The Maze Runner Themes
Memory and Identity
In the novel, all of the characters sent to the Glade lose their memories before being placed in the Box. The shock of this memory loss is palpable for Thomas, as he struggles to remember who he is and why he has been sent to the Glade. In this way, Thomas, and the other Gladers, view memory loss as a loss of their identity. Recovering his memories and his true identity becomes one of Thomas’s main goals in the novel. As Thomas attempts to discover who he is in relation to the Maze, he is faced with monumental questions of identity and self-worth. These questions, and the events in the novel that engender them, lead Thomas to question whether people are indeed the sum of their memories and past experiences or if people can have identities that exist regardless of past and present experiences. Thomas initially thinks that the Glade is a prison, for example, and wonders if he was a violent and immoral person before arriving there. Newt takes issue with this theory at the end of the novel, saying that regardless of Thomas’s identity in the past, he is a different person now, suggesting that people are not the sum total of their memories and experiences.
It is suggested throughout the novel that the boys have not lost all of their memories. Instead, their memories have been suppressed deep within their minds, but may still be determining their feelings and behaviors. Thomas, for example, feels an immediate connection to Teresa and thinks that he should trust her even though he cannot remember who she is. It is later revealed that the two had a very close friendship before their memories were erased by the Creators. In this way, the novel suggests that personal relationships and modes of being are so deeply embedded that they cannot be forgotten. The novel also suggests that people are defined more by their actions in the present than by their past memories and experiences. As Thomas and Teresa helped to design the Maze, they might be viewed by some as evil, even traitorous. In the present, however, their objective is to help the Gladers escape the Maze. The novel suggests that their identities are tied to their present objectives.
Though most of the characters want to regain their memories and find out their identities from before the Maze, there are some who wish to repress their memories. The Gladers that have been subjected to the Changing have seen flashes of memories from their old life, and realize the devastation that has been wreaked upon the world. These memories are so painful that the Gladers who go through the Changing become withdrawn, sullen, and refuse to discuss what they have seen. Ben tries to kill Thomas because the memories he recalls during the Changing showed him Thomas’s past identity. Likewise, Alby loses his ability to lead and is overcome by the destruction he witnesses during the Changing. In this sense, regaining those memories causes him to lose a major part of his identity, that of leader. In stark contrast to Alby, Thomas goes through a self-induced Changing and, though his memories are painful and incomplete, is able to use those memories to help the Gladers escape the Maze. As the figure of the Creators suggests, the novel shows that some people need to forget, or repress, their traumatic memories in order to maintain hope, to move forward and have a sense of self. Others, however, never stop hoping, and seek to uncover and learn from their memories, even the bad ones, in order to deal with the present.
Order vs. Chaos
Throughout the novel, there is a strong interplay and tension between stability and change. The Glade, as a society, illustrates the benefits of order for maintaining an effective and self-sustaining society. These benefits are contrasted with the necessary changes that must occur for the Gladers to survive the Maze, which are made explicit by Thomas’s arrival in the Glade. As the boys are forced into the strange and dangerous world of the Maze, order and rules are used as a way of preventing panic and despair from taking hold of their lives. Newt says time and again that order must be maintained, and Alby is a stickler for upholding the rules, no matter the consequences. This rigid system of laws includes a leadership hierarchy and daily work assignments for the Gladers, which the boys happily accept as a sign of order and calm in the midst of this chaotic situation. Though Thomas is shocked by how easily the Gladers accept their fate, he quickly learns the value of order and the benefits of committing himself to daily work, while others similarly seek refuge from the Maze and their trials through an established work routine.
Though the order in the Glade does in fact provide stability, the system of laws and punishments can also be viewed as draconian. One example of the harshness and inflexibility of the system is when the Gladers banish Ben for attacking Thomas, despite the fact that Ben had just gone through the Changing and was in a state of obvious mental distress during the attack. Even Thomas, who was almost killed by Ben, could understand this. The laws are so rigid, however, that the other Gladers do not see this. When Ben, terrified and crying, pleads for mercy and forgiveness, Thomas actually sympathizes with the boy and realizes that the cruelty of the punishment is disproportionate to Ben’s crime. He feels guilty for having caused Ben’s banishment, which is effectively a death sentence. The banishment has reduced Ben to an almost inhuman creature, and yet most of the Gladers seem to take pleasure in seeing him banished. Thomas, for instance, is shocked to see how excited Chuck is at the prospect of Ben’s banishment.
Thomas’s arrival in the Glade initiates necessary changes. These changes are seen as chaos by some because they disrupt the Glade’s normal routine and order. For instance, although the Glade’s number one rule is that no one is allowed in the Maze after dark, Thomas runs inside the Maze just as the Doors are closing in order to save Alby and Minho. Even though he saves them, the other Gladers force him to spend a day in the Slammer as punishment for breaking the rules. In effect, he is punished for doing well, for saving lives. Thomas also becomes frustrated with the routine way that the Runners approach the Maze, and their attitude towards solving it. They try the same thing each and every day because that is the way it is, never changing the routine. Despite their initial resistance to change, when Thomas becomes a Runner himself he convinces them to abandon their usual routine, not only by staying in the Maze overnight, but by getting them to escape through the Maze at the end of the novel. This break in the normal order of things shows that, at times, change is necessary. Change can be “good chaos,” and is often the beginning of a new and improved order.
Many of the characters in The Maze Runner risk their lives to save those around them in heart-rending acts of self-sacrifice. Before he has spent a week in the Glade, Thomas risks his own life by entering the Maze at night to save Alby and Minho. In contrast to Thomas’s act of sacrifice, Minho leaves both Thomas, who has never even been inside the Maze, and Alby behind in order to save his own life. Gally, though he bullies Thomas, sacrifices himself on the night of the Grievers’ first raid so that no one else will be taken. Thomas willingly risks his life to get stung by a Griever in order to regain his memories and help the Gladers escape. Similarly, he later offers to sacrifice himself to the Grievers so that the rest of the Gladers can escape through the Maze. Alby also sacrifices himself to the Grievers so that the others might escape.
When the Gladers battle the Grievers near the Griever Hole, it is clear that they are willing to risk their lives in order to protect Thomas and Teresa as they attempt to shut down the Maze. Although half of the Gladers die as a result of the battle, their sacrifice makes it possible for the rest of the Gladers to escape. Thomas, however, wonders if the escape was worth their sacrifice. Though the others try to tell Thomas that the other Gladers’ sacrifice was not in vain, Thomas’ negative feelings about sacrifice come to a critical point when Chuck forfeits his own life to save Thomas’s. Thomas feels guilty about Chuck’s sacrifice, especially as he promised to keep Chuck safe. However, Teresa tells Thomas that it was Chuck’s decision to throw himself in front of the knife and protect Thomas. She tells Thomas that he now has a responsibly to not waste Chuck’s sacrifice. Thomas agrees and eventually realizes that sacrifice is tragic, but that it can help others move forward in the end.
Another, less savory, instance of sacrifice in the novel can be found in WICKED’s treatment of the teenagers. The Creators take teenagers, wipe their memories, and then place them into the Maze without their consent. This is sacrifice on a terrible scale, and the Creators think that they are justified in sacrificing these teenagers for the greater good of humanity. The novel plays with the concept of morality and freewill when it comes to sacrifice. Can sacrificing teenagers for humanity’s survival be considered moral? Is there, in fact, a greater good? These are issues that the novel addresses, leaving the answer in the hands of the reader.
As a young adult novel, The Maze Runner can also be read as a metaphor for growing up and the challenges kids face. The kids’ arrival in the Glade in the Box is evidently a birth metaphor; they are brought into the Glade with no possessions, memories, or real sense of identity. The metal box itself can be viewed as a symbolic of the womb. Moreover, Newt and Chuck both tell Thomas that most Gladers spend their first weeks in the Glade scared, confused, and crying like babies, “klunking” their pants out of fright. The Gladers’ daily life also appears to be symbolic of childhood, though they are ruled by strict laws and punishments. The Gladers have to grow up quickly, and being assigned daily work tasks and sticking to a work routine is an effective way for them to grow up and establish a working society. The Glade itself is viewed as a safe space. There is food, great weather and hope for the future. In this way, the Glade is like childhood itself.
If the Glade is like childhood, the Maze itself is a rite-of-passage filled with adolescent pitfalls. Confusion, disorientation at every turn and hard, even life-threatening, decisions must be made to navigate the Maze. In this sense, teenagers navigating adolescence can feel just as hopeless and scared as the Runners navigating the Maze. Another interesting symbol of “growing up” in the Maze is the possibility of getting stung by a Griever. This painful act induces the Changing, which can be understood as a metaphor for puberty. The Changing makes the Gladers’ bodies change in confusing and frightening ways, and they feel that they are not always in control of their thoughts or actions.
At the end of the novel, the Gladers finally fight their way through the Maze and enter the bleak outside world of adulthood. For example, the Gladers are surprised to see an adult when they escape, which marks their entrance into an adult world. Chuck’s sacrifice can also be understood as part of this theme. Always the mischievous and chubby child, Chuck sacrifices himself, thereby ending his own life, and becomes a mature and responsible figure in the eyes of Thomas and Teresa.
Throughout the novel, the Gladers constantly struggle to maintain hope despite the terrible nature of their circumstances. Three of the main characters, Alby, Newt and Minho, each have their own ways of maintaining hope. Alby sticks to a system of laws and punishments that is intended to provide the Gladers with stability, as well as the hope necessary for their continuous search for an escape. In contrast to this approach, Newt shows that hard work can effectively keep the Gladers hopeful and stop them from panicking, which Thomas later comes to agree with. Minho shows that the Runners’ daily routine of navigating the Maze actually helps to give the rest of the Gladers hope. While all three leaders at different times succumb to doubt and a loss of hope, their different approaches show how possible it is to maintain hope even in the toughest of circumstances. At the end of the novel, the Chancellor also explains that the Creators put the boys in the Maze in order to test whether or not they would lose all hope and stop fighting for survival. The novel ends by suggesting that hope is the most important factor in surviving dire situations, and it is the Creators’ hope that the boys will help them to save humanity.