Guide The Chocolate War (Readers Circle)

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Of all the criticisms that my students bring up about The Chocolate War, their focus on the importance of "role models" in adolescent fiction, and their assessment of Jerry's "failure" to be a positive role model, interest me most, for I believe these objections contain the heart of their resistance to the experience of reading the book. Readers' negative reactions to The Chocolate War clearly reflect their ideological assumptions about what fiction for adolescents should or shouldn't do; these assumptions reflect current social ideals about the nature of adolescents.

Anne Scott MacLeod notes "the unwritten rule" that adults expect adolescent literature to follow: "however sternly realistic the narrative material, [it] must offer some portion of hope, must end with at least some affirmative message" Clearly, The Chocolate War breaks this "rule. Note the assumptions about adolescents that underlie Bagnall's evaluation: teen readers are very malleable; thus, they will be adversely affected because the novel does not provide them with positive models. Note also her concession of the novel's power, for her fear rests on the assumption that it will affect the reader--and that the effect will inevitably be negative.

My students' reactions parallel these critics' fears: one recent student wrote that she "would be skeptical about teaching it because of the cruelty displayed be the gang and even the headmaster Leon. I would not want them to reinact [sic] these events. That is a sad thing to tell a child, and while it may be true in some respects it is not something I would teach in one of my classes. I think they would be better prepared by building their hopes and self-esteem and having the tools to deal with the defeats that will come later in life.

Other critics' analyses suggest that the novel's conclusion violates cultural ideologies that most readers expect young adult literature to follow. MacLeodobserves that The Chocolate War violates the deeply held American myth of "the triumphant lonely hero" 76 ; Sylvia Patterson Iskander extends the point:. This view is reflected in the statement of the student I quoted earlier, that Cormier does not allow Jerry to be "a real hero," since "a real hero" would win the fight.

Another student is able to acknowledge Cormier's general point yet still finds the lure of the myth more appealing:.

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The violation of genre- and audience-based expectations is one of the main stumbling blocks to understanding and appreciating the novel for many readers. Because The Chocolate War violates their sense of appropriate reading for teenagers, my students resist the book; their previous reading strategies don't offer them a way of making the book fit into their pre-determined schema of "appropriate reading for adolescents," sometimes even after class discussion of how the novel fits the demands of the genre of "realistic" fiction.

The issue of genre may offer a solution for how to approach the book. Generally, teachers and critics assess The Chocolate War as realistic fiction, but I would argue that it should be taught as tragedy.

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Although tragedy is usually not a genre adults consider appropriate for children's or adolescent literature an issue I will discuss further below , readers who re-view the action of the novel through the lens of tragic conventions often overcome some of the resistance they felt during the reading experience because they now can fit the novel into a genre whose conventions they do accept.

Aristotle defined the purpose of tragedy as the arousal of pity and fear in the audience to produce a catharsis of these emotions. He says that pity:. Aristotle's formulation suggests that successful tragedy depends on the audience's close identification with the hero of the tragedy: true fear must be vicarious, and we cannot feel fear for him if we do not see a close connection between ourselves and him.

Nor will we feel pity if the mistake results from too deep a character flaw. Hamartia is not so much a "tragic flaw," as Aristotle's original Greek term is frequently translated, implying a fundamental flaw in character, as it is a mistake in action. Aristotle says that "character determines men's qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse" If we analyze Jerry's character and action in light of the definition of tragedy, we see that as the hero, Jerry is an admirable person of high character--the only really admirable character of the novel.

Despite Bagnall's assertion that the novel contains no positive experiences, throughout the novel Jerry is a positive model in his resistance to social oppression. The reader identifies with Jerry more than any other character in the book, and not only because his point of view dominates. As readers we like him because he's a decent, moral kid trying "to do the right thing" against high odds. He's the sort of person we would like ourselves to be. Yet Jerry is human and fallible: he makes some mistakes, one of which turns out to be fatal. In anger and desire for revenge he agrees to the fight with Janza when Archie suggests it to him; waiting in the ring, Jerry realizes that his pride has gotten him into an unwinnable situation:.

Jerry's agreement to fight Janza is an Aristotelian hamartian error. When Archie pressures him, Jerry, under the influence of weeks of emotional strain, makes an error of judgment: he fails to see that Archie is manipulating him for his own ends and agrees to Archie's proposal. Once in front of the school, pride forbids him to back down when he realizes how he has been betrayed both by Archie and his own desire for revenge. Hamartia, and thus true tragedy, always results from the action of the protagonist: he is not merely the victim of circumstances.

In his discussion of the dialectic of tragedy, Kenneth Burke makes a distinction that is useful here: there is a difference between a victim of circumstance and a tragic hero. The victimizing circumstances, or accidents, seem arbitrary and exorbitant, even 'silly. Nancy Veglahn has noted that "the protagonists of [Cormier's] novels are never simply victims; they achieve something like tragic stature in their courage and resistance" Jerry is to some degree the victim of implacable social pressures, but he must also bear some responsibility for his situation: his own actions help bring it about.

Yet The Chocolate War does not represent a pure Aristotelian tragedy: like most twentieth-century tragedy, it is domestic, dealing with the lives of ordinary people rather than those of high rank. The implacable universe against which Jerry rebels and struggles is primarily social, though Cormier employs cosmic language on occasion as a metaphor to describe the impact of Jerry's defiance, as when Jerry makes his first stand against it refusing to sell the chocolates for the Vigils or Trinity: "Cities fell. Earth opened.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier Book Talk (Book Trailer)

Planets tilted. Stars plummeted" Jerry does not have to bear the main blame for his fate, as Oedipus does: Archie acts a near Shakespearean villain, seducing Jerry into the fight in a manner similar to how Iago seduces Othello. Archie is even gleefully self-aware of his Shakespearean status, adapting a quotation from Henry V to describe himself just before he calls Jerry: "the call to Renault had required the right moves, resourcefulness and a little touch of Archie in the night. Shakespeare yet, Archie chuckled" The strongest argument for interpreting The Chocolate War as tragedy lies in the catharsis of the conclusion.

Jerry's fate clearly arouses both pity and fear in the novel's audience--pity and fear that are so strong, in fact, that many of my students argue that it is unfit for adolescents. They fear how closely the reader identifies with Jerry, and thus the tragic conclusion of the novel, which may mirror the reader's own potential fate. In classical theory, the tragic hero seems admirable and noble in the dignity he musters to meet his fate, but Jerry seems to meet the end of the novel lying broken in a puddle of blood and despair.

He fights with dignity until the end, when events and his own emotions overwhelm him. This is what bothers these students--they criticize him for not keeping up his resistance, for giving up, even though Jerry would have to be superhuman to continue to struggle in these circumstances. Jerry's state of mind, his despair as the novel ends, is realistic given the circumstances.


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  7. It is also true tragedy, which always ends with the hero at the lowest point of his fortunes: Oedipus is blind; Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet are all dead. My students' resistance to the ending brings us back to the issue of how The Chocolate War challenges their preconception of adolescent literature. Our society does not think of tragedy as an appropriate genre for children or young adults: the dissociation of audience and form is so complete that it is almost impossible even to find articles on the subject in current literary criticism.


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