Friday, October 10, 2008

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

This book has been challenged so many times, it takes up almost two whole pages in Banned Books, by Robert P Doyle. Mainly this is due to violence, references to masturbation, and degrading views of women. (I think that the thoughts shown by the boys in the book are rather typical of high school boys, which can have very little respect for women or sexuality in general.) One of the challenges that I found the most interesting, however, was due to the book's "pessimistic ending". I had not yet read the book when I saw this comment, and I wondered what the big deal was. I will be mentioning that later, so beware of spoilers, if you are interested in reading the book without knowing the ending.
The Chocolate War is about a Catholic high school in the 1970's. (The book was written in 1974.) Its plot centers around a group of students known as The Vigils. They are basically a gang that is allowed to exist because they keep the students in line. Meaning: students are too afraid to do anything like those pesky protests so many high schoolers were participating in around that time. The Vigils are cruel, and are run by Archie, who makes up assignments and gives them out randomly to students. These assignments are pranks, designed to get the students in trouble if they are caught, and are basically a sort of blackmail. If you don't complete your assignment, The Vigils make your life hell. Jerry Renault is a freshman who gets an assignment - his is to refuse to sell chocolates in the annual school sale. This creates no end of torment for Jerry, as the priests that run the school are just as cruel and unforgiving as The Vigils. But once Jerry's assignment is up, he decides that he is just going to keep refusing to sell the chocolates. So The Vigils give him another assignment - sell the chocolates. And yet he refuses.
No one refuses The Vigils, and the story culminates with them putting Jerry in a no-win situation, where he gets beaten practically to death, for reasons that even he no longer really understands. Throughout the book, we keep hearing from different students' points-of-view, and mainly the message seems to be that once you're an adult your life is terrible, just an endless repetition of work and sleep and no way out. It's a rather depressing view of their future. And the ending itself is just as pessimistic as one challenger pointed out. Jerry doesn't win. And what's more, he loses his will to fight, decides that it is too hard to stick to your principles. Just do what they want you to do, keep your head down, don't step out of line. It really is depressing.
I think that the ultimate purpose of this pessimistic, depressing story is as a challenge to the reader. Don't be like the students at Trinity High School. Stand up for yourself. Don't let the bullies win. I could be wrong, but I would like to think that that is what student's will finish this book with.

2 comments:

Charley said...

This sounds like an interesting book and one I'd like to read.

Rebecca Reid said...

I just left a comment about Wednesday Wars, but I realize this is the one I'd heard of that had been banned before. I've never read it, but maybe I will -- at least before my boy gets to that age. Sounds depressing, yes, but intriguing.