Richard III, Act 3, Scene 1
Love this quote. There’s something both humorous and sinister about it that sums up Richard’s character completely, so much so that I thought it simply couldn’t be used in any other context. But it actually relates beautifully to the two books this post is about: ‘The Chocolate War’ by Robert Cormier and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ by Anthony Burgess, both of which deal with the subject of violence and psychological games and tricks amongst teenage boys and both of which are amazing.
Let’s begin with one of my new favourite books, Cormier’s ‘The Chocolate War’; reminiscent of ‘Lord of the Flies’ (Goulding) since it shows the malevolent presence of evil within schoolboys games and gangs. The protagonist and hero is Jerry Renault, a young, ordinary boy who has just joined the strict Catholic ‘Trinity School’, which annually runs a chocolate sale. Each boy volunteers to sell a certain quota of boxes in a fund-raising effort which is also a display of ‘school spirit’. But this year, even more relies on the chocolate sale than normal. Brother Leon, surely one of the creepiest and darkest characters ever, has taken over the school and demands a 200% increase in sales at all costs. Even turning to the mysterious, sinister school gang ‘The Vigils’ isn’t too far for him; although each year the most crafty, wily member, Archie Costello, hands out complex, rebellious ‘assignments’ to specially-selected vulnerable freshmen in order to assert their authority and disrupt school life. And against both these powerful forces, Jerry takes a stand. He becomes the first person in the school’s history to refuse to take part in the chocolate sale. This small act of defiance starts a chain reaction exposing the corruption running throughout Trinity. There is only one solution: Jerry must be destroyed.
I know, deep, right? Like ‘Lord of the Flies’ it examines the evil in human nature and its ending is shockingly negative to say the least. But one of the great features of the book is that it packs a whole lot into only around 200 pages; you could easily read it in a day or so, though the thoughts and ideas that arise from reading it stay with you for a long time.
The characters are brilliantly formed; not only do we bear witness to the events, lives and thoughts of the main protagonists, Jerry, Archie and Brother Leon, but short scenes from other pupils’ lives are also presented as the boys begin to choose sides. Even these minor characters, who only appear for a few pages at a time, are extraordinarily detailed; each one has their own back-story and their own personal reasons for who they support. Plus, I love the idea of the ‘Assignments’. Obviously they’re completely cruel and more than a little bit sinister, but the whole idea of ‘The Vigils’ and the ‘Assigner’ is a genius creation. They present the fine line between brawn and brains, between violence and psychological games, between friend and foe.
Yet the most powerful thing of all must be the ending. Obviously I can’t tell you it here, because I’ll completely spoil the book and then you’ll never read it, which you must do. However, suffice to say that it keeps you guessing; you’re never sure who will triumph and you keep telling yourself desperately, as the tension builds, that surely, it must have a happy ending, surely, who could be so cruel? Robert Cormier is who. The villain.
In contrast, ‘A Clockwork Orange’, although similarly having a surprising ending, is actually more uplifting; one is able to believe that Alex, the previously sinister protagonist, will be able to transform into a fully-functioning adult. Saying this, just because it has a more positive ending, that’s not to say that it is any less violent or damning of human nature than ‘The Chocolate War’. Whilst Archie and Alex are both leaders, both willing to subject those more vulnerable than themselves to a kind of torture, Archie prefers psychological games whereas for Alex, his first and last resort is ‘ultraviolence’.
A great feature of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ is its entirely fabricated vocabulary of the ‘nadsat’ language, used by the teenagers of the novel. However, this can be a deterrent to some when first opening the book – I had to look up them up on Wikipedia (though it was interesting to find out that most of the words are derived from Russian), but after a while you just become adjusted to it. Put it this way, it doesn’t restrict your enjoyment of the book. It actually enhances it in a way; though it does make the separation between these teenagers and the readers over-emphasised, which perhaps lessens the idea that this could happen to anyone; the idea of universality.
The key concept of the novel is that a delinquent, even one as bad as Alex (who assaults, rapes and even murders innocent people), can be transformed by a psychological process into a respectable citizen, though whether this is for the good or the bad you’ll have to read the book to find out!
So, in summary, two great books dealing differently with the idea of evil within human nature, but both using young boys to show that evil can dwell in supposedly the most innocent of people. Short but powerful, and such incredible writing – definitely recommended!
In other news, I went to see ‘The Book of Mormon’ at the Prince of Wales Theatre yesterday and it was totally amazing and completely hilarious, if hugely offensive to practically everyone. Go and see it.
And this Sunday I’m going to see ‘Othello’ at the National Theatre, starring Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear which I am super excited about, so I’ll try and write about that asap afterwards. As usual, thanks for reading 🙂