Monomyth or Misadventure? Characterization in I Am the Cheese

“Who is to say who is the villain and who is the hero? Probably the dictionary.” – Joss Whedon

Although the line between what makes a hero can become blurred, the basic traits of a hero remain the same for the most part, as proposed by Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. This theory has proven to be essential in the ingredients to a great story. Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese can be considered a monomyth due to its depiction of a hero, shadow, mentor, and other classic figures in literature. At first glance, Adam Farmer appears to be anything but a hero, with Amy Hertz running the show. However throughout his epic journey to find his true identity, he proves the roles to be reversed.

At the start of his story Adam has no idea that he is truly Paul Delmonte in clever disguise. He is your average student; he is shy, slightly awkward, but he cares fiercely for those he loves the most. When he first discovers that something is amiss in the sheltered bubble of his life, he refuses to ignore the urges to find the truth. When Adam first discovers a strange, sealed envelope in his father’s desk drawer he feels an unrelenting need to open it. He tells himself that the situation was “crazy, this was ridiculous. It could all be explained easily. But he had to open the envelope. He had to find out. He had to know” (Cormier 64). This kind of curiosity is trademark of heroes, along with Adam’s bravery in the face of danger. Later when Adam has discovered who he really is he also realized, “almost guiltily, that a kind of adventure had taken hold of his life. He felt set apart from the other kids at school…but it was a different kind of aloneness, something exclusive, almost sweet” (171-172). This willingness to accept the challenges before him is a characteristic exhibited in any great hero. Although the circumstances Adam has found himself in are less than favorable, he takes it maturely and with strength and courage. While Adam is extremely daring when the situation calls for it, he would be nothing without his best friend and girl, Amy Hertz, who “brought brightness and gaiety to his life” (68). Even on Adam’s darkest days, he can find comic relief in the trickster of I Am the Cheese. Amy entertains Adam and herself by pulling off Numbers, which are well- planned and elaborate pranks. Some of her best work was when “Amy had driven Mr. Crandall, a hated teacher, up the wall by sending him anonymous love letters, passionate letters obviously from a student. The Amy Hertz: giving the letters a definite masculine tone so that poor Mr. Crandall thought he was being pursued by a passionate teenage homosexual” (112). Just like in every hero’s journey, Amy functions as Adam’s sidekick through even the most turbulent of times, whether she realized it or not. Adam found the most comfort in her quirks while venturing through his own journey with the rest of the monomyth’s characters.

No great heroes journey would be complete without a herald, mentor, and threshold guardian. Adam discovered several pieces of information before he met these characters and the bulk of his journey began. Without David Farmer, Adam’s father, acting as the story’s herald, Adam would have been left in the dark. David was reluctant at first to share the true identity of the Farmer family with his son. As any father would, he wanted to protect his son from his past for as long as possible. Once David realized that Adam knew just enough to make him a liability, he realized it was time to tell his son the truth. Once he began to unweave the web of lies he and his wife had been telling, “is father talked and Adam listened. But Adam also asked questions, a hundred, a thousand it seemed. During those first few days after the discovery of his identity and the lives they led, he and his father talked incessantly, the terrible silence finally broken” (Cormier 128). Adam’s father had no idea at the time, but sharing the very basis of the Farmer family’s double life, would start Adam on a journey to uncover every possible detail about who he was as Adam Farmer and who he had been as Paul Delmonte. Adam’s mother later steps in as I Am the Cheese’s mentor. Soon after beginning his journey Adam noticed “that despite her gentleness and wistfulness, his mother was more defiant than his father about their situation” (158). The spiteful side of his quiet mother lends the perfect traits to be Adam’s mentor, for she is an expert on the past, and all too willing to guide him through it. When she brings him to the basement to show him relics of the past, she explains that “‘for the sake of safety, we have to forget that other life…but I’ve cheated. I’ve kept a few things we had when we fled through the night’” (160). The fundamental blocks of truth laid down by Adam’s father coupled with his mother’s kind advice and wisdom help Adam to overcome his own guardian of the threshold, the secrecy behind his true identity.

When Adam first discovers that he had born Paul Delmonte, his father swears him to secrecy using the reasoning, “‘It’s life and death, Adam’” (161). The boundaries set up to protect the family from the past were created with good intentions, but when Adam became old enough and wise enough it was time to pass these guardians and face the real danger. After Adam discovered his identity, he knew his life would never be the same. However, he was not aware that the real shadow in his own journey was also a shape-shifter. The gray man, “was a part of [the Farmer’s] lives and yet not part of it. He was always there, someone [Adam] took for granted” (Cormier 108). If the Farmer family had paid closer attention to the infamous Mr. Grey, he would not have had the means to turn into the shadow. At first, he appeared to be the family’s helper, willing to sacrifice anything and everything for their well-being. He was a guardian angel, swooping in at just the right moment to save the family. Mrs. Farmer was the only one who was truly suspicious, admitting, “I sometimes think we were too unquestioning, Adam, too naive” (159). Mrs. Farmer’s idea that had seemed impious at one point, began to ring all too true when Adam’s family was sent away from Monument to the countryside. The safe retreat came to a nauseating end when Adam saw, “a car hurtling toward them, metal flashing in the sun. The car was upon them, sickeningly” (198-199). The shadow of Adam’s journey is finally revealed when he describes the attacker as, “[A man in] gray pants. Him” (202). After months of curiosity and revelations, Adam’s journey finally came to a close, as he realized that the one person his family had put their trust in, was not only a shape-shifter, but a shadow.

The heroic journey of Adam Farmer has anything but a happy ending. Although his journey did come full circle, at what cost? The defining traits found in characters of the monomyth are all demonstrated in Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese. Through the personification of a classic hero and sidekick model, a wise mentor and herald, and a former friend who shifts into the biggest villain of them all, I Am the Cheese further supports the idea that every great story’s characters can also be found in Joseph Campbell’s monomyth.