Monster Themes

The main themes in Monster are omnipresent violence, the dehumanizing effects of racial prejudice, the injustice of the justice system, and filmmaking and real life.

  • Omnipresent violence: The novel considers the impact of one's environment on one's life. Steve's environment is one defined by constant violence.
  • Racial prejudice: The racial prejudice of the criminal justice system becomes more clear as the novel progresses.
  • The justice system: The course of Steve's trials reveals the ulterior motives and biases that shape the supposed search for justice.
  • Filmmaking and real life: Steve's artistic urge for order is thwarted by the grim and confounding realities of the case.

Themes

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 962

Omnipresent Violence

Steve Harmon is not a violent person. He is creative rather than destructive, and his instinct when he sees violence is to write a screenplay about it rather than to join in. Nonetheless, he has lived all his life in a violent society and has been unable to avoid the effects of this context, one of which is that many people see him as a violent monster.

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In fact, Steve’s sensitivity and aversion to violence are unusual in the society Myers depicts. His environment has always been dangerous, but he is confronted with new levels of violence during the narrative. Steve’s life alternates between the detention center, where he is constantly hearing the disturbing sounds of altercations, fights, and rapes—and where he even sees a man stabbed in the eye—and the courthouse, where they are undertaking a forensic investigation into a violent death. When Steve hears the medical details of Mr. Nesbitt, the drugstore owner, drowning in his own blood, he is horrified, but he appears to be alone in his horror. James King, a hardened criminal, merely looks bored, and the lawyers are all clearly used to such grim details.

In Harlem, violence is part of growing up. Osvaldo Cruz has been allowed a plea bargain because of his youth, but he is already part of the Diablos, a criminal gang whose initiation rituals include cutting a stranger’s face with a knife. The flashbacks in which Steve recalls his childhood often include violent altercations. He thinks that people in prison actually enjoy the violence. Steve’s gentle, reflective character provides a contrast to the violence around him. Indeed, readers are led to reflect that if a boy like Steve cannot avoid being constantly surrounded by violence, presumably no one in his social context can escape it.

The Dehumanizing Effects of Racial Prejudice

Kathy O’Brien, Steve’s lawyer, tells him that half the jury will assume that he is guilty as soon as they see him, because they automatically associate young black men with criminal behavior. This has been precisely the attitude of Detective Karyl, who arrested Steve. Karyl says that he hopes Steve will receive the death penalty, a very extreme statement to make to a sixteen-year-old boy who was clearly not involved in any violence. Sandra Petrocelli continues this dehumanizing behavior by immediately labeling Steve a “monster,” and the prejudice is further reinforced by the preponderance of black and Latino men in prison with Steve.

The black characters in the novel internalize the prejudice against them, a process shown most fully in Steve’s growing acceptance that he must be a monster because everybody regards him as one. This effect is greatly exacerbated by his time in prison, where the prisoners are treated as less than human. The prison guards place bets on the length of Steve’s sentence and jeeringly ask him to join in. This process takes such a toll on Steve that even when he is finally acquitted, he has come to think of himself as an inhuman monster, despite having done nothing to deserve this designation.

The Injustice of the Justice System

It is clear throughout the novel that the criminal justice system in which Steve is embroiled is far from being a dispassionate endeavor to ascertain the truth and ensure that justice is done. Instead, it is characterized by a series of dubious deals in which the worst criminals are able to escape punishment by lying and gaming the system. Steve’s innocence about how this system works is one of his chief disadvantages during the trial.

From the moment that Steve is arrested, it is clear that he is caught in an inhumane system which is set up to “process” suspects whose guilt is already assumed rather than to conscientiously investigate what happened. There is a deadly mixture of zeal for victory—represented by Karyl and Petrocelli, who view a conviction as a good result for them personally—along with boredom and indifference on the part of many others involved, from the Judge downwards. The Judge is an old man who, while not actively corrupt, has been through the same process so many times that he regards the trial as a tediously repetitive process rather than the matter of life and death it really is. No one inside the justice system appears to have any concern for justice. They all appear to have forgotten, if they ever knew, that justice is the ostensible aim of the motions they are all going through.

Filmmaking and Real Life

The screenplay Steve is writing throughout the book, which is interlaced with his cinematic directions, blurs the distinction between art and life. However, even in the prologue, Steve makes the key distinction: a film has to have a plot and an ending, whereas life goes on formlessly and without apparent meaning. Steve’s continual insistence on directing his life as a movie is an attempt both to assume control of frightening events and to give form and structure to the violence and senselessness which surrounds him.

The ending of the book shows just how difficult Steve’s artistic project is, as real life resists his direction. He imagines a title card as the jury enters the courtroom: “This is the true story of Steve Harmon. This is the story of his life and trial.” The last shot is supposed to depict him jubilantly celebrating with the lawyer who saved him, but Kathy O’Brien will not take direction and instead turns away. Mr. Sawicki emphasizes the upbeat nature of the films Steve makes, even despite the sobering material in his environment. With his screenplay, however, Steve cannot shape the ending in an upbeat or triumphant manner, which strikes a sour and alienating note.

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