While most coming-of-age novels deal with the protagonist's attempt to discover his own identity, I Am the Cheese adds a twist. Adam's identity is out there somewhere, but it is buried beneath two separate, horrific layers. Not only is he someone else—Paul Delmonte, before the government changed his name in a witness protection program—but he has trouble remembering this fact, as well as most of his experiences that occurred prior his institutionalization. Cormier uses the typical narrative arc of the adolescent protagonist—the teenager discover his identity by the end of the novel. Adam's identity becomes clearer just before the end of the novel. Cormier alters the typical arc, because the truth of Adam's identity is so horrifying that Adam cannot comprehend it. Instead, Adam withdraws into a somewhat infantile state and repeats his imaginary search for his father. Adam discovers his identity, and then rejects it.
Moreover, Adam's father and mother have also had to confront the emotional difficulties of assuming new identities. Anthony Delmonte has to give up journalism and Louise gives up her social world in Blount for a life of fear and distrust. In some ways, changing one's identity is simple: Grey has a number of aliases, including a number. Grey is thus everywhere while also being a nothing, just as Adam describes. Even Adam finds how simple it is to lie to Amy about his past and invent a new "set of circumstances." Amy, on the other hand, may lie at times with her Numbers pranks, but she never lies about herself. Amy is forthright, honest, and does not shy away from her fears and faults, and even talks about her gas noises in the bathroom. The term "identity" is a vague one that can mean so many things—one's race or gender or even one's birthday. One meaning of identity is that it defines the person or thing to which it is attached, and it makes some logical sense, or develops into a meaning. The characteristics of one's anatomy define race and gender, and for his mother, Adam's birthday falling on Valentine's Day symbolizes love. Consider how significant your phone number is for you, even though it is a completely arbitrary set of digits. For the Delmontes, their new identities are the offspring of fear and fear alone, given by Grey without any of their own input, and it is impossible for them to grow into or accept the new definitions by which they must live.
Three different organizations control the helpless Delmontes/Farmers throughout the course of I Am the Cheese: the organization Anthony has testified against, Grey and his department, and Brint and the institution. Anthony is a courageous journalist who stands up for what he believes in, though it means testifying against a powerful organization with possible links to other criminals. Only after he is almost killed several times does he accept that the organization will eventually murder him unless he joins a second organization—Grey's witness protection program. There, the Delmontes are at Grey's whim, forced to live without much freedom. The second organization, a government-sponsored program, is also corrupt. Grey fears that Anthony is withholding important information from him, and Grey uses the program to gain his trust and try to extract the information. Grey eventually kills Anthony and his wife, with the help of the first organization, to which he is evidently connected. Lastly, Brint is an even more sinister force, and he claims he is helping Adam recover his lost memory. Brint, however, only wants to see if Adam knows the secret information. Brint medicates Adam, plays mind games with him, and is self-admittedly cold and stoic. Cormier reveals that Brint works for the same organization as the corrupt Grey, and wants to reinstate Grey into the "Agency" despite evidence that he helped murder the Farmers. All the anonymous organizations are connected in an insidious web, while the individuals are left to fend for themselves in a battle they cannot win.
In addition to being a coming-of-age novel, I Am the Cheese also follows the path of an "orphan" quest, similar to Hansel and Gretel, The Catcher in the Rye, or Rule of the Bone. In the orphan quest, a child, whose parents loom heavily in the background, seeks to find himself on the road and often wants to find his parents. Cormier reverses the typical orphan structure, as Adam discovers he is an orphan only at the end of the novel, rather than at the beginning, where the protagonist's orphanage is usually established. In most orphan quests, the orphan runs across several surrogate parental figures. Sometimes these are not always the optimal parental replacements, and the orphan is lucky if he can find even one wise and nurturing elder. Adam charts much of his progression to an orphanage through the popular children's song "The Farmer in the Dell." At first, we learn that this was the Farmer family's theme song of sorts and Adam sings it to remind himself of better times. Indeed, the repetitive structure of the song, which links cheerful verses like "The farmer takes a wife" and "The wife takes a child," suggests a happy, unified family. Yet Adam never sings too far in the song, and the final verses, unknown to most people, remain off limits. Only at the end do we discover the meaning of the novel's title. "The rat takes the cheese" is the second-to-last verse and "The cheese stands alone" is the final one. Adam states that he is the cheese. All of the trappings of family from the song have disappeared until finally, the cheese stands alone. Adam is alone, and he is an orphan in all senses: he has lost his mind, has lost his parents, and has lost himself.
Cormier updates yet another literary convention, the mystery and detective novel. I Am the Cheese is a thrilling, suspenseful mystery, as well as an emotional story, because the detective is searching for clues about himself. Adam's intimacy with the case instills new energy and emotional suspense into clichéd scenes, such as Adam's digging through his father's desk for documents or eavesdropping on his mother's phone conversation. Cormier's various narrative strategies—switching the story between Adam's first person account of his bike trip, his dialogue-only conversations with Brint, and especially the third-person memories—highlight Adam's emotional responses to the factual discoveries. Cormier eloquently describes 14-year-old Adam's feelings when he overhears his mother's phone conversation, for instance, and his dialogue with Brint reveals his motivations and attitudes. At the end of book, we learn that Adam's journey is a fabrication. The journey is also the one time Adam is allowed to tell a story in the first-person. Adam's bike trip to Rutterburg is really a trip around his hospital grounds, and his fantasy is the product of an "unreliable narrator," another staple in mystery novels. The unreliable narrator retells factual information incorrectly, sometimes on purpose. Usually the reader can untangle what is true and what is not, as we can in I Am the Cheese.
Adam loves the wind because of the freedom he feels when riding his bike in it. The wind contrasts starkly with Adam's feeling of claustrophobia or lack of freedom. The freedom of the wind is also connected to Adam's identity crisis. The wind can at once be felt everywhere and be seen nowhere, and it can change direction easily. Similarly, Adam has more than one identity, which he switches around to fit the circumstances, note his lie to Amy. However, he is not strongly attached to any of his identities. Because he is helpless in all other facets of his life, perhaps Adam likes the feeling of being able to control of his lack of identity, like Grey. When Adam feels outside of himself while talking to Brint, he revels in the power of lacking an identity. The wind is infused with this powerful freedom—it blows along to its own accord, giving Adam the same rush he gets by riding on his bicycle or stepping outside himself.
The contents of the package Adam carries throughout the story, supposedly for his father, is revealed at the end of the novel. The package contains Adam's childhood stuffed animal, Pokey the Pig, one of the few items that his mother saved during their relocation. The animal is a poignant link to Adam's lost childhood. The pig also symbolizes Adam's desire to understand his identity and past experiences, as well as his return to an infantile state when he cannot face the truth of his identity. The pig, a farm animal, also fits into the theme of family and domestic harmony. The animal is the only piece of family that Adam has, and he clutches to it tightly.