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At a Catholic School of Horrors, a secret club known as the "Vigils" controls everything, and its members abuse their power for their own personal amusement. Brother Leon, a corrupt teacher who's trying to replace the current headmaster, makes a deal with them--if they can double the number of chocolates sold at the annual fundraiser, and he gets promoted because of the fundraiser's success, he'll give them unofficial backing and even more power. What nobody's expecting is that one Ordinary High School Student, Jerry Renault, will rebel and try to sabotage the club's power.
If you read a lot of young adult literature, you probably have one guess where this is headed. If you've read other books by Robert Cormier, you're more likely to have the correct guess--and also a good idea of why this novel shows up so often on banned-books lists.
This book was followed by an even more depressing sequel, Beyond The Chocolate War. Lead character Jerry is Demoted to Extra, being transferred to a public school due to the cruelty of the Vigils. His friendship with Goober is implied to end due to post-Chocolate War tensions. Obie, the only sympathetic Vigil, takes over as protagonist after his girlfriend is nearly raped by Archie's heir apparent, Bunting, to take over running the Vigils. Obie tries (unsuccessfully) to bring down Archie via a humiliating prank but fails miserably. However, by this point Archie (now about to graduate) has turned the group over to his successor Bunting, on the condition that he keep Archie's sadistic enforcer Emile Janza around as his second-in-command. Using Janza as his hand puppet to suggest policies that he could never have gotten approved if he were leading the Vigils, Archie is able to bring new levels of power and income to the Vigils, and Bunting enacts a new wave of violence against the school and illegal activities (dealing drugs, extortion in the form of "taxes"). The ending implies that Archie's Crowning Moment of Awesome will be the Vigils' Moral Event Horizon; that by overtly resorting to violence and engaging in drug dealing, Archie has knowingly set into motion the end of the Vigils, turning them into a gang who will inevitably be shut down by the school.
This book provide examples of:
- Adults Are Useless: Except for Brother Jacques, the only sympathetic teacher among a staff that is either cowardly or evil.
- Apathetic Citizens: Deconstructed. Brother Leon (knowingly) falsely accuses a student of cheating in front of his class. When none of the other students defend him, he accuses them of being Apathetic Citizens. Never mind that he's a teacher and they are students.
- Invoked again in Beyond the Chocolate War. After David Caroni commits suicide, Brother Leon tells the student body that they were guilty of not seeing any signs that their classmate was suicidal. He is then hit in the face with a tomato. The student who does it is never found but is elected student body president the next year.
- Arc Words: Do I dare distub the universe?
- Attempted Rape: Bunting tries to rape Laurie, even though he was told to "only" harass her.
- Bittersweet Ending: The Film. Jerry beats Archie in the boxing match, but ultimately feels everything he went through was pointless because at the end, he ended up playing their games anyway. On a slightly more positive note, Archie is overthrown as the Assigner and the position is given instead to Obie, who gives relatively harmless, albeit immature and disgusting, assignments instead.
- Broken Pedestal: Brother Leon is this for student David Caroni, which is implied to be the reason he commits suicide in BTCW.
- The Brute: Emile Janza, the Vigils' enforcer of sorts, and the only character in the book who really qualifies as Chaotic Evil.
- Caught with Your Pants Down: Most definitely NOT Played for Laughs.
- Chaotic Stupid: Obie in the movie after taking over Archie's job as the assigner. He ends up giving out truly stupid assignments just for the sake of "It Amused Me."
- Darker and Edgier: Beyond the Chocolate War, quite a feat considering how dark the first book was.
- A Date with Rosie Palms: Presented matter-of-factly.
- Deal with the Devil: Brother Leon (initially a vaguely sympathetic Stern Teacher) makes one with Archie so that the Vigils will make sure the chocolates get sold. By the end of the book, he's made his way to looking the other way when Archie arranges the fight between Jerry and Emile, despite the fact that the chocolate sale is over.
- Determinator: Jerry for much of the first book, He's seemingly broken at the end of the first novel but in Beyond The Chocolate War he becomes one again.
- Dirty Coward/Lovable Coward: Obie, Archie's right-hand-man, is with the Vigils so he won't be one of their victims. His job is to pick whom to torment, but he never engages in the bullying, and he feels guilty about his actions (though not guilty enough to stand up to Archie.) Eventually he becomes one of the Vigils' victims, even though he remains a member, when Archie orders three guys to sexually assault Obie's girlfriend in front of him.
- Doomed Moral Victor: Cruelly subverted. Jerry achieves nothing. Obie does get off a nice speech about how Archie's luck will run out someday, but the second book indicates that good will never win in this setting.
- Downer Ending: The first book.
- The Dragon: Bunting is this to Archie.
- Driven to Suicide: David Caroni kills himself because of Brother Leon's harassment.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Averted. While the first book has Archie being explicit against resorting to violence, the second book revealed that this stance to be a lie since Archie moves the Vigils towards violent bullying and held back only because of fears of it ruining his reputation.
- Hannibal Lecture: Archie delivers a massive one to Obie near the end of Beyond the Chocolate War. "I am Archie. And I'll always be there, Obie. You'll always have me wherever you go, whatever you do. Know why, Obie? Because I'm you. I'm all the things you hide inside yourself. That's me".
- Heel Face Turn: Carter, the leader of the Vigils, turns against them in the second book. Archie, the actual leader, promises to destroy his life.
- Considering by the end, due to paranoia, Carter is a shell of his former self and is still paranoid over when Archie plans to get back at him, it becomes pretty clear Archie kept his words.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: In the film, Archie draws a black marble on his second turn, right before the boxing match he designed. He's then forced sub for Janza and receives a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown from Jerry.
- It Amused Me: Pretty much the implied reasoning for Archie giving the rest of the Vigil's the "Environment Assignment."
- Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: Brother Leon over the course of The Chocolate War.
- Karma Houdini: Every single villain. With the possible exception of Janza, since Bunting is planning a fatal "accident" for him.
- Luck-Based Mission: Almost literally. Every time the Vigils assign a student to perform a task, Archie, as the group "Assigner", draws a marble from a ceremonial box filled with them. Out of the large number of regular marbles, there is one black marble. The rule goes that if Archie draws the black marble, then he will have to perform the assigned task in the student's place. Ostensibly, this is to make sure that the Assigner doesn't make any one task too difficult or dangerous, as there's a chance he will have to do it himself. Most of the time, though, Archie palms his own white marble before drawing and presents it, though he notes there are a few times where he leaves it up to chance.
- Invoked toward the end of the first book. Jerry and Janza are put into a boxing match on the football field where the assembled students buy a box of chocolate in exchange for turning in a raffle ticket. On the ticket, they write whom they want to make a punch and on what part of the body of the other person, thus making the entire fight "scripted". But in setting things up this way, Archie forgot about the black box, which Obie brings to the field in a last-ditch effort to stop the fight before it's too late. But of course, Archie manages to draw two white marbles, one for Jerry's place and the other for Janza's, without skipping a beat.
- Manipulative Bastard:...though Archie never gets his own hands dirty, much rather preferring to manipulating others to get the job done.
- No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Janza gives one to Jerry at the end of the novel.
- In the movie Jerry delivers it to Archie instead.
- One-Gender School: Trinity is an all-boys version.
- Only Sane Man: Carter serves as this for the Vigil's for the most part. While he has no problems with majority of the Assignments Archie gives out, he's becomes increasingly reluctant if it comes close to compromising the Vigil's status. This was the main cause of his conflict with Archie in Beyond The Chocolate War.
- Psycho for Hire: Janza and Bunting.
- Revenge Before Reason: Obie becomes so obsessed with gaining revenge on Archie in the second book that he actually attempts to kill him.
- Revised Ending: As explained above in Bittersweet Ending.
- Sadist Teacher: Brother Leon isn't sadistic, but he's quite probably sociopathic. He's also a Sinister Minister.
- Saintly Church: While Brother Leon is a bad apple, the rest of the brothers are mostly good-hearted. Sadly, Good Is Impotent.
- Shaggy Dog Story: Both the stories and the movie are Shaggy Dog Stories. The first book even crossed into being a Shoot the Shaggy Dog.
- Smug Snake: Brother Leon
- Teenage Wasteland: The adults aren't able to control the Vigils because of Archie's subtlety and intelligence.
- Tyrant Takes the Helm: Brother Leon becomes acting headmaster at Trinity when the actual Headmaster falls ill.
- World of Cardboard Speech: Obie delivers this to Archie at the end of The Chocolate War.