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.
Cormier’s courageous protagonist Jerry Renault stands in opposition to extremely powerful forces of society. He is not a typical rebel, agitator, or heroic figure, but a complex character whose reasons for defying peer pressure are difficult to pinpoint. In spite of his eventual defeat by the Vigils, a secret society, Jerry reflects what Cormier sees as the only way to defeat the continuing evils of the system.
Cormier examines the inner workings and the effects of the closed society of a private school. His conclusions reflect on the nature of all institutions-governments, social clubs, fraternities, and churches-and the potential for destruction that such agencies have when their power derives from a conspiracy of self-interested individuals. The members of the Vigils vary widely in their natures and motivations, yet they remain almost indivisible in their misuse of power, their attempts to silence dissent, and their indifference to the evil produced by the group. Carter, the president and “jock,” seeks status but turns over real authority to the “assigner,” Archie Costello. Archie is the cynic, so convinced of the weakness and self-centered nature of others that he relishes manipulating people every chance he gets. Obie serves as the “administrator,” a henchman who carries out orders and enjoys the power delegated to him in spite of his pangs of conscience. Lastly, there is Emile, recognizable at once as the “goon” with no apparent conscience and a willful energy for terrorizing outsiders.
Corruption, Cormier suggests, is the by-product of this banding together of the cynical, the intolerant, and the ambitious. More ominous, however, is that such groups function only to promote their own self-interest and survival, their power and prestige. Thus, groups like the Vigils or the Watergate conspirators invest their energy in silencing dissent, exerting group pressure on the individual, and making everything secondary to the group’s domination. To this end, the Vigils provide almost everything in the way of “school spirit,” and Archie Costello devises assignments intended simply to demonstrate the power of the group to control Trinity’s student population.
Trinity represents any institution where “spirit” becomes the only standard, and those who disagree are silenced or exiled. This attitude implemented to its furthest degree would produce the social dictatorships portrayed so vividly in such novels as George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that The Chocolate War simply focuses on adolescents. The same sort of conspiracy and self-interest exists among the adults of Trinity. In fact, the Vigils gain their power through the cooperation of Brother Leon and his staff. Like Archie, Leon’s smooth exterior masks an unscrupulous and often vicious allegiance with evil. Although the two Characters share a great contempt for each other, each tolerates the other’s excesses so that Trinity will survive, thus enhancing each other’s authority.
In The Chocolate War, evil and tyranny wear many faces. Young people betray and manipulate each other and the adult world provides negative examples for them to follow. To make matters worse, the betrayers often hide themselves behind the facades of loyalty, brotherhood, and patriotism. Perhaps the most important aspect of Cormier’s view of human failure, however, is the tendency of “good” people to go along with these abuses. The unnamed Vigils who attend the meetings and carry out their orders contribute to the domination of Archie and Leon, just as the well-meaning Brother Jacques permits the system to continue.
But one character says “no” to the Vigils, and Cormier suggests that the individual conscience will survive only if people like Jerry are willing to defy peer pressure. The fact that Jerry acts at all is essential. The other boys such as Obie and Goober, though horrified by Archie’s actions, continue to carry out his orders. Cormier makes no bones about the tremendous odds against which the individual must contend. But the failure to act means joining in the conspiracy and sharing in the guilt.