” why would they “murder” Jerry, and why do they pick “him” to murder? This simple first sentence sets up the whole dynamic of the novel; this is a story about one boy standing up to “them”—other boys, a boys’ school culture, a whole system of belief that challenges the individual and demands obedience to the “pack.” The word “murdered” suggests that Jerry will lose something during his ordeal; some part of him will be killed.
Summary, Chapter Two, pages 7-16
Two Trinity students, Obie and Archie, sit high in the stands above the football field, watching the players practice. The two boys are members of Trinity’s secret society, The Vigils. Archie Costello is the group’s “Assigner.” He chooses students to undertake tasks to prove their willingness to become Vigils members. Obie, as Vigils Secretary, records the names.
Obie is late for work, and he despises Archie for deliberately making him late; yet Obie is angry with himself for letting Archie have that power over him. He knows perfectly well that Archie, with his cruel brilliance, is the real power behind The Vigils. Archie pretends concern for Obie for a moment, then he talks about how hard his job as Assigner is. Then he shifts back to business.
Archie chooses two boys and Obie records their names. Archie chooses Jerry Renault as the third boy. Obie suggests that perhaps they should leave Jerry alone. Archie, however, disagrees. He has observed how Jerry got up after all those murderous tackles. He tells Obie that Jerry is “‘a tough one’” and requires a special assignment: chocolates.
As Obie writes down Jerry’s name and assignment, he thinks about how he had wanted to play football himself, but he chose The Vigils instead. “‘Life is sad,’” he tells Archie as he observes how the shadows of the goal posts resemble empty crosses. Archie replies, “‘Life is shit.’”
When Archie first appears in the novel, he is positioned in the stands, high above other boys, deciding their fates. His dazzling, blond good looks, his brilliant mind, his uncanny reading of others, and his controlling position in The Vigils (whose name, significantly, links with the words vigilant and vigilante), suggest that he is like an archangel, a leader of the angels. “Archie,” however, is a nickname, a corruption of the name “Archibald,” which means “brave” and incorporates the Greek word archos, which means “master.” And like his name, Archie the boy is corrupt. He earns power not through his own bravery, but through making other boys show their bravery to prove their worthiness. His assignments are simply a form of cruel hazing. He admits, too, that he just goes through the motions of Catholic belief. He tells Obie that receiving communion is simply “‘chewing a wafer they buy by the pound in Worcester.’”
The name “Obie” is possibly a nickname—a corruption—of the name “Obediah,” which means “God’s servant” in Hebrew. Obie is virtually the servant of Archie, who assumes a godlike power over others; Obie resents Archie’s power, yet he is mesmerized by it, too. And he has sacrificed his true self in order to be a servant in The Vigils.
Not only is Archie (and by association, Obie) corrupt, but the school in which they reign is corrupt. The goal posts that resemble empty crosses both symbolize and foreshadow this corruption. Trinity is a place in which the religious trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) are missing. Likewise, the adults of the school are missing in the first two chapters. Cormier provides only a brief mention of a callous football coach and a dead woman, Jerry’s mother. Archie, it seems, reigns without the supervision of adults.
Summary, Chapter Three, pages 17-21
As Jerry waits for his bus home, he sneaks a peek at a Playboy magazine at a store. He wonders why he feels so guilty, when so many other guys look at such magazines.
As he waits outside the store for the bus, Jerry observes the hippies loitering on the Common. Part of him envies the way they do their own thing, something Jerry cannot do in a school like Trinity.
Jerry’s reverie is broken when one of the hippies confronts him for staring at them every day. The hippie taunts Jerry for being “square,” a slave to school and homework and a school uniform. He tells Jerry that he is “‘missing a lot of things in the world.’”
Once on the bus, Jerry wonders if the hippie’s accusations are true. He reads graffiti scrawled on an ad. “Why?” it says. Another scrawl asks, “Why not?” Jerry suddenly feels exhausted.
Chapter Three confirms that The Chocolate War is set sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s, when cultural rebellion was prevalent and slang words like “hippie” and “square” were used as complete opposites. Not only is Jerry caught in this world of culturally opposite lifestyles, he wars internally between right and wrong. Like any normal adolescent boy, he is curious about sex, but he also feels intense guilt about his urges.
Just as Jerry is puzzling over this problem, the hippie appears like an evangelist, looking Christlike in contrast to Jerry’s buttoned-up schoolboy appearance. And like an evangelist, he has a message about life: what is routine is not always right. There are other ways to live, other points of view. His words challenge Jerry to think about what is really important, fitting in or being an individual. The graffiti on the bus echoes the hippie’s meaning and Jerry’s internal questioning. Why rebel? Why not rebel?
Summary, Chapter Four, pages 22-29
Archie has been called to Brother Leon’s office. Usually, Brother Leon is “calm and deadly,” in complete control of his students, apt to pounce on those who seem weak. Archie observes, however, that Brother Leon is sweating and nervous.
Archie quickly detects the reason when Brother Leon tells him that he has ordered twenty thousand boxes of chocolates for this year’s chocolate sale. And he intends to double the price from last year’s one dollar to two dollars per box. He confides to Archie that he got the chocolates for far less than a dollar because they were leftover Mother’s Day chocolates, not exactly fresh. Brother Leon further reveals that he is now the acting headmaster because the current headmaster is gravely ill in the hospital.
At once Archie sees that Brother Leon needs to prove himself through the chocolate sale. Trinity is not a wealthy school. Most of its students are middle class, and the school needs such sales for income. Brother Leon will look good if the sale is a complete success.
“‘But how can I help?’” Archie innocently asks. He wants to force Brother Leon to acknowledge The Vigils and their power, so he plays dumb until Brother Leon grows coldly calm. Archie decides that in this contest of wills he should play it smart, letting Brother Leon think he is in charge, while Archie basks in the knowledge that The Vigils really rule the school, that they are necessary in keeping order in the school. Without them, students might get rebellious ideas and riot, like the hippies. The thought of his power within The Vigils—within the whole school—makes Archie crave a Hershey’s bar.
Archie tells Brother Leon, “‘The Vigils will help.’” He does not wait for Brother Leon to dismiss him; he simply leaves, content in the “beautiful” knowledge that he has forced a teacher to outright admit the Vigil’s power. Archie’s power.
Interestingly, this chapter follows the chapter in which Jerry encounters the hippies, those people whom “society” judges to be deviant. Yet in Chapter Four, Brother Leon reveals himself to be not only deviant, but also hypocritical. As the leader of a Christian school, he should set an example of virtue and integrity, yet he reveals to Archie that he is passing off old chocolates as new and charging far more than they are worth. And he does all this not for the school, really, but for personal recognition and possible promotion.
Brother Leon is like Archie all grown up, a child bully turned into an adult bully. Like Archie, he has two sides that he can use at will, the iron-fisted teacher and the wise mentor, neither of which is sincere. He speaks to Archie like Archie speaks to Obie, alternating between confidante and leader.
And, like Archie, he craves power. The chocolates symbolize his craving for power; the more chocolates sold, the greater his power. Archie craves chocolate when he feels a power rush, and in this way chocolate also symbolizes his craving for power. Both Brother Leon and Archie are like addicts and the chocolates are like drugs, to be peddled to make a profit, to feed the system that keeps them both in power. Because of their addiction, they are no different from the hippies whose supposed addictions to drugs make them despised by society.
Summary, Chapter Five, pages 30-38
Chapter Five focuses Roland Goubert (The Goober), as he stands before Archie and The Vigils, who are assembled in a storage closet behind the gym. Archie speaks to Goober with false, calculated kindness. Archie enjoys “toying with kids, leading them on, humiliating them, finally.” Once, he saw a Marx Brothers movie in which the brothers cannot find a missing painting and Groucho suggests that they look next door; Chico asks what they should do if there is no house next door. Groucho replies that they will simply build one, and they create plans for a new house. Archie recognizes himself in this scene. He is the one who is always building a house that “nobody could anticipate a need for, except himself, a house that was invisible to everyone else.”
As Archie toys with Goober, he is overcome with resentment toward the other Vigils members because none of them has to work as hard as he does to constantly invent assignments. He feels like a machine, yet he cannot turn himself off because, in the end, he is all-powerful.
At last Archie pronounces Goober’s assignment. He is to loosen the screws in every piece of furniture in Room Nineteen on Thursday night. Goober is horrified, but he accepts the assignment because no one ever refuses.
Carter, the president, calls for Obie to bring forth the “black box.” In the box are five white marbles and one black marble. It is a long-standing tradition that the Assigner must draw a marble. If he draws the black marble, he must undertake the assignment himself. This system was devised to keep the Assigner’s power from getting out of hand, but Archie has, in three years, never drawn the black marble.
Archie hides his nervousness and draws a marble. It is white. He thinks, “I am Archie. I cannot lose.” Yet as the meeting ends, Archie feels “empty, used up, discarded.” He thinks he should feels sorry for Goober, but he does not.
In this chapter, Archie’s similarities to Brother Leon become even clearer. Like Brother Leon, he takes pleasure in making someone squirm, making him guess what is coming next.
The allusion to the Marx Brothers episode about building a house is significant because it provides another play on Archie’s name. Archie is like an architect, building structures that keep everyone in place, yet he can also design them to fail if he wishes. The club members depend on his genius to keep them powerful, yet he could at any time turn that genius on any one of them.
That Archie feels like a machine is also important. A machine is soulless, and Archie, who cannot summon compassion for anyone, is practically soulless. He runs on power like a machine runs on batteries; he needs to recharge after he has spent his power in a meeting. Only the anonymous black box has the power to cause a black out in Archie’s power.