- The Bland Face of Evil in the Novels of Robert Cormier
"Brother Leon. Whose eyes could flash with malice or quicken with a cold intelligence in which there wasn't an ounce of pity or mercy . . . He wore a silver chain, from which dangled a cross so fancy that you had to squint to make certain it was a cross. Brother Leon, who sometimes seemed a bit ridiculous . . . Which didn't deny the fact that Leon could also be dangerous" (Beyond the Chocolate War, 37-38). So Robert Cormier describes the sadistic headmaster of Trinity, a Roman Catholic high school that provides the setting for two of his most disturbing Young Adult novels.
Robert Cormier is one of the few writers of realistic fiction for young adults who creates genuinely evil characters. Unlike fantasy and science fiction books, which abound with embodiments of cosmic malevolence, realistic novels seem to shy away from villains. Even the school bullies that often provide conflict in modern YA fiction are made to seem relatively tame, as if they were just going through a nasty phase. There are killers and kidnappers in the mysteries, of course, but these are usually flat characters, never developed enough to take on real stature, always defeated in the end.
Perhaps writers of realistic novels for young readers want to avoid creating the stereotypical black-hatted "bad guy" of movies and TV, or perhaps they have been influenced by modern notions of the little bit of good in everyone and of moral relativity. Flannery O'Connor said that she was "speaking to an audience which does not believe in evil" (357), and that may well be true of most authors of YA novels as well.
It is not true of Robert Cormier. There is no moral blandness in his books, no picture of a world in which all will be well if everyone just tries a little harder. "I've come to realize that Saturday matinees have nothing to do with real life," says Cormier, "that innocence doesn't provide immunity from evil, that the mugger lurking in the doorway assaults both the just and the unjust."1 Readers hoping for the triumph of justice and goodness in Cormier's work are likely to be disappointed.
Yet his evil characters do present the appearance of harmlessness, or even of benevolence. Like Brother Leon, they may wear symbols of mercy without being merciful; they may hide their real intentions behind [End Page 12] a pretence of charity and concern. That is what makes them so menacing, and so memorable. They play roles that are usually associated with helping the young: parent, teacher, counselor, physician, government official, friend. Each one is able to seem innocuous or attractive when it suits his purposes; each one masquerades as something he is not in order to manipulate the protagonist.
"The evil that is easy to recognize and label is the kind that is easy to combat—but the evil that appears with a bland face isn't (36)," said Cormier in an interview with Merri Rosenberg. This habit of dressing moral monsters in the disguise of kindly helpers has helped to make Robert Cormier the most controversial of all the current authors of books for teenagers. His evil characters not only have faces but also use the authority and power they have to destroy the young. They are adversaries who cannot lose because the contest is unequal, villains who inevitably prevail.
An examination of five Cormier novels—The Chocolate War, Beyond the Chocolate War, I Am The Cheese, After the First Death, and The Bumblebee Flies Anyway—reveals a pattern of conflict between vulnerable adolescent protagonists and adult males who use the protagonists for their own purposes while pretending to act out of benevolent motives.
The Chocolate War centers around Jerry Renault's refusal to participate in the annual sale of boxes of chocolates at his parochial school, Trinity. Brother Leon, a teacher who had taken over the administration of the school and the sale during the headmaster's illness, is determined to force Jerry into taking part. Leon is aided in this effort by Archie, an older student who seems more...