In Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, Jerry Renault disrupts the social norms in his school by meddling in the school’s ethically questionable chocolate sale, which imbalances the hierarchy of the school and sends its students and faculty into chaos. Jerry uses his power as a student to affect the natural order of the school to change minds, stop being a follower, and make his mark on the school and his community. The story’s rebellious theme is framed by a quote from T.S. Eliot— “Do I dare disturb the universe?” This idea resonates with several fictional and real-world applications, but equally relevant is its applicability in Francisco Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World. In this novel, Marcelo Sandoval accomplishes the same task as Jerry. Marcelo, a neurodivergent seventeen-year-old, works at his father’s law office over the summer and discovers the problematic ways a law office runs, both socially and mechanically. He discovers a case the office is working on that does not acknowledge the injury of a girl, who Marcelo sees a picture of and immediately connects with. In the process of bringing her justice, Marcelo interrupts the “natural order” of the law office. Consequently, Marcelo challenges people’s perceptions of his identity as a neurodivergent individual and brings justice to the girl who was wronged by his father’s company. Marcelo fights two major systems in this novel: the community he is a part of, which contains the normalized social rules he must obey, and the legal justice system that threatens Marcelo’s moral compass. Indeed, Marcelo confronts the boundaries that try to box him in as a neurodivergent teenager and overrule his ability to be just Marcelo.
To ascertain whether Marcelo disturbed his universe in the novel, it would be worthwhile to define what we define as his “universe.” In Trites’ Disturbing the Universe, Trites explores what this means:
“In the context of adolescence, Prufrock’s question reflects the desire that many teenagers have to test the degree of power they hold. Because at its heart this question “Do I date disturb the universe?” is about power, it serves as an apt metaphor for what adolescents often seek to know about themselves.” (1)
At its core, this question is about power. For a universe to be “disturbed,” there needs to be a group of individuals that are upset by the disturber’s actions. This group is a social structure that rules over another social structure. According to Trites, these social forces all have varying levels of power. “They [protagonists] learn to negotiate the levels of power that exist in the myriad social institutions within which they must function, including family; school; the church; government; social constructions of sexuality, gender, race, class; and cultural mores surrounding death” (1). These levels of power show themselves in our lives whether we actively participate in them or not. For some individuals, like Marcelo, these institutions can hinder them from thriving. For example, a major theme in Marcelo in the Real World is ableism, which is incredibly prevalent in Marcelo’s life. Mr. Holmes, Marcelo’s father’s partner, calls Marcelo “Gump” several times, referencing Forrest Gump, a neurodivergent character from the movie of the same name, and tells Marcelo: “I wish I didn’t worry about things. It must be nice to have a simple, uncomplicated brain” (Stork 67). This type of ableism from a person in a place of power to someone who’s not prevents Marcelo from being able to live a life without ableism. Marcelo, under the power of Mr. Holmes, in unable to do anything to change his situation.
Marcelo’s father, Arturo, perceives him as weak and unprepared for the real world: “At Paterson you are in a protected environment. The kids who go there are not… normal. Most of them will be the way they are all their lives…You just move at a different speed than other kids your age. But in order for you to grow and not get stuck, you need to be in a normal environment” (Stork 20). Arturo knows his son is “different,” and wants him to change and grow into a more “functioning” person, which is why he sends Marcelo to work in the legal office and tells him he must go to a “real” high school. The main power structure here is that of an authority that seeks to control Marcelo’s actions. Arturo wants Marcelo to become “normal,” and act like what he perceives “normal” to be. His father’s power is what drives Marcelo to prove him wrong: to prove he can function to his father’s standards. Trites aptly summarizes this as a “’perpetual relationship of force’ created by the institutions that constitute the social fabric constructing them” (Trites 7). This relationship of force drives Marcelo into action, because “the social power that constructs them bestows upon them a power from which they generate their own sense of subjectivity” (7). Essentially, Marcelo does not act until he is driven to by society’s expectations.
Marcelo acts by challenging the legal system—a system bound by complicated laws and ethical quandaries. The legal issue is a windshield company named Vidromek lied about their windshields, and a car accident with the windshields in question injured a girl named Ixtel. Arturo’s law office is not fighting for Ixtel; rather, they are doing exactly the opposite. Marcelo finds a picture of Ixtel and immediately undertakes the mission of finding justice for her. Marcelo challenges the legal system by going behind the back of his father’s company and taking on the responsibility of finding out what really happened. When he gives the file to Ixtel’s attorney, Jerry García, the employees in the office are surprised and enraged. Marcelo’s father is angry at him, but also realizes he cannot underestimate Marcelo again. After Marcelo gives Arturo Jasmine’s note, saying that Arturo took advantage of Jasmine, Arturo writes Marcelo: “It was only yesterday, when I read Jasmine’s note the way you would read it, that I recognized the extent of my lack of judgement” (Stork 304). Therefore, Marcelo changed his father’s way of thinking: about Jasmine and his son’s capability for complex thought.
Ultimately, Marcelo changed minds in this novel. Cynics and pessimists will deny this; they will say that changing a few minds does not affect the entire universe. However, improving life for one person is worth it. In the novel, Marcelo proves he is capable of complex thought by finding justice for Ixtel, whose life is forever better. Marcelo’s father, additionally, has changed his mind about his son. Regardless of the mistakes he’s made, he will no longer underestimate neurodivergency. Marcelo fought the system that rules over the lives of helpless individuals. He fought a system that imprisons innocents, that puts people on death row to await trial for years, sometimes lifetimes; that murders innocent people of color and puts the cops that did the deed on paid leave. Marcelo found justice in this desolation. His story simultaneously gives us fear and hope. It gives us fear because without people like him, our justice system will remain this twisted and immoral; it gives us hope because it inspires us to make change. Marcelo realized then what young individuals across the world today are realizing: that the unacceptable parts of society won’t change unless people act. Young activists, like Emma Gonzales and Malala Yousafzai, to name only two, are actively challenging the way society functions, just as Marcelo did, and are acting to find solutions. Step by step, like Marcelo, individuals are changing minds and therefore changing the world.
Stork, Francisco X. Marcelo in the Real World. Scholastic Inc, 2009.
Trites, Roberta Seelinger. Distubing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature. University of Iowa Press, 2000.