“To thine own self be true” is a quotation from Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. The Chocolate War centers around a boy who risks social acceptance in order to be himself. Jerry Renault begins the book as a follower, trying to fit in at Trinity High School, even if it means being someone he is not. He lies about his pain in order to make the football team, but he feels guilty for lying. He carries out a Vigils assignment that is cruel, even though he is not normally a cruel person. He is called “square” by the hippie who challenges him to step out of his routine. But when he sees a fellow classmate singled out for being true to himself—despite a teacher’s harassment—Jerry realizes that he, too, wants to stop denying who he really is: a boy with dreams and ideas of his own. He decides to follow the advice on the poster in his locker and “disturb the universe” at Trinity by refusing to take part in the chocolate sale or be intimidated by The Vigils.
Jerry is not the only one who wants to be true to himself. Obie struggles with his hatred for Archie Costello and The Vigils, yet he is not brave enough to leave The Vigils. Even John Carter, Vigils president, has qualms about carrying out Archie’s cruelest assignment, the fight between Emile Janza and Jerry Renault. Roland Goubert tries to side with Jerry, but he does so more by retreating from school life than by standing up for Jerry. And in the end, none of these boys has to pay the high price that Jerry does for being an individual. In the end, Jerry decides that it is not worth such pain to disturb the universe.
Truths about the “Universe”
Trinity High School is a microcosm of the larger world, which is, according to the picture Cormier presents in The Chocolate War, composed of victims and those who victimize. There are always Brother Leons and Archie Costellos, bullies whose power seems only to grow; there are always cliques like The Vigils; there are always those who go along in order to belong. This system sustains a certain order that passes for peace—until individuals, like Jerry Renault and the hippie, try to expose the lack of free will in the system. Once Jerry disturbs the universe at Trinity, chaos reigns. (The phrase, “Do I dare disturb the universe?” appears in a poem by T. S. Eliot.) Jerry is, as Brother Leon says, like a germ infecting a perfectly healthy body. Chocolate sales sag, students lose respect for teachers, the headmaster loses control, The Vigils lose authority.
And then the “universe” fights back to preserve itself. The “Chocolate War” involves both psychological and physical warfare. Brother Leon spins the war so that Jerry becomes a criminal that endangers the whole school; Archie spins the war so that Jerry must be hunted down and eradicated. In many stories in which the individual is pitted against the universe, the individual finds a way to win. But in The Chocolate War Jerry loses. He comes to believe that he has not disturbed the universe but “damaged” it. The universe quickly recovers, however. Brother Leon and Archie Costello return to power, The Vigils remain in command, and everyone continues to tolerate this system.
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