The Chocolate War: Themes
There is a massive power struggle within this novel, between Brother Leon, the Vigils, and Jerry Renault. The Vigils have always been in power at Trinity and have been able to make students do whatever they want without interference of the teachers, despite the fact that the teachers do seem to know what is going on. Brother Leon thinks that he is the one person more powerful than the Vigils and neither he nor they seem to waiver to one another. When Jerry refuses to sell the chocolates beyond his assignment, he disturbs the power and takes some for himself.
The Vigils, especially Archie, are extremely manipulative of not only the other students and teachers but of one another, as well. Archie uses the fear that the other students have for the Vigils to coerce them into doing anything he wants them to, especially his assignments. He realizes that the more people fear him the more he can get from them, such is shown with Emile Janza and the photograph he fears will be revealed. Brother Leon is also very manipulative and is the only person who seems to be able to manipulate the Vigils into helping him at all costs.
Trinity is a religious school and thus the boys who attend it should be receiving a religious education; however, at the hands of the Vigils and Brother Leon are learning nothing but manipulation, greed, and violence. At Trinity violence is used as a means of coercion and asserting one’s power, whether it be physical or psychological violence. Brother Leon is especially despicable because as a teacher at Trinity he should be of religious mind, and should be setting a moral and ethical standard for the students, however, he is one of the most manipulative players in the ongoing game that the Vigils are playing.
Disturbing the Universe
Jerry is influenced by a poster hanging in his locker that asks “Do I dare disturb the universe?” a quote from T.S. Eliot. The universe at Trinity has always remained undisturbed; the Vigils give out their assignments and act as the ruling party, the teachers pretend they do not know anything, and the students all go along with it. Brother Leon is cruel to students and allows the Vigils to continue on with their assignments because they help him in return. When Jerry refuses to sell the chocolates after his assignment is over, he is disturbing the universe because he is going against the Vigils’ orders which disrupts their agreement with Brother Leon to make sure that all the chocolates are sold and erupts in Mayhem. Jerry is a renegade of sorts.
Violence is one of the two ways that one’s authority is asserted throughout this novel. Within the Vigils Archie enjoys physical and psychological violence, though it is Carter who tends to be more physical. Outside of the Vigils Emile Janza is the bully who likes to solve his fights with violence. Archie tells Emile to beat up Jerry and Emile does so with the aid of a posse, despite the fact that Archie wanted it to be a one-on-one fight. At the end of the novel, Archie got the one-on-one fight he was looking for when he hosted a raffle boxing match to sell the rest of the chocolates. Despite the fact that Archie wanted the rules to be followed, Emile Janza snapped and began pummeling Jerry without being given orders to do so; proof that there is no order in violence just chaos.
Archie and Carter both enjoy psychological warfare, and that is what the Vigils mainly deal in. The assignments that are given out to students are aimed to, in some way, mess with their mind. After The Goober basically disassembled classroom nineteen he could not mentally get over what he had done and suffered a lot of guilt and depression. Basically the assignments are meant to mentally torture and humiliate students to remind them who is in charge and when someone, like Jerry, challenges this he creates a sort of psychological warfare of his own.
Fear is a very powerful thing and serves as motivation for nearly every action in “The Chocolate War”. Archie is the most feared person at Trinity, and it is everyone’s fear of him that keeps him powerful. Jerry understands this and knows that if he stands up to Archie then he is challenging Archie’s power. Fear drives the teachers to disregard the Vigils’ existence, drives each student to participate in the assignments with no questions asked, and even drives Archie to obey Brother Leon and ask Jerry to join in the sale when he refuses. Archie does not fear Brother Leon but rather fears that he may lose his power when other students and teachers realize that there is someone who does not fear him.
Jerry Renault has no idea who he is in the greater scheme of things. He understands that Trinity is a conformist environment, and everyone is expected to act a certain way with no questions asked, but he does not understand why no one ever challenges the power. Jerry struggles with his own identity and thinks that if he can break free of the chains at Trinity then he may be able to create an identity for himself that is not dictated by the Vigils or Brother Leon. Jerry learns that creating an identity for himself at Trinity does not work in his favor but rather alienates him and places a target on his back.
At Trinity the students are fooled into thinking that they have a choice in matters when it turns out that they do not. At the beginning of the chocolate sale Brother Leon tells everyone that it is their choice whether or not to sell, but it is obvious that he expects everyone to participate. When Jerry does not participate Brother Leon is outraged, and more so when Jerry points out that Leon said the decision to sell was optional. The students feel that though they are given the choice they are just expected to do it anyway, the same goes for the assignments given by the Vigils; no one ever dares to challenge the assignments until Jerry comes along.
Morality and Ethics
Trinity is supposed to be a religious school and one would think that it was hinged on the idea of morality and ethics, however, that is not the case here. Brother Leon took $20,000 of school money to buy the chocolates for the sale, which he should not have, and decided to sell the boxes at twice the cost so he could make a profit for himself. When it seems as though Leon’s plan is crashing down at Jerry’s hands the entire school erupts in chaos. Throughout the novel, there is destruction, violence, manipulation, deceit, peer pressure, cursing, masturbation, and stealing; all things that go against the morals and ethics a school like Trinity should impress upon its students.