After suffering rejection from seven major publishers, The Chocolate War made its debut in 1974, and quickly became a bestselling—and provocative—classic for young adults. This chilling portrait of an all-boys prep school casts an unflinching eye on the pitfalls of conformity and corruption in our most elite cultural institutions.
“Masterfully structured and rich in theme; the action is well crafted, well timed, suspenseful.”—The New York Times Book Review
“The characterizations of all the boys are superb.”—School Library Journal, starred review
“Compellingly immediate. . . . Readers will respect the uncompromising ending.”—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
An ALA Best Book for Young Adults
A School Library Journal Best Book of the Year
A Kirkus Reviews Editor’s Choice
A New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year
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About the Author
Date of Birth:January 17, 1925
Date of Death:November 2, 2000
Place of Birth:Leominster, Massachusetts
Place of Death:Leominster, Massachusetts
Education:Fitchburg State College
Read an Excerpt
THEY MURDERED HIM.
As he turned to take the ball, a dam burst against the side of his head and a hand grenade shattered his stomach. Engulfed by nausea, he pitched toward the grass. His mouth encountered gravel, and he spat frantically, afraid that some of his teeth had been knocked out. Rising to his feet, he saw the field through drifting gauze but held on until everything settled into place, like a lens focusing, making the world sharp again, with edges.
The second play called for a pass. Fading back, he picked up a decent block and cocked his arm, searching for a receiver - maybe the tall kid they called The Goober. Suddenly, he was caught from behind and whirled violently, a toy boat caught in a whirlpool. Landing on his knees, hugging the ball, he urged himself to ignore the pain that gripped his groin, knowing that it was important to betray no sign of distress, remembering The Goober's advice, "Coach is testing you, testing, and he's looking for guts."
I've got guts. Jerry murmured, getting up by degrees, careful not to displace any of his bones or sinews. A telephone rang in his ears. Hello, hello, I'm still here. When he moved his lips, he tasted the acid of dirt and grass and gravel. He was aware of the other players around him, helmeted and grotesque, creatures from an unknown world. He had never felt so lonely in his life, abandoned, defenseless.
On the third play, he was hit simultaneously by three of them: one, his knees; another, his stomach; a third, his head - the helmet no protection at all. His body seemed to telescope into itself but all the parts didn't fit, and he was stunned by the knowledge that pain isn't just one thing - it is cunning and various, sharp here and sickening there, burning here and clawing there. He clutched himself as he hit the ground. The ball squirted away. His breath went away, like the ball - a terrible stillness pervaded him - and then, at the onset of panic, his breath came back again. His lips sprayed wetness and he was grateful for the sweet cool air that filled his lungs. But when he tried to get up, his body mutinied against movement. He decided the hell with it. He'd go to sleep right here, right out on the fifty yard line, the hell with trying out for the team, screw everything, he was going to sleep, he didn't care anymore--
Ridiculous, someone calling his name.
The coach's voice scraped like sandpaper against his ears. He opened his eyes flutteringly. "I'm all right," he said to nobody in particular, or to his father maybe. Or the coach. He was unwilling to abandon this lovely lassitude but he had to, of course. He was sorry to leave the earth, and he was vaguely curious about how he was going to get up, with both legs smashed and his skull battered in. He was astonished to find himself on his feet, intact, bobbing like one of those toy novelties dangling from car windows, but erect.
"For Christ's sake," the coach bellowed, his voice juicy with contempt. A spurt of saliva hit Jerry's cheek.
Hey, coach, you spit on me, Jerry protested. Stop the spitting, coach. What he said aloud was, "I'm all right, coach," because he was a coward about stuff like that, thinking one thing and saying another, planning one thing and doing another - he had been Peter a thousand times and a thousand cocks had crowed in his lifetime.
"How tall are you, Renault?"
"Five nine," he gasped, still fighting for breath.
"One forty-five," he said, looking the coach straight in the eye.
"Soaking wet, I'll bet," the coach said sourly. "What the hell you want to play football for? You need more meat on those bones. What the hell you trying to play quarterback for? You'd make a better end. Maybe."
The coach looked like an old gangster: broken nose, a scar on his check like a stitched shoestring. He needed a shave, his stubble like slivers of ice. He growled and swore and was merciless. But a helluva coach, they said. The coach stared at him now, the dark eyes probing, pondering. Jerry hung in there, trying not to sway, trying not to faint.
"All right," the coach said in disgust. "Show up tomorrow. Three o'clock sharp or you're through before you start."
Inhaling the sweet sharp apple air through his nostrils - he was afraid to open his mouth wide, wary of any movement that was not absolutely essential - he walked tentatively toward the sidelines, listening to the coach barking at the other guys. Suddenly, he loved that voice, "Show up tomorrow."
He trudged away from the field, blinking against the afternoon sun, toward the locker room at the gym. His knees were liquid and his body light as air, suddenly.
Know what? He asked himself, a game he played sometimes.
I'm going to make the team.
Not a dream: it's the truth.
As Jerry took another deep breath, a pain appeared, distant, small - a radar signal of distress. Bleep, I'm here. Pain. His feet scuffled through crazy cornflake leaves. A strange happiness invaded him. He knew he'd been massacred by the oncoming players, capsized and dumped humiliatingly on the ground. But he'd survived - he'd gotten to his feet. "You'd make a better end." Was the coach thinking he might try him at end? Any position, as long as he made the team. The bleep grew larger, localized now, between his ribs on the right side. He thought of his mother and how drugged she was at the end, not recognizing anyone, neither Jerry nor his father. The exhilaration of the moment vanished and he sought it in vain, like seeking ecstasy's memory an instant after jacking off and encountering only shame and guilt.
Nausea began to spread through his stomach, warm and oozy and evil.
"Hey," he called weakly. To nobody. Nobody there to listen.
He managed to make it back to the school. By the time he had sprawled himself on the floor of the lavatory, his head hanging over the lip of the toilet bowl and the smell of disinfectant stinging his eyeballs, the nausea had passed and the bleep of pain had faded. Sweat moved like small moist bugs on his forehead.
And then, without warning, he vomited.
Reading Group Guide
In Robert Cormier's unforgettable novels, an individual often stands alone, fighting for what is rightor just to surviveagainst powerful, sinister, and sometimes evil people. His twisty, gripping stories explore some of the darker corners of the human psyche but always with a moral focus and a probing intelligence that compels readers to examine their own feelings and ethical beliefs. The questions that follow are intended to spur discussion and to provoke thoughtful readers to contemplate some of the issues of identity, character, emotion, and morality that make Cormier's books so compelling.
Tell students that Jerry Renault has a poster in his locker with the following quote from T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “Do I Dare Disturb the Universe?” Divide students into small groups and ask them to interpret the quote. What is their universe? Who controls their universe? What price does one pay when they elect to disturb the universe?
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?