At the heart of Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War is the struggle between Trinity freshman Jerry Renault and the rest of the student body of his elite boys’ school. When Jerry controversially declines to participate in the school’s annual fundraiser—a chocolate sale—he is, at first, a participant in a dare from the school’s secret society, the Vigils. After the ten-day dare is up, however, Jerry, perturbed and intrigued by the question of what it means to “disturb the universe,” keeps up with his refusal—and in doing so, he isolates himself from his classmates and becomes a loner within his school, both socially and ideologically. By framing his novel around Jerry’s internal conflict during his “protest,” Robert Cormier raises questions of what it means to stand alone against the status quo, ultimately suggesting that even in the face of persecution and violence, the hope and independence one individual stands for can alter the foundation of any society.
When Jerry first declines to sell the chocolates, he is doing so on a dare from the Vigils—a dare which cannot be shirked on pain of social ostracizing or further torment from the Vigils. Jerry, a freshman, has been struggling hard to fit in at school, and readily goes along with the Vigils’ command. However, Jerry has also been slowly and steadily questioning his place in the world and what it means to go with the flow, never asserting his individuality or questioning his place in society.
Early on in the novel, Jerry gets into a mild confrontation with a hippie. “Fascinated” by the presence of a group of “street people, drifters, [and] drop-outs” who hang out across the street from school, Jerry often watches the “flower children” smoke, lounge, and socialize. One afternoon, a hippie approaches Jerry and calls him out for staring. The hippie accuses Jerry of seeing him and his friends as a category of “sub-human,” and then says that it’s Jerry who is the “sub-human,” conditioned as he is to follow routine and participate in the rules set forth for him by his school and his family. The confrontation rattles Jerry, and though he knows that the hippie was provoking him, he cannot shake the feeling that the hippie was right, and that there is more to life than what he’s experiencing. Further, Jerry’s mother has recently died, and he and his father have been adjusting to the loss in a weary, detached way. They don’t speak about their loss much, and instead maneuver around each other mutely. Jerry watches as his father, a pharmacist, moves through his days seemingly on autopilot. When Jerry asks his father if he ever wanted more out of life, Jerry’s father deflects, but Jerry cannot hide his disappointment that his father’s life is so “boring and humdrum.” Jerry also has a poster taped up to the inside of his locker—“Do I dare disturb the universe?” it reads, quoting a line from T.S. Eliot’s 1910 poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Jerry looks at the picture every day—it is “traditional at Trinity” for boys to decorate their lockers, and Jerry has chosen to adorn his with this question. In this way, Jerry is acknowledging his part in the school’s “society,” but implicitly questions his role within it from the get-go—and, more than that, daily confronts the question of what it means to be a disturbance within a tightly-ordered universe.
As Jerry’s refusal to sell the chocolates progresses past schoolyard dare and moves into the territory of a protest against the “society” of Trinity, his sense of isolation is palpable—despite his fear, sadness, and frustration, though, he slowly begins to chip away at the rigid structures and traditions that define Trinity. In the early days of Jerry’s solo protest, he feels “swept with […] a sadness deep and penetrating” each time he answers “No” when Brother Leon daily makes his students reply to the roll call with how many boxes of chocolate they’ve sold. Jerry’s classmates, especially his only friend, The Goober, urge him to just take the chocolates—but Jerry, spurred by the experiences he’s had with the hippies, his father, and his Eliot poster, refuses to give in. Though Jerry doesn’t know it, his classmates have also become inspired by Jerry’s individual resistance. As two of his classmates, Kevin Chartier and Danny Arcangelo, discuss their frustration with the ritual of the chocolate sales, they express their admiration for “that Renault kid.” Though they don’t know why Jerry is continuing to protest, they think he has the “right idea” in refusing to take the chocolates, and admit to one another that they, too, want to stop selling chocolates.
As Jerry’s protests go on, the upper echelons of the Vigils—namely Obie and Archie, the secretary and assignment-giver of the organization, respectively—realize that Jerry must be dealt with, as he is becoming a threat to the foundation of their school’s society, and the rule of the secretive and fearsome Vigils. As they devise increasingly cruel ways to punish Jerry and make him to cave to their demands, the entire school community is affected by the fallout. Though Jerry suffers greatly at the hands of the Vigils’ physical and psychological torment and their attempts to ostracize him socially, he ultimately alters the fabric of the school—revealing to everyone just how low the Vigils will sink in pursuit of power, and just how obscure, arcane, and useless the traditions the Vigils perpetuate have become.
In the end, Jerry is the subject of several beatings, pranks, and manipulations—all at the behest of the Vigils, and all designed to make Jerry feel even more like an outsider in order to push him to the brink and force him to conform to Trinity’s twisted society. Jerry refuses at every turn, however; though he suffers tremendously, and though his pride, physical well-being, and psychological stability are all rattled by the book’s end, he ultimately exposes the corruption within his school and creates for his fellow classmates a small twinge of hope that, in the future, things might change. Though at the end of the novel, Archie and Brother Leon’s power remains more or less intact, the put-upon Obie suggests that Archie and the rest of the Vigils will one day get their comeuppance; “Maybe another kid like Renault will come along,” he tells Archie, warning him that his just desserts are yet to come and demonstrating the impact Jerry’s protest has had.
The Individual vs. Society ThemeTracker
The Individual vs. Society Quotes in The Chocolate War
Jerry walked to the bus like a sleepwalker. He hated confrontations. His heart hammered. He climbed aboard, dropped his token in the coin box and lurched to his seat as the bus moved away from the curb.
He sat down, breathed deeply, closed his eyes. Go get your bus, square boy. […] You’re missing a lot of things in the world, better not miss that bus.
A big put-on, of course. That was their specialty, people like that. Putting people on. Nothing else to do with their lives, piddling away their lives.
And yet. . . Yet, what? He didn't know. He thought of his life—going to school and coming home. Even though his tie was loose, dangling on his shirt, he yanked it off. He looked up at the advertising placards above the windows, wanting to turn his thoughts away from the confrontation.
He had beaten the black box for three years—could he do it again? Or was his luck running out? Would the law of averages catch up to him? A tremor ran along his arm as he extended his hand toward the box. He hoped no one had noticed. Reaching inside, he grabbed a marble, concealed it in the palm of his hand. He withdrew his hand, held the arm straight out, calmly now, without shiver or tremor. He opened his hand. The marble was white.
The corner of Archie's mouth twitched as the tension of his body relaxed. He had beaten them again. He had won again. I am Archie. I cannot lose.
Brother Leon regarded them pityingly, shaking his head, a sad and dismal smile on his lips. "You poor fools," he said. "You idiots. Do you know who's the best one here? The bravest of all?" He placed his hand on Bailey's shoulder. "Gregory Bailey, that's who. He denied cheating. He stood up to my accusations. He stood his ground! But you, gentlemen, you sat there and enjoyed yourselves. And those of you who didn't enjoy yourselves allowed it to happen, allowed me to proceed. You turned this classroom into Nazi Germany for a few moments. Yes, yes, someone finally protested. “Aw, let the kid alone." Mimicking the deep voice perfectly. "A feeble protest, too little and too late…”
There was scuffling in the corridors, students waiting to enter. Leon ignored the noise. He turned to Bailey, touched the top of his head with the pointer as if he were bestowing knighthood. "You did well, Bailey. I'm proud of you. You passed the biggest test of all—you were true to yourself."
"Were things really fine at the store today?"
His father paused near the kitchen doorway, puzzled. “What do you mean, Jerry?"
“I mean, every day I ask you how things are going and every day you say fine. Don't you have some great days? Or rotten days?”
“A drugstore's pretty much the same all the time, Jerry. The prescriptions come in and we fill them—and that’s about it.”
Was life that dull, that boring and humdrum for people? He hated to think of his own life stretching ahead of him that way, a long succession of days and nights that were fine, fine—not good, not bad, not great, not lousy, not exciting, not anything.
“Let me get this straight, Renault,” Brother Leon said and his voice brought the room under his command again. "I called your name. Your response could have been either yes or no. Yes means that like every other student in this school you agree to sell a certain amount of chocolates, in this case fifty boxes. No—and let me point out that the sale is strictly voluntary, Trinity forces no one to participate against his wishes, this is the great glory of Trinity—no means you don't wish to sell the chocolates, that you refuse to participate. Now, what is your answer? Yes or no?"
The Goober stared at Jerry in disbelief. Was this Jerry Renault who always looked a little worried, a little unsure of himself even after completing a beautiful pass, who always seemed kind of bewildered—was this him actually defying Brother Leon? Not only Brother Leon but a Trinity tradition?
"You may pick up your chocolates in the gym, gentlemen,” Brother Leon said, his eyes bright—wet-bright. "Those of you who are true sons of Trinity, that is. I pity anyone who is not." That terrible smile remained on his face. "Class dismissed," Leon called although the bell had not sounded.
Jerry opened his locker. He had thumbtacked a poster to the back wall of the locker on the first day of school. The poster showed a wide expanse of beach, a sweep of sky with a lone star glittering far away. A man walked on the beach, a small solitary figure in all that immensity. At the bottom of the poster, these words appeared—Do I dare disturb the universe? By Eliot, who wrote the Waste Land thing they were studying in English. Jerry wasn't sure of the poster's meaning. But it had moved him mysteriously. It was traditional at Trinity for everyone to decorate the interior of his locker with a poster. Jerry chose this one.
It would be so easy, really, to yell “Yes." To say, “Give me the chocolates to sell, Brother Leon." So easy to be like the others, not to have to confront those terrible eyes every morning. Brother Leon finally looked up. The tempo of the roll call had broken.
“No," Jerry said.
He was swept with sadness, a sadness deep and penetrating, leaving him desolate like someone washed up on a beach, a lone survivor in a world full of strangers.
“Renault… zero," Brother Leon said, his voice a sibilant whisper. "Can you imagine that, Cochran? A Trinity boy who has refused to sell the chocolates? Do you know what's happened, Cochran? Do you know why the sales have fallen off?"
“I don't know, Brother Leon," Brian said lamely.
“The boys have become infected, Cochran. Infected by a disease we could call apathy. A terrible disease. Difficult to cure."
What was he talking about?
“Before a cure can be found, the cause must be discovered. But in this case, Cochran, the cause is known. The carrier of the disease is known."
Brian knew what he was getting at now. Leon figured that Renault was the cause, the carrier of the disease. As if reading Brian's mind, Leon whispered “Renault . . . Renault. . ."
Like a mad scientist plotting revenge in an underground laboratory, for crying out loud.
"Look, Jerry. There's something rotten in that school. More than rotten." He groped for the word and found it but didn't want to use it. The word didn't fit the surroundings, the sun and the bright October afternoon. It was a midnight word, a howling wind word.
"The Vigils?" Jerry asked. He'd lain back on the lawn and was looking at the blue sky, the hurrying autumn clouds.
"That's part of it," The Goober said. He wished they were still running. "Evil," he said.
"What did you say?"
Crazy. Jerry would think he'd flipped. "Nothing," Goober said. “Anyway, I'm not going to play football. It's a personal thing, Jerry." He took a deep breath. "And I'm not going out for track next spring."
They sat in silence.
"What's the matter, Goob?" Jerry finally asked, voice troubled and loaded with concern.
"It's what they do to us, Jerry."
The morning after that first night phone call, Jerry opened his locker and shook his head in disbelief. His poster had been smeared with ink or some kind of blue paint. The message had been virtually obliterated. Do I dare disturb the universe? was now a grotesque jumble of unconnected letters. It was such a senseless, childish act of vandalism that Jerry was more awed than angered. Who'd do such a crazy thing? Looking down, he saw that his new gym sneakers had been slashed, the canvas now limp shreds, rag-like. He'd made the mistake of leaving them here overnight.
Ruining the poster was one thing, a gross act, the work of the animal—and all schools had animals, even Trinity. But there was nothing prankish about ruining the sneakers. That was deliberate, somebody sending him a message.
The telephone calls.
That attack on the football field.
He closed the locker quickly so no one would see the damage. For some reason, he felt ashamed.
“Goober sold his fifty boxes," someone called. Cheers, applause and ear-splitting whistles. The Goober started to step forward in protest.
He had only sold twenty-seven boxes, damn it. He had stopped at twenty-seven to show that he was supporting Jerry, even though nobody knew, not even Jerry. And now the whole thing evaporated and he found himself sinking back in the shadows, as if he could shrivel into invisibility. He didn't want trouble. He'd had enough trouble, and he had held on. But he knew his days at Trinity would be numbered if he walked into that group of jubilant guys and told them to erase the fifty beside his name.
Out in the corridor, The Goober's breath came fast. But otherwise he felt nothing. He willed himself to feel nothing. He didn't feel rotten. He didn't feel like a traitor. He didn't feel small and cowardly. And if he didn't feel all these things, then why was he crying all the way to his locker?
"You listen,” Janza said, cool now, knowing he had struck a vulnerable spot. “You're polluting Trinity. You won't sell the chocolates like everybody else and now we find out you're a fairy." He shook his head in mock, exaggerated admiration. "You're really something, know that? Trinity has tests and ways of weeding the homos out but you were smart enough to get by, weren't you? You must be creaming all over—wow, four hundred ripe young bodies to rub against . . ."
"I'm not a fairy," Jerry cried.
“Kiss me," Janza said, puckering his lips grotesquely.
"You son of a bitch," Jerry said.
The words hung on the air, verbal flags of battle. And Janza smiled, a radiant smile of triumph. This is what he'd wanted all along, of course. This had been the reason for the encounter, the insults.
"What did you call me?" Janza asked.
“A son of a bitch," Jerry said, measuring out the words, saying them deliberately, eager now for the fight.
"What do you say, Renault? Do you accept the rules?"
What could he say? After the phone calls and the beating. After the desecration of his locker. The silent treatment. Pushed downstairs. What they did to Goober, to Brother Eugene. What guys like Archie and Janza did to the school. What they would do to the world when they left Trinity.
Jerry tightened his body in determination. At least this was his chance to strike back, to hit out. Despite the odds Archie had set up with the raffle tickets.
“Okay," Jerry had said.
Triumphantly, he watched Janza floundering on weak, wobbly knees. Jerry turned toward the crowd, seeking—what? Applause? They were booing. Booing him. Shaking his head, trying to reassemble himself, squinting, he saw Archie in the crowd, a grinning, exultant Archie. A new sickness invaded Jerry, the sickness of knowing what he had become, another animal, another beast, another violent person in a violent world, inflicting damage, not disturbing the universe but damaging it. He had allowed Archie to do this to him.
And that crowd out there he had wanted to impress? To prove himself before? Hell, they wanted him to lose, they wanted him killed, for Christ's sake.
"It'll be all right, Jerry."
No it won't. He recognized Goober's voice and it was important to share the discovery with Goober. He had to tell Goober to play ball, to play football, to run, to make the team, to sell the chocolates, to sell whatever they wanted you to sell, to do whatever they wanted you to do. He tried to voice the words but there was something wrong with his mouth, his teeth, his face. But he went ahead anyway, telling Goober what he needed to know. 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. It’s a laugh, Goober, a fake. Don't disturb the universe, Goober, no matter what the posters say.