Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War is an exquisitely crafted, multilayered tale of one youth’s struggle to maintain his sense of self against mounting pressure, both from adult authority figures and from his peers, to conform. The primary antagonist of the book’s hero is a slightly older boy named Archie, a fellow student at Trinity, the fictional private Catholic high school in and around which most of the book’s action transpires. Jerry Renault, the hero of Cormier’s book, is a believable, fully-realized character with many noble traits. Today, however, we’re going to look instead at Jerry’s nemesis. Manipulative and sadistic whilst remaining utterly believable, Archie Costello may be the most intriguing villain you’ll ever encounter in a work of young-adult fiction. Lord Voldemort, eat your heart out.
Archie, the assigner of the Vigils, is failing at least one of his classes and barely scraping by in others. Caring not one whit about his studies, he has turned his formidable intellect to the task of churning out an endless series of assignments, torturous pranks-on-steroids, and selecting the students who will have to carry them out. For a boy at Trinity, where the existence of the Vigils is an open secret and they are a power unto themselves, ignoring a summons from the Vigils isn’t an option. The only practical restraint on Archie’s imagination in constructing assignments comes in the form of a Vigils custom, handed down from the mist-enshrouded days of yore: the black box.
Of the six marbles in the box, all but one are white. After handing down an assignment, the assigner is presented with the box and must withdraw a single marble. If it’s white, then the chosen student must carry out their assignment. In the event that the assigner fetches up the sole black marble, however, the proverbial tables are turned and he, the assigner, must execute his own assignment.
Archie Costello has served as the Vigils’ assigner for three years and has yet to draw the black marble. Well aware that he’s had a preposterously long run of good luck, Archie’s trepidation at facing the black box increases with every new assignment he metes out and thoughts of the law of averages are never far from his mind. Alas, this detail (Archie’s invocation of the law of averages) is one of the few details that (slightly) yanks us out of the narrative. He is such a smart cookie that, even if he’s flunking math, a well-informed reader might expect Archie to know that the law of averages is bunk and the relevant “law” in his circumstances is actually the law of large numbers.
Not too long ago, we took a few minutes to riff off of Archie’s experiences in the book and give some of our Chocolate-War-reading students a taste of probability in action. Instead of a box containing marbles, we employed a six-sided die. Shown above are the outcomes of two sets of die tosses, recorded by Trevina Y. and Ryan Y. Mathematically, a die toss, like the selection of a marble from a box to which the marble is subsequently returned, is an independent event. If the law of averages were valid, Trevina and Ryan would have seen 1 once very six times, but that’s not quite how the world works. While Ryan wound up with a perfect-seeming six occurrences of 1 out of thirty tosses and Trevina racked up seven, note their spacing. If Ryan and Trevina had stopped after their twentieth roll, their tallies would have left a believer in the law of averages scratching their heads but those aware of the law of large numbers wouldn’t have batted an eyelash.