Monster Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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 attempts to guard his property against the two robbers. In the struggle, he loses the gun and is shot by either Evans or King. Lorelle Henry, a retired teacher, identifies King as one of the people present in the store. Her eyewitness testimony is not entirely reliable, however, and is challenged by defense attorneys. A recap of police procedures also inspires significant levels of doubt about the reliability of Henry’s account.

A prisoner’s dilemma underlies these ambiguities. Evans hopes for a lighter sentence, admits his part in the events, and implicates the other two defendants. While Harmon had heard of the crime in the abstract from King, there is no evidence that either Evans or King discussed a role for Harmon in the actual commission of the crime. What is clearly the case is that Nesbitt has been killed and that Evans and King have something to do with the robbery and perhaps also the death of the owner. Whether or to what extent Harmon served as a lookout, who pulled the trigger, and who had sufficient motive are all left unclear.

Diary entries that appear as interludes between court scenes generate compassion for the narrator. He records feelings of resentment, fear, and sadness. He also demonstrates a low self-image as a consequence of the prosecuting attorney’s referring to him as a “monster.” In fact, portions of Harmon’s diary evince a kind of self-rage and indulgences in self-pity on the part of the narrator. Both Steve Harmon, at age sixteen, and Osvaldo Cruz, a fourteen-year-old fellow inmate, are far too young for the environment in which a reader finds them. In fact, Cruz has come to the attention of the police because he has been accused by his girlfriend of having gotten another girl pregnant.

The novel seeks to represent reality by interweaving and integrating disparate discourses into a tapestry that defies logical analysis. One prisoner points out that ascertaining the truth is not the aim of the court; instead, if a crime has been committed, someone must be locked up. What that person says about his or her innocence or guilt is immaterial to the decision of the jury. A reader who sees the U.S. juridicial system as an adversarial process essentially devoted to contests of wit may readily agree.

After representing all the ambiguities and uncertainties of the narrator’s plight, the roving-camera narration records the final statements of all the trial’s attorneys. It does nothing to resolve the ambiguities, which remain very much part of the story. The jury convicts King, but it absolves Harmon of any responsibility for the crime. Harmon and his family are greatly relieved, but when he seeks to hug his attorney in appreciation for the victorious outcome, she turns aside and shuffles papers in preparation for leaving. The trial, it seems, has not bridged the gap between the product of the ghetto, Steve Harmon, and the attorney who lives the life of a suburbanite. Steve concludes rightly that his own attorney is not entirely convinced of his innocence.

Monster Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 express the character’s emotions and by describing in sharp physical detail a harsh, disturbing setting.

The prosecutor calls Steve a monster during opening arguments. Steve begins to wonder obsessively if he is a good person or a monster after all. What constitutes a good person? In Steve’s milieu, drug use, petty crimes, and running the streets are just a part of life. His alleged presence during the robbery-homicide raises questions about his choices. Just as his survival in prison depends on displaying a hardened exterior, so his survival on the streets depended on doing little jobs for gang leaders.

Steve insists in his journal that “he didn’t do nothing.” However, his defense lawyer, Ms. O’Brien, has some concerns. She is afraid that the jury will not “see a difference between [him] and all the bad guys taking the stand,” that Steve might be tarred with the same brush as his fellow defendants. Steve intuits that Ms. O’Brien thinks he is guilty and is merely doing her job in the courtroom. Myers does not state the facts of the crime in the book, so the reader is left wondering if Steve was or was not a lookout at the crime scene. This question is literally illustrated by two captioned photos in the book. They both appear to be stills from a store’s videotape, showing Steve in the store. The captions read: “What was I doing?” and “What was I thinking?” It is not clear if the photos are anxious figments of Steve’s imagination or tell-tale hints that he was actually in that store.

Finally, Steve is found not guilty. He spontaneously reaches out to hug Ms. O’Brien, who turns away stiffly, indicating that there is something bad about Steve despite his acquittal. Monster is thoroughly ambiguous about Steve’s role in the crime. It is ambiguous about Steve’s basic nature, his goodness or badness. The book leaves the reader to ponder about whether guilt equals goodness and whether acquittal equals innocence.

Monster Overview

Monster is presented as a screenplay, with handwritten comments, by the main character Steve Harmon. Steve says that he is writing the...

(The entire section is 121 words.)

Monster Chapter Summaries

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...

(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...

(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.

...

(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.

He...

(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.)

Ed. Scott Locklear