Study Guide

I Am the Cheese Suffering

By Robert Cormier

Suffering

I keep pedaling despite the weariness and the pain [... ] "Take it easy," I tell myself. "Take it easy. One mile at a time." (1.14-15)

Adam is compassionate toward himself at the beginning of his journey; he speaks to himself as he would speak to a friend. Over the course of the bike ride, though, he becomes more self-critical and loses compassion. What changes?

I look at the telephone in the booth with disgust. Not disgust for the phone but disgust at myself. I have lost all track of time. (9.2)

Self-loathing is a form of suffering we see far too much of in today's youth culture. We're not all orphans, but we all know what it's like to feel down on ourselves.

My stomach is tight and tense. The hamburger I ate in Howard Johnson's has turned into a rock in my stomach. I should have ordered something easy to digest: soup or chowder. And I should have taken the medicine with me. [...] A headache has begun: iron bars beneath the flesh of my forehead. (9.5)

We can't relate to everything that happens to Adam – Shmoop, for one, has never been interrogated by government authorities, for example – but one thing everyone can relate to is physical pain. Which is worse, mental anguish or physical pain?

T: Do you feel well?
A: I'm not sure. I feel – dizzy.
T: An anxiety reaction, nothing more. Oh, the dizziness is real, I grant you. But the cause is anxiety.
A: May I rest? I'm tired now.
T: Are you retreating?
A: No. Really. But I'm dizzy and tired and my stomach feels queasy. I feel as though I've been here, in this room, forever. (13.27)

Adam suffers from something a lot of people experience: anxiety. Anxiety can take a lot of forms, but for most people it's associated with physical reactions as well. (Read more about anxiety disorders here.)

No. I don't care about the blanks that are filled in. It's the ones that are still blanks that I want to talk about. What am I doing here? How long have I been here? I hate this place. The people here hate me, too. (15.5)

This is the first time Adam really voices his torment about his present situation. The sentiment of "I hate this place" is so relatable that we can't help but feel for him.

"Know what's hard? Being this way, stuck in a cage this way, and having to wait for everything to come to <em>you,</em> not being able to go after anything. See what I mean?" (24.13)

Adam's version of Arthur Haynes speaks to him during his bike ride, but the real Arthur Haynes (in the hospital) does not. The fact that Adam can attribute words of suffering to this man shows that even though Arthur gives him "the creeps" (31.20), Adam is compassionate enough to see that Arthur is suffering, too. Either that or Adam is projecting his own feelings onto Arthur. What do you think?

The big man looks down at me with a sadness in his eyes. Mournfully, he says, "I never get to do nothing." (24.33)

Just think of the many people historically who have suffered from lack of freedom – slaves, child laborers, those labeled religious heretics – and you can understand how not being allowed to do as you wish, even on a smaller scale, can lead to real suffering.

He lay numb, in a vacuum except for the echo of sounds in his ear and he tried to raise his head from the pavement but couldn't and he wanted to close his eyes but couldn't and he couldn't bear to look at his mother anymore. He. Did. Not. Want. To. Look. At. Her. Anymore. She. Was. Dead." (30.45)

The combination of physical and mental suffering becomes so unbearable here that everything breaks down for Adam. Cormier expresses this by the contrast between a run-on sentence and a sentence broken up into one-word components.

His eyes fluttered like his mother's breath had fluttered long ago and he rose up to the weariness and then settled down into it, soft and gentle and tender... (30.53)

What does Cormier mean by the ambiguous but evocative words, "he rose up to the weariness and then settled down into it"? Is he describing the physical act of fainting, perhaps? Or is he describing an acceptance of pain, or even death?

I don't know why it makes me sad but it does. It opens up a loneliness in me, like a hole, a deep, dark hole. The hole is threatening somehow; if it gets too big it could swallow me up, so I try not to think about it. The medicine always helps me not to think about it. (31.5)

Like his mother's Never Knows of fear, Adam has his Never Knows of sadness and suffering. When we know what it is that's making us sad, we can try to conquer it. But when we don't, it's much harder to get out of that funk.