Literary Significance Through Symbolism in the Chocolate War
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“Literary Significance through Symbolism in The Chocolate War” The Chocolate War, written by Robert Cormier in 1974, is set at Trinity, a Catholic high school for boys. However, this is no ordinary school, it is a twisted place controlled by the tyrannical Vigils, a school gang that doles out ‘assignments’, such as the destruction of Room Nineteen, for students to carry out. Brother Leon, a teacher and the assistant headmaster at Trinity, also has power over the students. He psychologically terrorizes them and is the main reason why The Vigils become so bent on destroying Jerry, the protagonist. It is Brother Leon’s chocolate sale that eventually brings about the downfall of idealistic young Jerry, who tries to resist the brother and The Vigils, partly because of a poster in his locker, by not selling the former Mother’s Day chocolates. Cormier uses the three aforementioned things: the chocolates, Room Nineteen, and the poster, to symbolize Jerry’s loss of motherly protection, Trinity’s twisted atmosphere, and the theme of the book.
‘The Chocolate War’ is an aptly chosen title for this novel because these seemingly innocent sweets truly do cause a riveting psychological battle within the school. The chocolates in The Chocolate War symbolize many different things in the story. One of their representations is the loss of motherly protection the protagonist experiences when his mom dies. They are symbolic in this way because, just like Jerry the protagonist, the chocolates have had ‘mother’ removed from them. Brother Leon says in a private conversation, “… these [were] Mother’s Day chocolates. … All we have to do is remove the purple ribbon that says Mother and we’re in business” (Cormier 23). Jerry no longer has a mother to protect him from Trinity or to be there for him, which is why the removal of the word ‘mother’ from the chocolates symbolizes his loss. They are also an example of dramatic irony because only the reader knows that they were former Mother’s Day chocolates and represent the death of Jerry’s mom and therefore, the loss of her protection. The Goober, who would have been very glad to have his mother there to protect him from his Vigils assignment, is given the task of unscrewing every screw in Room Nineteen so that when people touch their desks they will all collapse, causing utter chaos in the room.
Unfortunately this mass destruction is suspected to have caused the mental breakdown of a teacher and, as said by Goober, “The room would never be the same again… The furniture creaked weirdly… The various teachers who used the room were uneasy…” (Cormier 83). This broken class room that will never be the same again is a symbol of Trinity, a twisted place that has been so badly damaged it will never be repaired. Jerry Renault is similarly damaged by Trinity. He keeps a poster in the back of his locker that says, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” (Cormier 129). This famous line, which represents the theme of the entire book, comes from a poem by T.S. Eliot called “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, a poem that argues against waiting to act until old age makes it impossible, an idea that Jerry embraces. At the beginning he is willing to stand up for himself, even if it ‘disturbs the universe’; however, towards the end of the book Jerry realizes just how hard it can be to go against the natural order of things when he is nearly beaten to death in a rigged boxing match for opposing The Vigils and Brother Leon.
He discovers an important lesson that Thomas Foster articulates in his book How to Read Literature Like a Professor “The literal violence encodes a broader point about the essentially hostile or at least uncaring relationship we have with the universe. Our lives and deaths… are as nothing to the universe…” (Foster 88). As a broken and bleeding Jerry is carried away from the boxing ring he decides he doesn’t want to try and improve the cosmos anymore, he just wants to fit in because it is less painful, which is one of the reasons why the ending of the story is so bleak, “They tell you to do your thing but they don’t mean it… It’s a laugh…a fake. Don’t disturb the universe… no matter what the posters say” (Cormier 259). Jerry no longer believes that standing up for himself and his beliefs is worth the pain it will bring about. The warped atmosphere at Trinity has broken Jerry’s spirit so badly that he will never recover.
From the outside Trinity High School is a seemingly innocent school for boys, yet underneath their angelic exterior lays a twisted atmosphere full of strife and psychological terrorism. Like the school boys, many things within the school are not as nice or simple as they seem. Cormier uses the chocolates to symbolize the loss of Jerry’s mother, Room Nineteen to represent Trinity’s irreparably damaged atmosphere, and Jerry’s poster to state the theme of the book in a concise way while making the reader contemplate their own beliefs and how far they would go to stand by them. This story clearly states that life will not be easy, there will be opposition around every corner and without a firm base of belief and a friend to rely on not even the strongest can get through unscathed.