Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Walter Dean Myers’s Monster is an experimental novel written in the form of a film script by its main character, Steve Harmon. Portions of the novel also take the form of a diary kept by Harmon. Harmon is on trial for participating in a robbery and murder. In script mode, the novel alternates between representations of action in the narrative present of Harmon’s murder trial and flashbacks to events that preceded the crime. This alternation between methods of representation heightens tension and facilitates changes in mood from emotional indulgence to strong restraint. The method requires an active and thinking reader, not a passive receptor of information.
As related in the novel, on December 22, two men—most likely Richard “Bobo” Evans and James King—entered a drugstore in Harlem owned by Alguinaldo Nesbitt. José Delgado was assistant to Mr. Nesbitt, but Delgado was not present at the time of the crime. Flashbacks reveal that Steve Harmon, the main character, was present at a conversation about the crime. In flashback, King points out that bank robberies are not advisable because “the man comes down hard for bank money.” He speculates that a crime against a noncitizen—one with a green card or an illegal immigrant—would not be as harshly prosecuted. Harmon merely listens and does not contribute to these reflections. A heavy woman named Peaches also listens to this conversation; however, she is not later accused as a...
(The entire section is 859 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Monster is presented in an unusual format: a screenplay interspersed with facsimiles of a handwritten journal. The book is illustrated with photos, court sketches, even fingerprints. It won Myers the first Michael O. Printz Award for literary excellence in young-adult fiction.
The fictional author of this screenplay-journal is sixteen-year-old Steve Harmon. He has been accused of acting as a lookout during a homicide. If he is convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison. The book describes his weeks of incarceration, his trial, and its outcome. Steve writes in the screenplay format because he wants to become a filmmaker, and because it is a way to distance or disassociate himself from the unfolding nightmare of his life. He can see himself and others as simply actors in a movie.
As the book opens, Steve has already learned that the best time to cry in jail is at night. When other prisoners are screaming and yelling, a little sniffle cannot be heard. He realizes that he must not show weakness in jail, just as he could not show weakness on the street. When he looks in the small scratched mirror over the steel sink in his cell, he does not recognize himself. He starts to wonder if he is becoming some kind of evil changeling. Within the first page of the book, Myers characteristically creates a clear picture of Steve and his predicament. Myers grabs the reader’s attention immediately by using the first-person viewpoint to...
(The entire section is 587 words.)
Monster is presented as a screenplay, with handwritten comments, by the main character Steve Harmon. Steve says that he is writing the screenplay to keep his sanity while being held in prison during his trial for murder. "I am so scared. My heart is beating like crazy and I am having breathing trouble," he writes. "The trouble I'm in keeps looking bigger and bigger. I'm overwhelmed by it. It's crushing me." In a story about a young man who gets in deep trouble by being greedy and wanting to look tough, the sheer terror of prison and the prospects for conviction are conveyed in blunt descriptions. Monster, one of the most horrifying novels ever written, is titanic in its sheer terror.
(The entire section is 121 words.)
Chapter 1 Summary
Steve Harmon confesses in his journal that the best time to cry is at night “when the lights are out and someone is being beaten up and screaming for help.” He explains that if anyone hears you cry, you will get beaten up the next time that the lights are out. Steve Harmon is in jail. In Monster, Walter Dean Myers tells the story of Steve Harmon’s trial.
The opening chapter introduces several motifs that will be present throughout the story. Harmon explains that in his cell there is a small mirror; when he looks into it, he can no longer recognize his reflection as himself. This introduces his internal conflict over his identity. He goes on to outline the violence of life in prison, explaining how one inmate is violently attacked with a breakfast tray. Myers contrasts Harmon’s shock with the guards’ ambivalence. Harmon finds it difficult to believe where he is, and he feels like he has walked into a movie.
Consequently, Harmon begins to record the details of his trial as though they are a movie. Each chapter opens with first-person diary entries about how he is responding to the trial, and it is followed by the court proceedings, written out as though they are a film script. There are credits that the reader is meant to imagine rolling up along the page like at the start of Star Wars. Harmon decides that he will call the film Monster, which references the Assistant District Attorney’s opening statement.
Assistant District Attorney Sandra Petrocelli explains in her opening statement to the jury that the majority of people are good, law-abiding citizens. However, one citizen, Mr. Alguinaldo Nesbitt, was killed with his own gun while defending his drugstore from robbers. She explains that America’s founding fathers built the justice system to account for these situations. There are men accused, Steve Harmon and James King, of being part of the robbery that took Mr. Nesbitt’s life.
King’s attorney, Briggs, outlines his strategy of defense, which is that the prosecution’s witnesses are almost uniformly testifying to get reduced sentences. He is hoping to shade the testimony of these witnesses to cast a shadow of reasonable doubt on Petrocelli’s case. Meanwhile, Harmon’s attorney, O’Brien, explains to her client that she will try to make the jury see Steve Harmon as an individual. Steve’s fear is that when the jury looks at him, they will see nothing...
(The entire section is 464 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
The second chapter of Monster finds Harmon reflecting on how difficult it is to think about anything while in prison. He shares that one of the inmates has a knife that is not a knife—it is actually a blade glued onto a toothbrush handle. He struggles to express how deeply he hates prison but finds that words cannot do justice to the extent of his feelings. Harmon’s only method to cope with his surroundings is to focus on his movie.
In the film (or rather, in court), Petrocelli is interviewing Wendell Bolden. Bolden has been arrested for breaking and entering as well as for possession of drugs with the intent to distribute them. Bolden explains that while he was serving time for assault he had a conversation with a Mr. Zinzi in which he shared that he had bought some cigarettes that had been stolen during a robbery that had led to the murder of Alguinaldo Nesbitt. Bolden and Zinzi both sell this information as testimony for reduced sentences. The person who gave Bolden the information about the robbery was Richard “Bobo” Evans.
The scene is cut to a flashback in which John King is complaining that he needs to get paid, Johnny is smoking pot, and Steve is sitting on the steps with the others. A heavy woman, Peaches, explains her rising difficulties, especially with cuts being made to social security. King speculates that he could make some money through robbery if he had a crew. Johnny adds that “bank money is too serious,” but many smaller stores are not well protected and are even run by people who do not have green cards and are, therefore, reluctant to report crimes to the police. When Steve is asked for ideas, he does not contribute. Although this suggests that Steve may have been involved in the robbery, the scene cuts back to the courtroom before definitive proof of his involvement is offered.
Back in court, John King’s attorney is cross-examining Bolden. He is attempting to show that Briggs is an unreliable witness by emphasizing that his desire to reduce his sentence would outweigh his need to tell the truth in court. As Briggs’s questions become more intense, Petrocelli objects and the court adjourns for the day. The scene closes with a second flashback in which Steve and his younger brother are talking about which superhero they would choose to be. Jerry says he thinks that Steve would make a good Batman because then he could be Robin.
(The entire section is 421 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
The third chapter opens with Harmon explaining in his diary that they take away the inmates’ shoelaces and belts so inmates cannot commit suicide. He concludes that “making you live is part of the punishment.” There are many punishments in prison. Harmon explains that before he is able to talk to a preacher, the other inmates start to harass the minister so he will leave. The guards escort the preacher out and then turn off the television and send the inmates back to their cells as punishment.
Harmon says he is starting to feel detached from his trial. He argues:
The lawyers and the judge and everybody are doing a job that involves me, but I don’t have a role.
When the trial starts, one of the court officers is complaining that he and his wife have termites in their house. They wonder what a termite looks like and O’Brien explains that they look like ants with wings. The judge wonders why termites have wings if they spend their life inside of wood. The casual routine of the scene stands in stark contrast to Harmon’s life-or-death thoughts while in prison. He seems to have entered an entirely different world.
After the trial is back in session, Petrocelli continues building a case that will link Harmon and John King to the murder. She interviews the detectives, who walk the jury through the steps of the investigation. Upon cross-examination, Briggs establishes that there is no physical evidence, including fingerprints, linking King and Harmon to the crime. Briggs suggests that the police have failed to find evidence; therefore, their case relies on the testimony of criminals seeking to reduce their sentences.
The second witness is Osvaldo Cruz, a fourteen-year-old boy. There is a flashback in which Osvaldo is teasing Steve because he does not have the heart to be anything but a “lame.” In fact, Steve might be “hanging out with some people, but when the deal goes down, you won’t be around.” In court, he testifies that he was afraid of Bobo Evans, James King, and Steve Harmon and that he only participated in the robbery because he was worried about what they would do to him. However, Briggs begins to object to the prosecution’s questions until the trial is ended for the day.
O’Brien explains to Harmon that the prosecution is trying to tie him to the crime in the minds of the jurors. However, when he looks at them, he has...
(The entire section is 471 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
In the fourth chapter, Harmon is thinking about his identity and the people around him. He considers how his mother is feeling and recalls the way she provides him with clean clothes every morning. In the courtroom, Harmon had to look at pictures of Nesbitt as he was when he was found dead. Harmon especially wonders what his attorney is thinking about him. He thinks she is wondering, “Who is Steve Harmon?” He wishes she could see into his heart because in his heart he knows he is not a bad person.
Back in the courtroom, things are again mundane and routine for everyone except the accused. The guards joke about a late juror, and there are children on a field trip to the courtroom. The children are afraid of Harmon. King enters and he acts as though the trial does not matter to him. However, Harmon does not try to look tough. He smells King’s aftershave and hair and he finds that he can smell each lotion separate from the rest. Harmon’s verdict will depend on the jury’s being able to separate him from King. Although King tries to intimidate Harmon, the older Harmon has now seen things in jail that make it impossible to intimidate him with just a look.
After the trial is back in session, Petrocelli continues to interrogate Osvaldo, who maintains that he only took part in the robbery because he felt intimidated. He explains that John King and Richard “Bobo” Evans were to go into the store to rob it. Steve Harmon was the lookout and was responsible to checking out the store to make sure there were not any police or others in the store. Osvaldo’s job was to cover the robbers’ trail after they escaped; he suggests that he might push a garbage can after anyone chasing the robbers.
Upon cross-examination, Briggs establishes just how much evidence the police had against Osvaldo. He had to cut a deal to testify to get out of trouble. O’Brien also cross-examines Osvaldo. She points out that he was apprehended for beating up his girlfriend after she found out he had impregnated another woman. She also catches him in a lie when she points out that he is a member of a gang. Osvaldo Cruz is a member of the Diablos, a gang that requires its members to fight another member and to slash a stranger’s face to join. He could not have been coerced into robbing a store.
Chapter 4 opened with Harmon considering what the people in his life must think about him. It ends with a scene in which he and his...
(The entire section is 495 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
In the fifth chapter, Steve Harmon describes his reaction to his father sobbing. Harmon asks what he has done and reasons:
Anybody can walk into a drugstore and look around. Is that what I’m on trial for? I didn’t do nothing….I didn’t fight with Mr. Nesbitt. I didn’t take any money from him.
He worries that his father looks at him and tries to see his son, but a monster has taken his son’s place. He says that his attorney, O’Brien, is starting to worry that a similar transformation is underway in the minds of the jury. The remainder of the chapter outlines Steve’s life from the robbery and murder up to his arrest.
Cut to the film. Harmon describes how the camera pans across his neighborhood. It shows cardboard villages that homeless men have built on the rooftops before moving to the ground, where it settles on two dark women walking along the street. They speak in a West Indian accent. Nearby, Steve is playing basketball, and he overhears them talking about the robbery. The women speculate that the robbery was carried out by “those crack people. They say they’ll do anything for that stuff.” Steve runs away and the camera focuses on a basketball left in the gutter.
The screen cuts again, this time to a television report of the robbery. Steve is at home watching the news report. When the reporter asks one resident to respond on camera, the man says that he is not shocked because people are getting killed all the time in his neighborhood. The camera cuts to Steve, who is “staring straight ahead, mouth open, in absolute shock.” His brother, meanwhile, changes the channel to cartoons.
The film cuts to two weeks later. Steve’s mother returns home with news that the authorities have caught the drugstore robbers. Steve turns on the television to see if the arrest has made the news. It has. There is even a press conference in which Mayor Rudy Giuliani is explaining that he is determined to stop crime throughout the city, not just in “white or middle-class areas.” It turns out that Richard Evans has been caught and footage of his arrest is shown. The scene cuts to Steve’s bedroom, where he is lying in bed with his “eyes open but not seeing anything.”
This shot is interrupted by the arrival of the police, who handcuff Steve while explaining that they want to ask him a few questions. They take him away before...
(The entire section is 466 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
Unlike most of the chapters in Monster, which depict Harmon’s fear, the sixth chapter describes O’Brien’s anger. Petrocelli has pulled a “cheap trick” in court, showing a series of photographs just before the trial was adjourned for the weekend. She explains that the jurors will all take those images home in their memories and dwell on them over the weekend. Harmon admits that the photos were terrible to look at, and he sees himself
just when Mr. Nesbitt knew he was going to die, walking down the street trying to make my mind a blank screen.
Life in prison continues to torment Harmon. He and four other inmates are taken to mop the floors while wearing orange jumpsuits. Harmon dislikes the smell and heat of the soapy water, but he starts to gag after he realizes that he looks just like the other four inmates as far as the guards are concerned. As he struggles to mop without vomiting, he recalls O’Brien’s efforts to make him look different in the eyes of the jury. He next recalls that he had “wanted to be tough” like the other inmates before his arrest.
In the courtroom, Harmon’s film shows a four-way split screen montage of witnesses. Only one voice is heard at a time, but the others can still be seen talking. City Clerk Allen Forbes explains that the gun that was used to kill Nesbitt was his own, presumably bought to defend his store against robbers. Detective Williams goes on to explain how the body was found in the store, clearly dead upon the arrival of the police. He explains that the police chalked the outline of the body on the ground before turning it over to look for additional evidence. An inspection of the drugstore revealed that money had been taken out of the cash register. He next explains how he came into contact with Sal Zinzi, who put the police on the trail of Richard “Bobo” Evans.
The final witness to testify in this chapter is Dr. Moody. Moody explains that the bullet entered Nesbitt’s body in the chest and that he died of trauma and shock as well as his lungs filling with blood. Petrocelli clarifies that Nesbitt died by drowning in blood in his lungs. The reaction shots of King and Steve show King’s disdain and Steve’s shock. Although Harmon’s film is able to show the difference between Steve and King, it remains to be seen whether the jury is seeing that difference.
(The entire section is 426 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
The seventh chapter of Monster is dominated by Harmon’s diary entries, in which he continues to detail life in prison and explores the meaning of guilt. He explains that all of the inmates talk about sex, violence, or their case. At first, Harmon was primarily worried about being raped or attacked. However, now he finds himself thinking more about the time he is facing if he is found guilty of murder. Some people will be sentenced with seven to ten years in prison, which they count as five with parole. Harmon faces a life sentence that might be cut down to twenty years. His youth will be lost.
He considers the nature of guilt and tells some of the stories he has heard from other inmates. He tells the story of Ernie, a Cuban who was caught in the act of robbing a jewelry store. He had taken the money and jewels and locked the employees in a back room. However, the front door would only open if someone pushed a buzzer, and Ernie was caught before he could find it. Ernie feels that he is guilty of nothing because he did not take the jewels from the store. Harmon reflects that these men are trying to convince themselves they are not guilty.
These distinctions over guilt recall Harmon’s alleged involvement in the drug store robbery. Before the end of the chapter, Harmon’s film shows John King asking Harmon to be a lookout for the robbery. King teases Harmon that he is too “lame” to pull off a lookout job. He pushes Harmon to commit by asking, “Are you in or out?” The chapter ends before he can respond to the peer pressure.
It is worth noting that the chapter starts with Harmon arguing with himself. He asks himself what he has done, saying:
I walked into a drugstore to look for some mints, and then walked out. What was wrong with that? I didn’t kill Mr. Nesbitt.
Another inmate has been found guilty after confessing to murder. Harmon responds by asking, “Isn’t that what being guilty is all about? You actually do something?” Unfortunately, if Harmon was indeed a lookout, the law calls for him to be punished equally alongside John King for murder.
The seventh chapter of Monster also includes a visit from Steve’s mother. She has brought him a Bible and has highlighted passages for him to read. However, when Harmon uses prison slang in front of his mother, saying that some of the inmates have been in jail for a...
(The entire section is 483 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
The eighth chapter opens on Sunday in prison. Harmon writes in his diary that few of the inmates wake up for breakfast on Sunday morning, so there is a lot of food people can eat. He also goes to church, but the service is broken up when two of the inmates start a fight. Harmon details how the guards enter the church but are primarily disinterested in the fight. For them, it is commonplace. However, by now, Harmon is beginning to realize why the prisoners fight—all these men have left is the “little surface things.” The diary entry closes with foreboding for Monday, when the state will bring out their star witnesses.
The first of the two star witnesses is Lorelle Henry, a retired school librarian. She was actually in the drug store while it was being robbed; unlike many of the other witnesses, her past does not discredit her testimony. However, Briggs does his best to defend his client. His strategy is to point out how Henry identified John King. He points out that the police showed her dozens of photos before asking her to identify him from a police lineup. He suggests that she is not remembering what happened so much as she is remembering a face she memorized from photos. However, when Petrocelli asks her final question, she only asks whether Henry is sure that John King is the man that she saw rob the drugstore. Henry says she is sure.
The second star witness is Richard “Bobo” Evans. Unlike Lorelle Henry, Bobo has several serious blemishes on his record. Among other things, he has been arrested for breaking and entering, grand theft auto, and stealing a car radio. Bobo testifies that he and John King planned a “getover” and that they did it. He testifies that John King shot Nesbitt and that after the job (and murder) they went out for fried chicken. His testimony against Steve Harmon seems less powerful. He explains that Harmon was a lookout and that he exited the drugstore without indicating that there were police inside. He goes on to explain that he was arrested when he sold cigarettes to Bolden, who sold them to a “white boy” who went to the police.
Upon cross-examination, Briggs continues his usual strategy of pointing out why Evans would lie. However, O’Brien goes into more detail, questioning whether Harmon was in fact involved. When asked whether he ever talked to Harmon, Evans admits that he did not. When asked what sign Harmon was supposed to give if the store was clear, Evans...
(The entire section is 481 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
The defense attorneys begin to make their case. Briggs interviews his first witness, Dorothy Moore. Moore swears before the court that King was with her on the day of the trial. However, Petrocelli’s cross-examination suggests that she is lying. Moore claims that King brought her a lamp but she has since lost it because it broke. Upon further interrogation, it seems that she and King do not spend a great deal of time together, which makes it unlikely that he was in fact at her place when the robbery took place. Briggs’ second witness is George Nipping, who testifies that King is left-handed. However, even O’Brien dismisses the testimony as a weak argument.
The film cuts to an interior where O’Brien is preparing her client to testify. Steve will need to testify to distance himself from John King, who cannot testify because he lied to the police in his deposition and the prosecutor can use that against him. O’Brien puts a cup on the table and begins to ask Steve questions. If he answers correctly, she leaves the cup face up. If he answers incorrectly, she turns the cup over. Her goal is to help Steve learn how to answer questions so it will seem that his connection to John King and the other robbers is tenuous.
In his testimony, Harmon responds that he cannot firmly recall very much about the day of the robbery. Because his connection to John King and the other robbers is tenuous, he cannot say for sure when he last saw any of them. He explains that it was not a day of importance to him, and when the prosecution pushes him to answer what he was doing, he explains that he was going around town taking mental notes about places he wanted to film for his school film project. George Sawicki, the teacher in charge of the film club at Steve’s school, supports Steve’s claims when he testifies that he thinks Steve is a good kid.
Briggs, O’Brien, and Petrocelli give their closing arguments. Briggs again highlights that the prosecution’s case is built on the evidence of the monsters from which the prosecution claims to want to protect society. O’Brien emphasizes that it is very ambiguous whether Harmon was actually involved in the case; she slowly lays out and deconstructs the evidence against her client. Finally, Petrocelli speaks, and she convincingly argues that King and Harmon were both involved. She also goes on to explain that although Harmon did not pull the trigger of the gun that killed Mr....
(The entire section is 471 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
The tenth chapter of Monster opens with Harmon writing in his diary while awaiting the jury’s verdict. He admits that he understands now why so many inmates talk about their appeals. They want the argument over their guilt to continue. However, the system shows that the argument is over once the verdict has been delivered. He goes on to reflect on the desperation that his mother and father feel while witnessing his trial. Most of all, he considers his case and the “moral decision” he made. He finally asks, “What decisions didn’t I make?” However, he does not want to answer the question and focuses on his case, thinking how in his film he will alter his actions to make his testimony more powerful.
He returns to the courtroom after a guard informs him and King that the jury has made their decision. In fact, they have had a verdict since the morning, but the court has been waiting for the Nesbitt family to return. Back in the courtroom, O’Brien informs her client that they can appeal if the verdict is not what they want. The judge checks to make sure everyone is ready, and the trial is back in session.
As the jury enters the courtroom, a written narrative like the one at the start of Star Wars rolls slowly up the screen, recalling the first chapter of the book and the start of Harmon’s film. The message points out:
It was not the life or activity that he thought would fill every bit of his soul or change what life meant to him.
As the message plays, the judge reads the verdicts and hands them to the clerk. Meanwhile, the guards stand behind the defendants, preparing to take them into custody.
The color fades and the jury foreman reads the verdict. The audience sees James King put in handcuffs. He is taken from the courtroom. Next the audience sees Steve’s mother. Just as it seems her facial expression reveals a guilty verdict, the camera reveals the guards stepping away from Steve Harmon. He has been found not guilty.
Steve turns to embrace his lawyer, but O’Brien “stiffens and turns to pick up her papers from the table.” There is a close-up of O’Brien: her lips are tense and she leaves Harmon alone at the table. The image, black and white, slowly changes and the grain is “nearly broken. It looks like one of the pictures they use for psychological testing, or some strange beast, a monster.” The image...
(The entire section is 463 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary
The final chapter of Monster takes place five months after the trial and almost a year after the murder of Mr. Alguinaldo Nesbitt. Harmon writes in his notes that James King was sentenced to twenty-five years to life. Osvaldo Cruz, the fourteen-year-old member of the Diablos and the person meant to interrupt any pursuit of the robbery, went on to steal a car, for which he was arrested and sent to a reformatory. To the best of Harmon’s knowledge, Richard “Bobo” Evans remains in prison.
During the trial, Steve Harmon recorded everything to make into a film. Since the trial, he has been making films, though he admits that his mother does not understand what he is doing. The films Harmon has been making have all been about himself. He talks to the camera and explains who he is and what he thinks he is. At times, he just tapes himself walking toward the camera from a variety of angles. At other times, he tapes a reflection of himself. He wears different clothes and speaks in different voices. Sometimes Steve lets his younger brother, Jerry, hold the camera because it makes him happy. Although his mother does not understand what he is doing, Steve says she is happy to have her son at home.
Steve’s mother is happy to have her son at home, but his father has not been the same since the trial. Harmon explains that he and his father hugged after the not-guilty verdict was read at his trial; after they parted, a distance formed between them, and this distance has only increased. Harmon knows that when his father looks at him, he cannot tell who his son is. Harmon explains that his father cannot even understand why his son would know people like Richard “Bobo” Evans, John King, or Osvaldo Cruz. If he does not know that, what else does he not know?
Steve Harmon films himself because he does not know who he is either. He explains that he is looking for the part of him that caused O’Brien to turn away from him at the end of his trial. Did she see a monster? Her response recalls an earlier statement in the novel. When asked whether he would win, O’Brien responds that it “probably depends what you mean by ‘win.’” If Harmon was indeed involved in the robbery, he has gotten away with murder in the eyes of the law. When she looked at Harmon, did she see a monster? The novel closes with Harmon’s unanswered question, “What did she see?”
(The entire section is 432 words.)