The Chocolate War: A Rich Bite Out of Life


Robert Cormier. The Chocolate War. New York: Dell Publishing Co, 1974.

Summary:

30th year anniversary of book
30th year anniversary of book
“They tell you to do your thing but they don't mean it. They don't want you to do your thing, not unless it happens to be their thing, too.” - Jerry, pg. 259.

High school is where students are figuring out who they are and who they want to be; this is no different for the students at Trinity High. Some of the boys have hopes of getting a better education for college, while others who do not. Some participate in activities and sports, while others do not. When it comes to the annual chocolate sale, however, there is an unspoken rule that the boys are expected to participate.

(original cover page)
(original cover page)
Jerry Renault asks himself one very important and crucial question: "Do you dare disturb the universe?" It is with this question that Jerry changes the rest of his freshman year. Due to the influence of the school gang, The Vigils, Jerry takes on one of their cruel and unusual assignments. He refuses to participate in the school's fundraiser and must face the hardships and repercussions of his choice. He is tormented by both his classmates and the faculty at Trinity High for his lack of participation.

Jerry's journey is not the only tale told. As a matter of fact there are more than 5 plot lines that can be followed through out the book, and each character becomes more tangible and complicated than the last. Robert Cormier takes us into the minds of these very different boys: Archie, the mastermind behind the Vigils' "assignments", Emile, the openly known school bully, Obie, the secretary of the Vigils who is waiting to see Archie fail, Goubert, the football player who wants to support Jerry but fears the Vigils, and Cochran, the teacher who gets himself into a sticky financial situation.

This book addresses several high school issues which could be very useful for teachers and students. Because of the behaviors and actions of the characters, students can learn a lot about crucial topics that high school students face every day. The book questions the morals of each student, their views on peer pressure, and the exchange of power between people. Collectively, the characters create a power structure that can be found in almost any high school. Students who read this book can connect to the characters because they face similar problems. Although it has some grotesque content, The Chocolate War can be used as a didactic element in the class because it includes themes of morality/perspective, peer pressure/bullying, and power/control.

Recommendations for Teachers

Teachers can use this book to talk about and address issues that are relevant to students in high school. Many students may even relate to the characters in this book which gives teachers a great platform to talk about these serious problems.

1. Perspective/Morality
Having the ability to look into multiple character's minds gives the class the ability to compare characters to each other and themselves. Therefore, this book is a great opportunity to talk about the conflict between good and evil, not only in the world but within each person. This conversation can begin with the different perceptions of the characters. For example the Vigils are supposed to be the "bad guys" but in reality each member is just trying to do his job and not be ridiculed for failing. On the other hand, Jerry and Goubert are both viewed as the "good guys." Jerry showed no loyalty to his school, while Goubert tried to support Jerry's decision even though he was silent about all that he witnessed. The class can talk about how important the perspective is and how the story changes depending on the viewpoint of the narrator.

The Chocolate War also gives the teacher the ability to have the class talk about morality and what is considered to be "right" or "wrong". Having the class set up standards and giving them situations where they can figure out what is the "right" thing to do can be a great activity to get the students to think critically about the situations. This will also work best if there is a mix between easy and difficult questions. The point would be to have the students realize that decision making is not black and white, and to have them compare the situations to some of the events from the book, such as how Brother Leon punishes Archie in the end.
Depending on how interested your class is, you can also bring up one of the most debated questions: "Is man born evil? If so, does he learn to be good through society?"


2. Peer pressure/bullying:
This book is overflowing with themes of peer pressure and bullying in numerous aspects. First, readers can clearly see how the Vigils pressure any student into completing an assignment through their manipulation. Even within the Vigils is the idea of peer pressure as, the assigner, Archie, pressures his fellow group members to follow through with an assignment. The student body also is pressured into selling the chocolates by their teachers. With the chocolate sale in progress, the Vigils pressure Jerry into not selling his portion. In the same way, the theme of bullying is very apparent throughout the book. Everyone knows Emile to be the school bully. According to the book, "...Emile didn't harass only teachers. He found that the world was full of willing victims, especially kids his own age" (41). Throughout the book, Emile verbally and physically bullies several students, including Jerry. Not only does bullying occur between students, it also occurs between teachers and students. One teacher, Brother Leon, uses an honor student to teach a lesson to the class through false accusations. Brother Leon's words are cruel and disturbing, which makes the student and the entire class uncomfortable. Collectively, there are endless examples of both peer pressure and bullying exemplified throughout this book.

3. Power/control
The core theme of this book is about power and control. Written in 1974 within the setting of a private all boys school the characters are constantly trying to be in control. The Vigils want control of their fellow students, the brothers(teachers), want control over their students, and the main character, Jerry, wants control over himself. Along with bullying and hazing, this triangle of power is a constant struggle, ultimately someone must loose, or give up. It is up to Jerry to make some personal decisions about how he wants to proceed with being pressured and bullied by the Vigils, in the end he chooses to be in control and stand up against the The Vigil, with an unfortunate outcome.



Possible Activities:


1. Celebrity Characters:
In this activity, teachers can have students choose famous celebrities (actors/musicians/athletes etc) to play the role of one of the characters. The student must hand in a picture of the celebrity and write a one-page summary of why they chose that specific celebrity. This will help students identify characters and their personalities/roles throughout the novel.

2. Locker Poster
Just like how Jerry had a poster in his locker, you can have the students make their own locker poster.
There are two ways one can do this project.
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  • What is your inspiration? Have each student make a one page poster of a quote or piece of art that inspires them. This can be a quote from a book, a movie, something they heard someone say, or anything they want as long as it inspires them to take action. (By action I mean inspires them to be better or make a difference in the world, try to stick to something positive.) hen have the student write a brief summary of why they picked this art/quote, or what it means to them. This should probably be graded on completion.
  • What poster would (character in book) have in his locker? For this project, each student must pick a character and create a poster that their chosen character would have on his locker. For example if Obie was chosen, then perhaps the student could do a drawing of the different seasons and have a quote saying "nothing is permanent." Then have the students write a summary about why they decided this was appropriate for the character.

3. Power Structure Line Up:
For this activity, x-amount of students will stand in front of the class, each holding a sign with the name of a character. As a class, students will put the characters in order according to power. The students will do this two different times. First, they will put the following groups in order from least to most powerful: Students, Teachers, Vigils. After discussing their decision, they will put the following people in order from least to most powerful: Leon, Jacques, Jerry, Archie, Emile, The Goober, Obie, Carter, Brian. The class will then discuss their reasoning.

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Click on the picture to see a larger version
4. Fakebook

A way to get technologically savvy, is to have each student make a Facebook profile of a character and show things they would have on their wall, likes and dislikes, friends, and what they would have as their cover page. The students can get a template and doing it by hand or they can use Fakebook, which has the structure set up and the student just has to fill in the information. However the fakebook template is the profile style before timeline and coverpages.

5. An Alternate Ending
Have students create an alternative ending to the book, either by writing or performing. Jerry's actions lead to consequences that left him for dead. Talk with students and break them up into small groups, or individually to create a different outcome, through a narrative essay or script and video. This allows students to get creative, but now they have the power to choose what Jerry will do at the end of the story.


About Robert Cormier

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Born and raised in Massachusetts Robert Cormier was an award winning columnist for over 30 years working as a newspaper reporter writing about stories going on in everyday life. He began writing in seventh grade and did not stopped until his death in 2000. He is inspired by real life situations and everyday people. When writing, as evident in the content and characters in The Chocolate War, Cormier explains "I'm very much interested in intimidation. And the way people manipulate other people. and the obvious abuse of authority." While Cormier was alive, well and not writing, he was raising a family of four children with his wife Constance.

For more information on Robert Cormier, visit this this website





MORE Books by Robert Cormier:
I Am the Cheese
I Am the Cheese

Beyond the Chocolate War: A sequel
Beyond the Chocolate War: A sequel

After the First Death
After the First Death


Multimedia:




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The Movie

Here is trailer for the 1988 film edition of TheChocolate War, starring
Ilan Mitchell-Smith as Jerry Renault, John glover as Brother Leon and Wallace Langham as Archie.

Showing a film version of the story could be a way for the students to better visualize what occurred as well as get a better grasp of the story. However it might not work if there is a time constraint as the length of the movie is 100 minutes.

Caution: This movie received the R rating, which means students must be 17 or older unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.







Student Project
Here is a Student Project: Interview of Archie Castello and a few other characters.

This could be a great way to incorporate acting as well as video skills into the teaching and discussion of the Chocolate War. If the materials and time is available for the class.









Additional Resources:


Emotional Peer Pressure: For teens dealing with peer pressure:
Peer Pressure for teens : a teen focused website about peer pressure. (Also available in Spanish) Has examples of peers as well as situations and what to do.

Peer Pressure :What is peer pressure? How do you react to it?

Bullying : How much do you know about bullying? Here are definitions and statistics on teens and bullying.

Teacher Bullying :Information regarding educators who bully or manipulate students, a subject that has not had very much attention in the media.

Don't be a Bystander : Change.org has a pledge to STAND UP against Bullying, as well as an informative video on bullying and why it needs to stop.

Hazing in High School: How can you be part of the solution? An aritcle from ABC News on ways to try and prevent hazing as well as other suggestions for teachers and parents.

Books like The Chocolate War:

(Click on the book to find it on Amazon)

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--Tricia Haggerty, Liz Juarez, Alexis Brady