The Chocolate War

The Chocolate War Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Robert Cormier

Robert Cormier was born and raised in Leominster, Massachusetts—a city that would become an important inspiration for his writing and serve, disguised under other names, as the setting for many of his novels. Cormier attended a private Catholic school, and there developed an interest in writing; after one of Cormier’s college teachers sent off his first story for publication in a Catholic magazine, Cormier gained the confidence to pursue writing as a career. Cormier’s most well-known novels include the 1977 young-adult book I Am the Cheese, which tells the surprisingly dark story of a young man betrayed by the Witness Protection Program, and 1974’s The Chocolate War, a frequently-banned book about violence, masculinity, tradition, and the terror and anger that can lie at the intersection of all three. Before his death in 2000, Cormier received a lifetime achievement award from the American Library Association for his contribution to the field of young adult literature.
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Historical Context of The Chocolate War

The mid-1970s in America were a time of social change and even upheaval. The sexual revolution, the civil rights movement, and the war in Vietnam were all fresh in the collective American memory, and the newly-granted freedoms and breaks with tradition that had taken root in society were pressed flush up against the painful repetitions of military violence, government corruption, and oppression of minority groups. The question on the poster in Jerry’s locker, “Do I dare disturb the universe?”, was surely on the minds of many Americans as they reckoned with their historical moment: having come so far forward, and yet still facing down so much necessary “disturbance” in order to create even more social change and continue bettering their society. Moreover, 1974 was the year of Richard Nixon’s resignation from office, making him the first President of the United States to do so. The insidious corruption of Nixon’s reign coupled with the startling break from tradition his resignation signaled no doubt inspired some of the themes within The Chocolate War.

Other Books Related to The Chocolate War

The Chocolate War, which deals with themes and motifs of violence, power, and masculinity—as well as coercion, groupthink, and societal oppression—is kin to several other works of young adult fiction that provide young people with a lens through which they can view and consider such big, frightening issues. William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies also features a group of young men, isolated from society and struggling to assert their power over one another. Though Golding’s characters are marooned on an uninhabited island and Cormier’s are deeply entrenched in a rigid, tradition-obsessed Catholic school in New England, the parallels between the novels are astounding, and the ways in which patterns of violence, power-seeking, and coercion emerge amongst a group of young men thrust together in close quarters are explored unflinchingly in both books. Todd Strasser’s 1981 young adult novel The Wave, in which a teacher creates a school-wide movement called “The Wave” to teach his students about the harmful but alluring rhetoric of fascist regimes, specifically Nazi Germany, but finds that his experiment goes off the rails, shares similar themes with The Chocolate War as well. Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History, aimed at adults, is also set on the campus of a small New England college steeped in custom and convention, and follows a new freshman as he navigates the dark underbelly of his new schoolmates’ more unsettling traditions.
Key Facts about The Chocolate War
  • Full Title: The Chocolate War
  • When Written: Early 1970s
  • Where Written: Massachusetts
  • When Published: 1974
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Young adult fiction; realism
  • Setting: New England
  • Climax: Jerry Renault faces off against his bully Emile Janza in a boxing match in front of the entire school.
  • Antagonist: Archie Costello; Emile Janza; Brother Leon; tradition
  • Point of View: Close third person, tracking many different characters at various points

Extra Credit for The Chocolate War

Banned. The Chocolate War is one of the most frequently-banned contemporary young adult novels. The book’s reckoning with its young male characters’ budding sexualities as well as their unsettling drives towards violence and coercion—not to mention the insidious and even evil school administration, which contributes to the novel’s sense of hopelessness—is often seen as too “adult” for students who are the very same age as the characters within the text.

Beyond the Chocolate War. In 1985, Cormier published a sequel to The Chocolate War, fittingly called Beyond the Chocolate War. The novel introduces new characters to Trinity High, and tracks the fallout of the “war” Jerry inspired and the ongoing moral and intellectual power struggle between Obie and Archie.