The Chocolate War
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Disturbing the Universe
Essentially, this is what Jerry does throughout the book. The universe here is the world created by school and The Vigils—the seemingly natural order of things. The Vigils are strong enough to impact that natural order, and a large part of their power grows from the fact that what they say goes. Defying them is to defy something huge and it creates giant waves and disturbs the universe. The goal of The Vigils is to create their own universe that all of the students must follow the rules that they've set. Eventually, The Vigils end up creating a universe so powerful that no one dare defy it, until Jerry comes along.
Jerry disturbs the universe and, for a while, wakes up many of the other students to the point where they too question the order The Vigils have imparted on the school. That period of questioning The Vigils does not last long and soon Jerry becomes an outcast for having disturbed the universe. Ultimately, this is what makes the boxing match possible and why the students chant for fighting, even for Jerry to be killed. They are so entrenched in The Vigils universe that they find themselves wanting blood for the person who disturbed it, even if it had no direct impact on them.
Archie is distinguished from the typical school bully and from people such as Emile Janza because of his penchant for psychological warfare. He does not often resort to flat out fighting or physical bullying because cuts and bruises heal too quickly. He wants to punish students in a way that they cannot forget for a long time. The Goober is an example of the success of Archie's psychological tactics. The Goober is traumatized by what The Vigils force him to do, and he cannot forget it. He feels guilty about being the reason Brother Eugene is on sick leave, and he eventually feels so terrible about what he did that he stays home sick for the better part of a week.
Archie puts Jerry into a situation where he can either acquiesce or be punished. Perhaps Archie has a sense of the fact that Jerry is thinking about disturbing the universe, and sets him up to give him a chance to do so. Archie knows that if Jerry defies him or The Vigils that they have free reign to make him pay for it. The phone calls, the incident with Jerry's locker and homework are all meant to make Jerry not feel physically scared, but to feel as if someone is following him and watching him. Archie wants to make Jerry feel paranoid, because paranoia is not easily laid to rest and prevents Jerry from sleeping or gaining any peace of mind. These are the punishments that Archie thinks are most fitting; they are the ones whose implications last far longer than a physical beating.
The Power of Fear
Everyone in the school, including members of The Vigils, is afraid of Archie. Most loathe him, but first and foremost they fear him, which ensures that Archie will remain in control. Simply issuing a summons to a student makes him tremble in his boots. Fear is the reason The Goober took apart Room nineteen. Fear is the reason people do what Archie says. During the boxing match, some students might have derived joy from witnessing the violence, but for the most part the students participate because they must. Even if they have contemplated disturbing the universe they are simply too afraid to. This sets Jerry apart from the rest of the people in the high school. The Vigils undoubtedly scare him, but he does not let that fear dictate his actions. This is the reason The Vigils are so threatened by Jerry, and why they plan his downfall in the most cruel and dangerous way possible.
Both Archie and Brother Leon are experts at manipulation. Manipulation encompasses and utilizes the power of fear. Brother Leon manipulates students when he feels like it, or just for kicks. The same is true for Archie. Archie even manipulates people such as Emile Janza, lying to get Janza to do whatever he wants. Brother Leon manipulates Archie into helping with the sale—not through fear, but through recognition. Archie is so flattered by Brother Leon's request for help that he does not think through the implications of signing on with the sale, but simply relishes Brother Leon's acknowledgement. He manipulates Brother Leon back, however, using Jerry and the assignment to refuse the chocolates. He makes what would have been a fairly simple situation a complex and highly volatile one. At the end of the day, Archie manipulates for his own amusement and to get ahead—the exact reasons Brother Leon manipulates his students.
Ironically, the word that Archie uses to do his deeds, "assignments," is the same as the word that teachers use when giving out homework. The word elevates Archie to a status higher than the students, and makes it such that an assignment is not a request, but an order to be followed. The assignments are tailor-made, and reflect everything that Archie is about: fear, manipulation and following orders. Just as in school there is a consequence for not finishing an assignment, there is a consequence to not completing an assignment from The Vigils. Once an assignment is given, the recipient is stuck and either he completes the assignment or he suffers as Jerry suffered.
Cormier sets a number of scenes during football practice. At first, these scenes set up Jerry's inner strength. Again and again, Jerry is tackled and hit, but he keeps getting up and trying. Eventually he gains some success as a quarterback. It is his dream to make the football team, and his relative ease in turning this dream into a reality is a foil for his difficulties in dealing with The Vigils. The Vigils use football practice as a way to strip away Jerry's achievements in the sport. They get Carter to tackle him, and they get other players to gang up on him. The Vigils force the team to drop all of Jerry's passes, thus getting Jerry dismissed early from practice, and setting him up for a beating by Janza. At the beginning of the book, football is an innocent activity that Jerry wants to succeed in and works hard for, but by the end—especially after Goober quits—The Vigils have stripped football of its joy as well.
The chocolate roll call provides a moment of tension for all the students every day. It highlights the fact that Jerry is disturbing the universe. Everyone else whose name is called says yes to the chocolates and everyone else announces how many boxes he has sold. Brother Leon insists on the roll call even when it is not necessary to make Jerry feel like an outcast. This roll call eventually ensures that the other students become annoyed and/or angry with Jerry. The roll call is also a subtle threat from Brother Leon to Jerry. Each time Jerry says no Brother Leon stares him down as if to tell Jerry that he will pay for his refusal.
Jerry's poster presents the theme of the book in a simple way. At first, Jerry does not quite understand the poster, but he knows it appeals to him. It is only after he has begun refusing the chocolates and suffering the consequences that he realizes what it means to disturb the universe. Each time he opens his locker he is reminded of what he is doing, and of the fact that refusing the chocolates takes strength and bravery. The reader wants Jerry to abide by that poster, and one of the reasons the ending is so dismal is Jerry's realization that the poster is wrong—that one should not dare to disturb the universe because it simply is not worth physical damage to stand up for what you believe in.
The chocolates themselves are so insignificant that it is amazing to think that they began the whole, huge mess. The chocolates become a symbol for defiance and nonconformity, not just for Jerry but for the entire school. For a while, other students think that Jerry's refusal to sell the chocolates is simple and beautiful. Then the chocolates become symbolic of war—people believe that Jerry thinks he is too good to spend the time and energy selling them. The students rally around the chocolate cause in order to find a reason to be angry with Jerry and support The Vigils. The chocolates are the reason for the boxing match and ultimately solidify Archie's control over Jerry, Brother Leon and the rest of the school.
The collapse of Room nineteen is a harbinger for what is to come in the rest of the book. The Vigils make someone else take it apart and leave it just at the edge of falling down. Then, the rest of the students push it over the edge, tipping over chairs and desks, delighting in destroying a classroom. The students help the assignment come to fruition just as they help the boxing match and raffle come to fruition. The collapse of Room nineteen also signals the collapse of The Goober and Brother Eugene—two people that might have been strong allies for Jerry had The Vigils not taken them out first.