What is the major theme of the novel Monster?
The major theme of Monster, by Walter Dean Myers, is the dissolution of racial prejudice. In the novel, the prosecution, led by Sandra Petrocelli, attempts to associate the African American Steve Harmon with confessed criminals and convicted felons, such as Osvaldo Cruz and Salvatore Zinzi. Steve's Lawyer, Kathy O'Brien, suggests this when she asserts how most of the jurors thought Steve was guilty the second they saw him: "You're young, you're Black, and you're on trial. What else do they need to know?" (79). Steve remarks on this again when he writes in his journal, "Miss O'Brien said things were going bad for us because she was afraid that they jury wouldn't see a difference between me and all the bad guys taking the stand" (116).
O'Brien combats this prejudice by placing Steve on the stand and encouraging him to express his character, ideas, and version of events. In this moment, he dissolves the criminal identity forced upon him by his race and establishes his individual genuine identity: Steve the student filmmaker, who only wished to make a film about his neighborhood over the holidays (231). This identity challenges the jurors' preconceptions of him and ultimately convinces them to deem him innocent. The very form of the book itself reproduces this conflict between preconception and perception. The story is relayed via both prose and screenplay; the screenplay relays an unmediated, objective version of events while Steve's prose involves his biased interpretation of events. The book thereby advocates for us to forgo our prejudices and instead attempt to view people objectively, like a camera does: without preconceptions or prejudice.
As is the case with many successful literary works, Monster is richly layered in its thematic concerns. The prominent theme, however, is revealed through Steve Harmon's struggle to be viewed as an individual by his family, his attorney, and the judicial system, instead of a stereotyped young African American thug or "throwaway" person.
Steve's diary and screenplay reveal that he understands the odds are against him, and his recollection of a discussion with his teacher, Mr. Sawicki, about predictability is meant to deliver this truth home about how empowered individuals consider his demographic. Because Steve does not recount the details of the crime in his notes, there is ambiguity about his actual role in the robbery/murder, but readers are meant to understand that Steve might have been forced to act as a look out for the robbery, if he was involved at all. His own attorney is skeptical of his innocence and turns away from him at his acquittal.
Steve's humanity is denied by almost everyone who surrounds him. His father communicates his disappointment and distances himself emotionally and physically. The perpetrators of the crime attempt to implicate him to shift blame from themselves. The judge is portrayed as mostly disengaged, as if this type of trial has become so routine and predictable that it is of little interest to him. Steve emerges from the novel, not as a monster, but as a victim of the disinterest and dismissal of the people that surround him.
Walter Dean Myers examines several themes throughout the novel Monster, but the most significant theme he explores is how the justice system dehumanizes young African Americans during the judicial process. During the trial, the prosecuting attorney refers to Steve Harmon and the rest of the individuals allegedly involved in the crime as "monsters." Even though Steve is a relatively shy, kind person who has a positive reputation throughout his school as a talented filmmaker, he is categorized as a "monster" simply because he is on trial. This label bothers Steve, and he begins to struggle with his identity for the remainder of the novel. One scene, in particular, illustrates the extent of his identity crisis when he begins to get sick while he is mopping the jail floor after noticing that he looks similar to the other inmates. O'Brien informs Steve that her job is to differentiate him from the other individuals on trial because the jury already views him as guilty. Myers examines how Steve is not viewed as a unique individual while he is on trial, and Steve is at the mercy of the attorneys, judge, and jury. Steve and his attorney struggle to distinguish him as a talented, respected young man in order to win the case. Fortunately, Steve is found not guilty by the jury, but his attorney still views him as a "monster."