[The following is a response to Norma Bagnall's assessment of The Chocolate War as an unrealistically hopeless novel. Carter and Harris concede that The Chocolate War is indeed unpleasant, but argue that Cormier's handling of a complex existential question is powerful as well as realistic.]
In the winter 1980 issue of Top of the News Norma Bagnall describes The Chocolate War as a hopeless novel about the forced sale of candy in a boys' parochial high school. She considers it an unrealistic picture of adolescent life and unsuitable reading material for teenagers. We think her description is inaccurate and her criticism unwarranted.
Cormier's novel is only superficially about the fund-raising activities at a Catholic institution; its greater concerns are with the nature and functioning of tyranny. While it demonstrates the inability of a decent individual to survive unaided in a corrupt and oppressive society, it does not imply that such defeat is inevitable. To see the book as something “which could happen at a private boys' school in the 1970s when one student decides to flout the system” is to confuse setting with substance and plot device with purpose.
Cormier persistently uses figurative language as one device to remind the reader that the meaning of the book is not limited to the confines of the story line or the campus of Trinity High. After Archie decides that Jerry Renault's first assignment will be to refuse to sell chocolates, Obie notices that “the shadows of the goal posts definitely resembled a network of crosses, empty crucifixes.” This reference to the central symbol of Christianity should certainly suggest that more is at issue than merely the selling of chocolates. When Jerry, defying the Vigils, announces he still will...