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Essay About Monster By Walter Dean Myers

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.

Myers is best known as an author of children’s literature and young-adult fiction. He has also written nonfiction books focusing on African American history. One of his primary goals as a writer is to create novels that intrigue and instruct children and teens. His target audience seems to be young impoverished people of color who have been neglected by mainstream literature. However, any young person struggling with coming-of-age issues can relate to Myers’s characters. He realistically portrays contemporary and historical figures with whom his young readers can identify. His plots are action-packed and fast-moving, yet his settings and descriptions are rendered in great detail. His contemporary characters tend to be drawn from the ghetto world that he once knew intimately.

A thread that runs through many of his books for teens is the search for ideals. Myers writes about young people overcoming a harsh environment, senseless violence, and dysfunctional families by developing inner values. His characters face complex ethical choices but usually find an honorable path. As an author, it is Myers’s intent to instill values in young people who have been devalued or undervalued themselves.

Myers believes that in order to reach his readers, they must be able to identify with the actions, thoughts, and emotions of his protagonists. The language, settings, and plots must be relevant to young people, especially marginalized African Americans. He often uses the first-person viewpoint, which provides immediate access to the protagonist’s mind. In seeking to establish common ground with his adolescent readers, he uses slang frequently. Some readers in the twenty-first century might find some of the language dated; however, the plot lines and themes that inform Myers’s work have already endured—and been enjoyed—for decades.

Although his books tend to be written from the perspective of an inner-city, African American male, his coming-of-age theme is universal. The crisis may vary from book to book, but each protagonist endures a rite of passage from childhood into adulthood. In Hoops (1981), a gifted high-school basketball player discovers from a has-been pro that the real game of life does not have a scoreboard and that only inner values can guide his next moves. The main character in Fallen Angels (1988) goes through a classic rite of passage—war. As a soldier, he learns how to love and retain his own humanity despite the senseless violence of war. In Monster, a sixteen-year-old man on trial for his life begins to question his role in a vicious crime. He wonders if he is guilty of perpetuating the ruthless laws of the ghetto, regardless of whether the court acquits him.

Myers uses setting to emphasize the shift from childhood to adulthood. The backdrops for his stories are usually unequivocally adult. His young characters find themselves making decisions in the real world and facing real consequences. For example, in The Young Landlords (1979), a group of teens takes on the responsibility of managing a ghetto apartment building and learns a great deal about themselves in the process. A prison and a courtroom become Steve Harmon’s entire world in Monster, and there are few environments more mortal than the battlefield in Fallen Angels.

In essence, Myers writes about young people making choices. This is not unique in young-adult fiction. However, Myers’s characters tend to be faced with choices that have life-or-death consequences. When Cal in Hoops decides not to go along with the gang controlling a tournament, his decision ends in his death. In Fallen Angels, every step that Richie Perry takes “out in the boonies” (the Vietnamese jungle) could cause or prevent another death. The subject matter and language in Myers’s books are often raw. Gambling, war, drug use, suicide, teen pregnancy, homicide, adoption, and parental neglect are subjects that have brought three of his books to the edge of censorship by school systems. While these topics may seem dramatically harsh to some readers, they are merely reflections of daily life to others. One of Myers’s gifts is showing young people, regardless of age, race, and social status, that they can live up to their ideals in any situation.


First published: 1981

Type of work: Novel

A young basketball player learns from a mentor about the financial and spiritual risks of the game.

In Hoops, Myers makes the game of basketball symbolize the game of life. Basketball was one of Myers’s passions; it was an escape from the frustrations of school, a time to bond with other kids his age, and just plain fun. He depicts the basketball scenes in his books with astounding clarity and from an insider’s perspective. Hoops seems at first to be an action-packed sports novel but is soon revealed as a moral tale about choices and integrity.

The main character in Hoops is seventeen-year-old Lonnie Jackson, who clings to a dream that he will become a professional basketball player. He is a senior in high school and is feeling tense about what his next steps in life will be. Basketball could be a way out of Harlem, a way to accrue status in the world, and a way to have some self-esteem. Lonnie is one of the best players in Harlem. He believes that there is a real chance that his dream could come true.

Lonnie rarely stays at home with his mother. He has an arrangement with the manager of a...

(The entire section is 2279 words.)

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