Like all the freshmen in Trinity Catholic Academy, Jerry Renault just wants to quietly fit in. He joins the football team, keeps his grades up, and above all, he tries to avoid being a boat-rocker.
Trinity Academy is in a state of moral decay. At the head of the school is acting president Brother Leon, a man who is corrupt and loves to play vicious mind games with his students. If he isn’t enough to put the student body on edge, then the Vigils are. The Vigils are a powerful gang of upperclassmen who make life miserable for everyone else. Led by the crafty Archie Costello, the group terrorizes the cowed underclassmen by forcing them to do “assignments,” which usually involve mean pranks on students and teachers. To defy the Vigils would mean severe consequences.
Instead of putting an end to the group’s bullying, Brother Leon looks the other way. Not only that, he decides to use the Vigils to strong-arm all the students into selling chocolate for a school fund-raiser. A successful campaign would assure Brother Leon of full command of the Academy, and make the Vigils a virtually unstoppable force. At first, things go according to plan, with the exception of one boy who refuses to participate in the sale, Jerry Renault. At first refusing to sell the chocolates because of a Vigil “assignment,” Jerry soon recognizes the principle behind being a hold-out. Even when ordered by Archie to start selling chocolate, he refuses. The boy who doesn’t want to be a boat-rocker suddenly becomes the lone rebel against the moral corruption and cowardice that fills Trinity.
Soon, Jerry is being shunned by his classmates, beat up by bullies, and continually harassed by prank calls at home. Jerry is left wondering if doing the right thing is worth the price he is paying. In his locker, a poster hangs in the back with the quote “Do I dare disturb the universe?” Jerry dared to answer “yes,” but will he live to regret it? Will he even live at all?
Both praised for its hard-hitting message about corruption and mob mentality, and criticized for its violence and shocking conclusion, The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier continues to elicit strong reactions from readers over 40 years after its first publication. It also leaves us to wonder: would we be willing to stand up alone for what is right, even if it costs us everything?