Trinity High School is steeped in tradition. There is a hierarchy within the student body in which seniors are at the top of the food chain; every year, each student must sell twenty-five boxes of chocolate in a schoolwide fundraiser; a powerful group of students called the Vigils, which has operated behind the scenes for years despite repeated conflicts with faculty and administration, effectively rules the school. All of these traditions go unquestioned—until Jerry Renault refuses to take part in the chocolate sale, challenging the status quo and breaking with tradition. Set in the mid-1970s, a time of great social change and upheaval, Cormier uses his “young adult” novel The Chocolate War to demonstrate how tradition for its own sake is often used as a means of maintaining systems of power and control—so the struggle for freedom means challenging an unnecessary connection to tradition. At the same time, Cormier argues, humans naturally cling to ritual, and so some traditions cannot be toppled.
From the very start of the novel, the traditions that rule Trinity High are shown to do more harm than good. The Vigils are perhaps the most striking and definitive “tradition” at Trinity—but even within this longstanding secret society, there are threats to its structure. The group’s secretary, Obie, is “bored” and “disgusted” by how the society is run. Archie Costello is not the president of the Vigils, but as the deviser and assigner of the often dangerous, risky, or simply cruel dares, pranks, and missions the society doles out, he holds the most power in the entire school. At the start of the novel, Obie’s disdain for Archie signals unrest even within the traditions that govern Trinity, and foreshadows how Jerry’s protest against the chocolate sale will gain a foothold and begin to rattle those traditions from within.
Near the start of the book, Brother Leon, the Assistant Headmaster who is in charge of the chocolate sale each year, announces to his pet student Archie that each boy’s quota will be doubled this year. The school is in financial jeopardy, and Leon is counting on the chocolate sale to raise at least forty thousand dollars. Archie himself—one of the staunchest upholders of Trinity tradition—is skeptical about the new, more demanding numbers, and wonders whether the student body will remain loyal to the tradition of the chocolate sale when they learn how many they each have to sell, and at an increased price to boot.
The Goober is given a difficult assignment by the Vigils, but he reluctantly accepts, knowing that it is “tradition here at Trinity” to do the bidding of the Vigils no matter the personal cost.. He is supposed to visit the school after dark and loosen the screws in one of the Brothers’ classrooms. As The Goober carries out the assignment, he struggles and despairs—he fears he will never loosen all the screws on all the desks, chairs, and blackboards before sunrise—until masked members of the Vigils come to his aid. This instance shows that even the Vigils know that their traditions are in jeopardy, and that the escalating pranks and dares Archie is assigning are not tenable. It also shows, however, how desperate the Vigils are to ensure that their traditions are upheld and that their will is done.
As Jerry, motivated by his own fear of becoming a thoughtless participant in traditions that discourage individualistic thought and elevate groupthink, resists several Trinity traditions (refusing to kowtow to his upperclassmen, fighting for an unlikely role on the football team, refusing to sell chocolates, shirking an assignment from the almighty Vigils), Cormier shows just how much it costs an individual to revolt against deeply entrenched tradition. Jerry’s rebellion against the Vigils is in many ways symbolic of the larger changes happening in American society in the 1970s—changes that sought to establish more freedom of speech, thought, and action. Jerry does not know exactly what it is that he wants out of his revolt, but he knows that to give in to tradition is to live out his worst fear; he does not want to be an unquestioning participant in power structures that do not serve him, better him, or allow him any agency.
Jerry’s balking at tradition makes him an outcast, however—though a select few admire his headstrong ways, most of his classmates prove themselves to be too mired in tradition to take up Jerry’s cause or support him. Notorious bully Emile Janza, at Archie’s behest, accuses Jerry of being homosexual and rallies a group of neighborhood kids to beat him up; The Goober, Jerry’s best friend, calls out sick from school rather than confront the tidal wave of anger and confrontation that overtakes Trinity as the end of the chocolate sale approaches. Trinity is no place for outsiders, or for anyone who does not want to participate in the traditions it holds dear.
In the end, Jerry is beaten nearly to death by Emile Janza in a boxing match staged by the Vigils before the whole school—a new “tradition” in and of itself. Forced to compensate for the extra boxes of chocolate unsold by Jerry, the Vigils have staged a raffle with a violent prize; students get to submit instructions for who should hit whom, and how, and where. As Jerry faces down Janza, it becomes clear that the disruption of one tradition at Trinity will only give rise to newer, even darker ones. Though Jerry has succeeded in changing the fabric of Trinity and sparking a conversation, he has failed to topple its oldest, most arcane tradition: the reign of the Vigils. Trinity’s obsession with tradition has not changed, only the traditions themselves.
The traditions that govern Trinity High can be seen as parallels for the traditions and mechanisms of power that govern the world more largely. Cormier chooses a high school as a setting for this experiment in revolution and the toppling of tradition to show how, even on a small scale, deeply entrenched traditions are not easily overturned. Though he does argue that Jerry is successful in starting a conversation at Trinity and rising up against the tide of conformity and traditionalism, his larger suggestion—that it takes repeated and concentrated attempts at change to actually effect it—is both gloomy and hopeful.
Tradition 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.
“How many boxes?"
Archie whistled in astonishment. He usually didn't blow his cool that easily, particularly with someone like Brother Leon. But the image of twenty thousand boxes of chocolates being delivered here to Trinity was ridiculous. Then he saw the mustache of moistness on Brother Leon's upper lip, the watery eyes and the dampness on his forehead. Something clicked. This wasn't the calm and deadly Leon who could hold a class in the palm of his hand. This was someone riddled with cracks and crevices. Archie became absolutely still, afraid that the rapid beating of his heart might betray his sudden knowledge, the proof of what he'd always suspected, not only of Brother Leon but most grownups, most adults: they were vulnerable, running scared, open to invasion.
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.
"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."
Carter blew air out of his mouth in exasperation. He was losing patience with Archie's cat and mouse crap. He had sat here for two years watching Archie play his silly games with kids, having Archie act the big shot as if he ran the show. Carter carried the responsibility for the assignments on his shoulders. As president, he also had to keep the other guys in line, keep them psyched up, ready to help make Archie's assignments work. And Carter wasn't crazy about this chocolate stuff. It was something beyond the control of The Vigils. It involved Brother Leon and he didn't trust Leon as far as he could throw him. Now, he watched the kid Renault, looking as if he was ready to faint with fright, his face pale and eyes wide with dread, and Archie having fun with him. Jesus, Carter hated this psychological crap. He loved boxing where everything was visible—the jabs, the hooks, the roundhouse swings, the glove in the stomach.
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.
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.
“Maybe the black box will work the next time, Archie," Obie said. “Or maybe another kid like Renault will come along."
Archie didn't bother to answer. Wishful thinking wasn't worth answering. He sniffed the air and yawned. “Hey, Obie, what happened to the chocolates?"
"The guys raided the chocolates in the confusion. As far as the money’s concerned, Brian Cochran has it. We'll have some kind of drawing next week at assembly."
Archie barely listened. He wasn't interested. He was hungry. “You sure all the chocolates are gone, Obie?"
“I'm sure, Archie.”
"You got a Hershey or anything?"
The lights went off again. Archie and Obie sat there awhile not saying anything and then made their way out of the place in the darkness.