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 participant in the crime, although her level of participation seems in all respects equal to Harmon’s.
This and other flashbacks reveal that King, Evans, and Harmon are from the same milieu; however, the flashbacks do not establish Harmon’s complicity in the crime. The story does not offer simple answers to readers, who must draw their own conclusions about the crime and trial. It is possible that Harmon scouted the drugstore for King and Evans or acted as a lookout for them. He may also be innocent.
In one possible reconstruction of the crime, King and Evans enter the drugstore and demand money. Nesbitt is armed. He...
(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.)
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 other than a black criminal from Harlem. O’Brien says that their primary effort will be not only to prove Harmon’s innocence but also to illustrate that he does not fit a criminal stereotype. However, she warns Harmon that Assistant District Attorney Sandra Petrocelli is a very good prosecutor.
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.
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.
(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....
(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...
(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...
(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...
(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...
(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...
(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.
(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...
(The entire section is 432 words.)