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.
The narrative’s point of view regularly shifts from one character to another. Combined with frequent interior monologue, this technique illuminates complex character relationships and motivations. Like Hemingway, Cormier charges his dialogue and interior monologue with meaning. Simple and graphic metaphors-related in brief, crisp sentences-invariably suggest thematic elements. Even the seemingly ordinary description of Jerry Renault’s tryout for the football team in the first chapter foreshadows the challenges he will face. His choice between lying down or getting up and showing his determination soon becomes the novel’s focal point.
On a more sophisticated level, Cormier frequently alludes to Shakespeare, the Bible, and in one important instance, the work of the poet T. S. Eliot. In fact, some critics have compared Jerry Renault to Hamlet, a young man also indecisive but committed to taking action against the wrongs he sees in his society. The poster Jerry hangs in his locker contains a passage from T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” concerning man’s inability to act on his ideals.
While most readers accept Cormier’s denial of an anti-Christian attitude, it is not easy to deny his symbolic treatment of Trinity as the site of a distorted Christianity where church principles of charity and acceptance are secondary to personal gain and self-perpetuation. Even the cross that Brother Leon wears around his neck is hardly recognizable for what it is. Jerry Renault could even be seen as a Christ figure. Young, alone in his devotion to his ideals, and an inspiration to others, he nearly becomes the leader of a rebellion against religious and political authority. In addition, his principled nature leads him to destruction while authority looks on indifferently.
Still another symbolic extension of theme in The Chocolate War is Cormier’s clever use of character names. Surely it is no coincidence that Obie “obeys” authority; that Archie’s name evokes both “archbishop” and “archfiend,” or Satan, a disgraced archangel; or that Leon’s name suggests both blandness and the ferocity of a lion. The Vigils take power into their own hands like vigilantes and their meetings are religious “vigils” presided over by “Archie.”