Friday, August 22, 2008

principle before action

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: YA
Review: Supposedly, this is a young adult classic, but honestly, I'm not sure why. It's just not very good. Sure, it's controversial (the characters swear and think about masturbation a lot), but that's not a good enough reason for it to keep being assigned in schools.

Also, I think the thing that should make the book controversial is its portrayal of gross cruelty by students and certain teachers. Not that I'm worried that kids will suddenly become cruel just by reading this book (those who are going to be cruel tend to come by it naturally, after all), but if we're worried about exposing children to unsavory things, it ought to cruelty for it's own sake.

But what I really didn't like about this book was that although we're told there's a principle behind the actions of Jerry, who refuses to sell the chocolates, we're never told what the principle is. There's some suggestion that Jerry himself isn't really sure what his principle is, but in the context of the book, that's just not good enough.

It all started when Jerry is "assigned" by the Vigils (the school's student secret society, which doesn't actually seem to be much of a secret to anyone) to refuse to sell the chocolates for 10 days. He does (there's no suggestion that he even thinks about refusing the "assignment") but then continues to refuse to sell the chocolates after the 10 days are up, even after he gets another "assignment" that he start selling the chocolates. But why does he continue to refuse? Is it something about the chocolate sale itself, or is it about defying the Vigils? We don't know. The action of defiance seems to be more important than the principle behind it. I think Cormier got it backward.


C. B. James said...

Well we disagree here. This is very dark book about what society does to those who do not conform. The reasons why, the principles behind the defiance, are not the issue. Do we have to have a good reason to refuse to go along with the group? Can't we just refuse? Aren't we free to do what we please in a free society? Cormier thinks the answer is no, and that, I think, is the point he is making.

mmz said...

excellent points. but it does take away from the story, for me at least, not to know what the reasons are behind the defiance. it just makes it less meaningful.

C. B. James said...

I can certainly see that. Cormier was known for frustrating his readers. He made it a habit not to tell us all we wanted to know and not to give us the endings we wanted.