Robert Cormier was born in Leominster, Massachusetts, on January 17, 1925. As a member of a large, working-class family during the Great Depression, he came to know hardship at an early age. Cormier was not what he calls a “physical type,” so he became an avid reader who was influenced at first by the novels of Thomas Wolfe and their romanticism. Later, he discovered the economy and realism of Ernest Hemingway, a discovery that changed his focus as a budding writer.
No other writer of young adult fiction in recent times has stirred up more controversy than Cormier, probably because his novels are among the relatively few that combine a frank examination of the values and decisions that trouble adolescents-such as self-respect and peer pressure-with intense conflict, suspense, and unpredictable developments in plot and character.
Set at a prestigious Catholic high school in New England, The Chocolate War takes place in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Beyond its broad philosophical and political concerns, the novel is most decidedly a product of its times. At the time of the novel’s creation, American society had just begun to leave behind the 1960s, a period of great social turmoil during which government policy in the Vietnam conflict, civil rights reform, and other emotionally charged issues came under public scrutiny. Opposition to institutional decisions ran high; individual acts of conscience and open defiance divided the country; and government, college administrations, and churches were frequently challenged. Cormier’s observation that his novel illustrates the adage “to not resist is to assist” clearly echoes the often repeated 1960s slogan, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
It is important to realize that Cormier is a political writer in the most general sense. He devotes his attention to systems rather than individuals or specific philosophies. For this reason, it is virtually impossible to separate the Characters of The Chocolate War from the sensitive Themes around which Cormier’s perception of humanity revolves.
The Chocolate War offers a harrowing glimpse into human society and relationships, conveying its powerful message through a wealth of literary techniques that give depth and emotion to the author’s vision. Cormier’s admiration of Ernest Hemingway’s style and Graham Greene’s genius for symbolism is evident in his own work.
Controversy has surrounded The Chocolate War since its appearance in the 1970s. Critics, parents, and educators cited its political cynicism, its sense of despair, and the few but emotional passages containing sex and violence. Not many would accuse Cormier of deliberate sensationalism or pandering to “rebellious” youth, but he has been strongly criticized for attempting to convince young adults of the baseness and brutality of their peers as well as the adult world.
1. Many readers are disturbed by the conclusion of the novel because it is not a “happy ending.” Others claim that it is the only sensible ending to the story. Which view do you agree with?
1. Several other well-known and popular novels deal with private schools as reflections of society and human nature. Compare The Chocolate War with The Catcher in the Rye or A Separate Peace.
The Chocolate War was adapted to the screen in a 1988 film production directed by Keith Gordon and starring John Glover as Brother Leon, Han Mitchell-Smith as Jerry, and Wally Ward as Archie. The film was not particularly well received by either the public or the critics. Washington Post film critic Hal Hinson noted: “Though it has been adapted … from Robert Cormier’s young adult novel … this film’s true source seems to be every other schoolboy story ever told.”