About the Book

Book Protagonist: Steve Harmon
Publication Date: 1999
Genre: Crime Fiction, Drama

Themes and Analysis


By Walter Dean Myers

Walter Dean's ‘Monster’ is loaded. Justice, hope and family as themes explored, are just a tip of the iceberg.

Monster’ by Walter Dean Myers has many lessons to teach. The reader has no option but to think critically. Some themes are subtle and might even attach themselves to bigger themes as subthemes. But most of them are clear and stand-alone themes. Now, let us pan our imaginary camera towards this thought-provoking masterpiece to explore for ourselves these themes, some of which will be handled side by side opposites or otherwise.

Monster Themes

Let’s dive into the captivating themes of ‘Monster‘ by Walter Dean Myers together. We’ll explore each focal point to unravel the essence of this compelling novel.

  • Crime and Consequence
  • Guilt or Innocence
  • Hope or Hopelessness
  • Family
  • Humanity/Empathy
  • Connections/Relationships
  • Justice
  • Disappointment, Dissatisfaction, and Regret

Crime and Consequence

This is arguably the major theme in ‘Monster.’ Most parts of this crime drama take place in the courtroom and the prison yard. We are all here, following Steve Harmon’s camera because a crime was committed. Mr. Nesbitt, a fifty-five-year-old black man, was murdered in his drugstore in Harlem City, with his own for which he had a license.

Anyone who commits a crime should very well be ready to do the time, for actions have consequences. People, including gangsters with criminal records, testify. The gangsters testify, hoping to get breaks from the times they are doing for the crimes they have committed. As long as it wasn’t any of them that murdered Mr. Nesbitt, any other crime must be excusable, they think. Bobo casually describes himself as cold-hearted to get a break. Osvaldo indicts himself. Cruz exposes himself to get a break. Actions have consequences, and James King was going to pay for his eventually.

Guilt or Innocence

Everyone is innocent until proven guilty. That is not even my line. It is a popular phrase. Are things that way, though? Are things not always that way, even though they should be that way? I would say ‘yes’ to the second question. Sometimes, prejudice contributes, and it shows. There was something O’Brien said, and it stuck. Rephrasing what she said, the pressure rests on the defendant. The prosecutor goes about walking like the ‘good one’.

One time, Steve says he’s not guilty, and she tells him to say instead that he is innocent. The defendant’s job is to prove, not that the prosecutor is lying, but that he or she is mistaken. James King and Steve Harmon were each to be pronounced guilty or Innocent. The verdict is read, and the latter is to be freed, while the former is to be locked up. Perhaps he would go on to appeal, perhaps he would not.

Hope or Hopelessness

What is life without hope? Steve lost hope in himself, his mother, the judge, the system in general, and even O’Brien at some point. It was then he began to realize why shoelaces and belts are taken away from people before they are locked up. Someone who has lost all hope would likely be depressed, and someone who is depressed would likely not be far from considering committing suicide. They don’t want that in there. Steve also gets to realize why people go on to appeal after they have been found guilty. All hope is not lost after all, for what is life without hope?


This is highly demonstrated in Steve’s life, earning this theme a place reserved for the major themes. Mrs. Harmon loves Steve so much. His situation makes her cry. One time, she brings Steve a Bible while visiting and tells him to read a passage out loud. Steve sees his father sob. It is his first time witnessing that. Jerry misses his big brother. Steve’s situation breaks Mrs. Harmon’s heart and makes her cry many times, and this in turn breaks Steve’s heart. At some point, Steve wishes Jerry was with him. No, not in prison but just with him, somehow. Jerry’s visit gladdened his heart so much. Steve Harmon’s family made life worth living for him even while in jail, especially while in jail.


We see the guards cruelly teasing the prisoners, even when some of them were yet to be found innocent or guilty. This depicts a complete lack of empathy and humanity, something O’Brien had in abundance. Yes, O’Brien was Steve’s lawyer. But nothing prevented her from keeping things strictly official. Bobo, James King, Osvaldo, and Cruz were all wanting in this area. Empathy cannot be faked, at least, not for long.

When O’Brien sees Steve writing ‘Monster’ (something he was already getting used to being called) repeatedly in the courtroom, she collects the pencil from him and cancels them out. When she sees Steve visibly shaking after taking the stand, his head bowed after one of the students on an excursion smiled at him, he smiled back, but she turned away quickly, she tells him that if he doesn’t believe in himself, no one else would.

Before Steve takes the stand (her idea by the way) she plays a ‘cup’ game with him to ensure that he answers exactly what would help his case. She was to ask questions and any time Steve gives an inappropriate answer, she was to turn the cup upside down. Steve learned from this game that it would be better to present himself as differently as possible from the others: James King, Bobo, and the rest. We also see her asking to know how Steve was feeling at some point. O’Brien had a lot of empathy to give, and she didn’t hold back even one bit.


If Steve had not associated with the likes of James King, he would not have found himself in the middle of a felony murder case as one of the accused. The saying ‘Birds of a feather flock together’ will always remain true. Clearly, he had a whiff of the robbery. He knew a robbery was being planned. He may not have participated actively in the whole thing, but he was aware that these folks planned to rob someone.

The type of people one chooses to associate with affects one in one way or another, whether one likes it or not. This is why the distance between him and his father continues to grow wider, even after he was pronounced not guilty. He just couldn’t come to terms with the fact that his son, his well-behaved son (or so he thought) could associate with gangsters even enough to get roped in a felony murder case. Some of what his father sees now, O’Brien must have seen. That explains why she moved away when Steve made to hug her after they won the case.


The story of ‘Monster is about justice. It is about seeking justice. Everyone has that right, or at least, everyone should have that right. Everyone has the right to live and pursue happiness if he or she so wishes. It is only just. Mr. Nesbitt’s murder, a crime against humanity, has the state seeking justice. Justice for the dead, yes? And, a loud and clear warning to anyone who might want to go the route that is criminality. Nesbitt would never come back to life, but justice can be served. The saying, ‘What is good for the goose is good for the gander’ holds sway here. Everyone is equal before the law (or should be, at least). Every life is precious.

Disappointment, Dissatisfaction, and Regret

These emotions were conveyed by O’Brien’s face when the verdict was given. She demonstrates these then, disappointed that she probably has helped the wrong person, someone that wasn’t particularly guilty or Innocent. Dissatisfaction, because she should have probed more, to know who exactly she was sticking herself out her neck for. Regret, that it is now too late to do all that. Mr. Harmon also displays disappointment in his son because of the type of people he chose to associate with, something that landed him in jail.


What important thing does one get to realize reading ‘Monster?’

One important thing one gets to realize reading ‘Monster’ is that even though it is known that life in prison would not be easy, more of the unpleasantness of what is supposed to be a correctional facility was exposed.

What is the major lesson from ‘Monster?’

The major lesson from ‘Monster’ is that life is not straightforward, most times, and it takes one wrong move (intended or not) for things to start plummeting for someone. We should all be careful about the type of people we associate with. Associating with gangsters was Steve Harmon’s major mistake.

What is the significance of Steve’s imaginary camera in ‘Monster?’

The importance of Steve’s imaginary camera in ‘Monster’ cannot be overemphasized. A very significant tool in the story, it is Steve’s imaginary camera we follow throughout the trial and even beyond.

What is the central theme in ‘Monster?’

The central theme in ‘Monster’ is justice, however, it would be inappropriate not to mention other themes surrounding it. Race, guilt/innocence, hope/hopelessness, and so on, are also other major themes.

Chioma Julie
About Chioma Julie
Chioma is a graduate of Mass Communication. With an unwavering love for music, movies and books, sometimes, she also writes to unwind.
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