Monster Summary

Walter Dean Myers


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Monster Summary

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Monster, by Walter Dean Myers, takes a unique approach in that it is presented as a screenplay with notes by the narrator, a sixteen-year-old from Harlem named Steve Harmon. Steve has been charged with murder, and he’s being kept in prison until the trial. He’s writing the play in order to keep his mind occupied while he awaits trial. If Steve is found guilty, the judge might pronounce a sentence of anywhere from twenty years in prison to death. The novel’s structure varies between screenplay and narrative prose, reflecting Steve’s interest in film.

Steve’s situation seems simple enough at first. He begins by discussing how much he hates and fears being in jail, due to the threat of violence and sexual assault. When the trial begins, the reader learns about his arrest, but not whether or not he committed the crime—for the good reason that Steve himself is uncertain about his guilt. Monster then delves into the psychological realm as Steve tries to decide if he is innocent or if he is, in fact, a monster. He thinks his attorney, Kathy O’Brien, doesn’t believe in his innocence, and his father has been aloof. Steve is on the brink of losing his ability to self-identify.

As the trial progresses, so too does Steve’s screenplay. Scenes he writes within the screenplay, as well as narrative passages that describe Steve, reveal not only the attitude in his neighborhood but also the treatment he received upon his arrest. Additionally, the reader learns more about what happened surrounding the murder. Two young men—Steve and his co-defendant—entered a drugstore intent on robbing the cashier, who happened to be the store owner. He pulled a gun and there was a struggle; one of the two robbers tried to wrest the gun from him. It went off, and the cashier died. The two robbers took the money and fled, then go to a fast food restaurant.

After this revelation, Steve’s case gets more complicated. As the police investigate the crime, they turn to witnesses and informants because they can’t get any fingerprints at the crime scene. One such character is already in prison, and implicates Steve and his co-defendant, James King, in the murder. The police also suspect a man named Richard “Bobo” Evans, who is serving time because he got caught selling drugs to an undercover cop after the murder took place. Evans testifies in court that he planned the robbery with King, and that Steve was on lookout for the robbery. Evans says that King shot the victim. Steve is still implicated too, however, by having been a part of the group robbing the drugstore.

O’Brien, meanwhile, warns Steve not to write anything that he wouldn’t want the prosecutor to see in his journal. Yet he writes about the crime anyway. He writes about not having given a signal to King, and about how that might be interpreted as his having given the all-clear to proceed with the robbery that turned into a murder. Even though Steve is no longer facing the death penalty, the threat of at least twenty years in prison casts him into depression and he contemplates taking his own life. O’Brien convinces him that he must testify to prove his innocence, and coaches him to prepare him. She suggests that instead of saying he’s not guilty, he should say that he didn’t commit the crime, because his fear and time in prison may have given him feelings of guilt even if he did not murder—or know of plans to murder—the store owner.

He performs well on the witness stand, talking about how he was only acquainted with King and Evans from the neighborhood, that he didn’t plan anything with them, and that he didn’t linger in the drug store that day. Instead, he says he was walking the neighborhood making notes about filming there, and only walked in and out briefly. King doesn’t testify, and the two defense attorneys and prosecuting attorney make their closing statements. O’Brien thinks she has planted enough doubt about Steve’s involvement in the robbery, and therefore in the murder, to ensure his release.

At the end of the trial, the jury finds King guilty and Steve innocent, even though his actions, if he was in the drug store, could have impacted the murder of the store owner. Steve ruminates on this, still uncertain whether he is guilty or not, despite the jury’s decision. O’Brien gives him the cold shoulder after the trial, which only makes him doubt himself more. The reader is left as uncertain as Steve is as to whether or not he is a monster.

Walter Dean Myers grew up in Harlem, where Steve is from. Myers has written a number of books and articles, the most notable aside from Monster being Fallen Angels. He received the Margaret Edwards Award for his body of work in 1994, and the Michael L. Printz Award for Monster in 2000.