Robert Cormier was born in Leominster, Massachusetts, on January 17, 1925. As a member of a large, working-class family during the Great Depression, he came to know hardship at an early age. Cormier was not what he calls a “physical type,” so he became an avid reader who was influenced at first by the novels of Thomas Wolfe and their romanticism. Later, he discovered the economy and realism of Ernest Hemingway, a discovery that changed his focus as a budding writer.
As in his other novels, Cormier’s primary aim in this work is to confront and examine the plight of young adults enmeshed in a world of corruption and deceit, where no one, not even the government, can be trusted and where the terms “hero” and “villain” have little if any meaning. Yet Cormier is not simply exposing the reader to a “rotten” world. He strives to make young people aware of the important choices they must make between idealism and realism, hope and resignation, action and apathy. To make these choices in a society full of uncertainty is difficult.
Like Cormier’s other novels, I Am the Cheese is set in small-town New England. In this case, Adam Farmer (formerly Paul Delmonte of Pennsylvania) lives in Monument, Massachusetts, and in his imaginary travels sets out for Rutterburg, Vermont, by bicycle. It becomes apparent, however, that the entire novel really occurs within the confines of an institution in Vermont. Whether this is a prison, hospital, or secret research facility is never explained. In his “travels,” Adam passes through a series of New England villages, encountering several inhabitants along the way. The reader later learns that Adam’s father has been through the Witness Relocation Program, a federal bureau established to protect witnesses who testify against organized crime. Because this plan was put into action in the early 1970s, it can be assumed that this is the time of the novel.
Because of its intentionally ambiguous characters and structure, it is not easy to construct a clear analysis of this novel. A detailed attempt to solve its mystery completely may lead to even more questions and confusion. Even Cormier’s responses to readers do not fully clarify matters.
Critical reaction to I Am the Cheese has taken two directions. Many readers find the novel a mind-boggling, deliberately confusing detective story with no real “solution,” written far beyond young adults’ level of sophistication. The other view holds that Cormier has created a fascinating experimental work of fiction that realistically mirrors modern society and the confusing predicament of adolescents growing up in a sinister world.
To parents and educators familiar with Cormier, I Am the Cheese will seem an extension of the author’s indictment of American government and society. Here, however, the author presents a harrowing vision of all society, not simply the isolated private school of The Chocolate War. A secret force manipulates the individual and the family, and its tentacles are everywhere. Some readers may take issue with the author’s image of hopelessness, interpreting his message to be that the innocent are inevitably crushed by the system. Yet Cormier implies that the individual has resources to resist and that a mind can never be put in chains.
1. It is not until late in the novel that Adam discovers his secret past. What earlier indications are there that his parents are hiding something?
1. Cormier’s novels are often compared to J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and John Knowles’s A Separate Peace. Research critical opinion on either of these earlier novels and compare the author’s attitude toward disillusionment and youth with your view of Cormier’s opinions.
I Am the Cheese is one of four novels by Cormier dealing with social and political evils and the role of human nature in the creation and persistence of such forces. The Chocolate War studies a private school; Beyond the Chocolate War continues to study the same institution. I Am the Cheese extends Cormier’s vision into government, organized crime, and police agencies. In After the First Death, the author turns his concern to international terrorism. In spite of the enlarged focus of I Am the Cheese and After the First Death, however, Cormier’s themes remain fundamentally the same; he writes from a vision of a corrupt society and the role of the individual within it.