- The Quest for Masculinity in The Chocolate War:Changing Conceptions of Masculinity in the 1970s
The first paragraph of Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War (1974) is metaphorical: "They murdered him. As he turned to take the ball, a dam burst against the side of his head and a hand grenade shattered his stomach" (7). We are immediately exposed to this violent scene without any knowledge of who "he" is, who "they" are, or what this scene is about. As the story unfolds, we learn that Jerry Renault, the protagonist, is involved in a conflict called the "chocolate war." But what is Jerry fighting against? And who or what is the enemy? On one hand, Patricia J. Campbell places the story in a moral context: "What he is opposing is not Brother Leon, not Archie, not Emile, but the monstrous force that moves them . . . evil" (46). Anne Scott MacLeod, on the other hand, maintains that Cormier's novels are "political novels" because he "is far more interested in the systems by which a society operates than he is in individuals" (74). I prefer to place The Chocolate War in a social and cultural context, reading it as a novel about changing conceptions of masculinity during the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s.
Many sociologists view masculinity as a set of behaviors and attitudes that are constructed and maintained by a complex system of rewards and punishments. According to Arlene Skolnick, the sociocultural changes of the '60s were rooted in the unexpressed discontents of the '50s. In the mid-'70s, stimulated by the second wave of feminism, various men's movements began to develop. The First National Conference on the Masculine Mystique and the first Men and Masculinity conference were held in 1974 and 1975, respectively. In 1974 Marc Feigen Fasteau's The Male Machine was published, followed in 1975 by Warren Farrell's The Liberated Man. The year 1976 saw the publication of Richard Doyle's The Rape of the Male and Herb Goldberg's The Hazards of Being Male. The various men's movements argued over conflicting ideals of masculinity. In fact, sociologist Kenneth [End Page 105] Clatterbaugh identifies eight perspectives ranging from the "conservative" to the evangelical Christian" (9-14). Nonetheless, America's cultural anxiety about masculinity was based on a narrow image of the white middle-class heterosexual male. As in the film Rebel Without a Cause (1955), this image often caused a "masculinity crisis" (Griswold 185; Skolnick 111), for such men were expected to conceal their vulnerabilities, suppress their emotions, provide for their families, control their women, and, at the same time, be democratic and affectionate husbands and fathers. In other words, "the ideology of the strong male was at odds with the ideology of togetherness" (Skolnick 71).
This masculinity crisis is deeply connected to unease about the feminine side of masculinity. As the sociologist E. Anthony Rotundo shows in his book American Manhood, the concept of masculinity is defined by the notion of a "separate sphere," which has become the norm for American society. This sphere excludes any attributes that are thought to be feminine, such as the nurturing, the caring, the intimate, and the emotional. As though to reflect the omission of the feminine from this conventional notion of masculinity, Cormier's The Chocolate War lacks major female characters except for Jerry's dead mother. The story unfolds in the all-male world of Trinity School. This unnatural absence of females in the novel emphasizes a masculinity that has excluded the feminine. Cormier is daring enough to portray the all-male world as bleak, to find fault with traditional gender roles, and to depict his protagonist, Jerry, as seeking a new male identity.
I would first like to examine the novel as a mythological quest story in which a young man seeks a masculine identity. Percival's quest in Arthurian legend is one of the most representative stories in which a fatherless young man leaves his mother and sets out to seek adventure. Because of his upbringing in the depths of the forest, Percival is ignorant of the outside world and, especially, of the power politics in the men's world. His...