Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Self-effacement emerges as a primary theme in “The Monster.” It is first explicitly mentioned when Jimmie, having broken the peony and received his father’s punishment, feels “some kind of desire to efface himself.” The most graphic instance of self-effacement occurs when Henry’s face is literally burned away. This event comprises the imaginative center of the story, for it is Henry’s monstrous image that disrupts the town’s original unity and propels it, and particularly Dr. Trescott, into their moral predicament. Trescott, too, undergoes a process of self-effacement. His moral stance with regard to Henry leads him to lose face within the town and to lose his face as a “moon,” or moral authority issuing judgment from on high—as he is seen from Jimmie’s perspective in the opening episode—and to become a man brought morally down to earth when he must confront the pain that his actions cause his wife.

In the story, to lose face is to lose the persona by which one is recognized within the general community. It is to lose that characteristic that marks one as a known quantity. Society ascertains the individual by his face, and when that face is gone—as it graphically is with Henry—certainty and security go with it. Consequently, Henry, who begins in the story as a genial compatriot of Jimmie and as a delightful spectacle for the town as he embarks on his Saturday night courting ritual, becomes in the general eye a horrifying...

(The entire section is 491 words.)