In the small town of Whilomville, New York, young Jim Trescott is pretending to be a train with his cart, disrupting his father’s lawn. Dr. Trescott tells his son to stop playing train. Jim goes to seek sympathy from Henry Johnson, his father’s black coachman.
Henry Johnson is an extremely fastidious man who enjoys dressing himself with care. After his duties for the Trescott household are completed, Henry puts on his nicest clothes to go into town. He is wholly transformed: “no one would have suspected him of ever having washed a buggy.” As Johnson walks through Whilomville, other townspeople indeed can hardly recognize him. For example, Reifsnyder, the town barber, does not believe the man he sees walking past the barbershop is in fact Johnson.
Johnson calls upon Bella Farragut and her mother because he is courting Bella. Also on this Saturday night, the town hosts a gathering, complete with a band and young people milling about. Unfortunately, the call of a fire alarm interrupts the weekend festivities. Immediately, the men in the town mobilize to determine the location of the fire.
Jake Roger and Johnnie Thorpe are among the firemen who gather together to combat the fire. Meanwhile, Edward J. Hannigan, a neighbor, sees the fire at the Trescott house. He quickly runs to the house, banging on the door, until Mrs. Grace Trescott appears. Initially, Mrs. Trescott believes Hannigan needs a doctor and informs him that her husband is not at home. Hannigan quickly informs her of the fire, and she panics because her son is still in the house.
By this time, many people have noticed the fire and are rushing to help. Johnson is the fastest of them and goes inside: “Henry pawed awkwardly through the smoke in the upper halls. He had attempted to guide himself by the walls, but they were too hot. The paper was crimpling, and he expected at any moment to have a flame burst from under his hands.” Despite the great challenges of the fire, Johnson manages to find Jim. On their way through Dr. Trescott’s laboratory, with Johnson carrying the boy in his arms, Johnson falls by the desk. A chemical substance from a jar in the lab explodes, further fueling the fire and ravaging Johnson’s face.
Dr. Trescott arrives home in the midst of the chaos. He bursts into the house upon learning from his wife that their son is still in the house. Dr. Trescott finds Jim and brings him to safety, where other people can tend to the boy. Hannigan tells Trescott that Johnson is still inside. Also, a railway brakeman “had gone into the laboratory and brought forth a thing which he laid on the grass.”
The townspeople watching the fire begin to spread false rumors that both Jim and Johnson are dead and that Dr. Trescott himself is injured. Once Johnson is reported to be dead, the townspeople laud his heroism. Even Bella claims that she was engaged to marry Johnson. Meanwhile, the Trescotts and Johnson are in fact at Judge Hagenthorpe’s house. The doctors affirm the overall health of Dr. Trescott and his son, but everyone assumes that Johnson’s wounds are too grave to survive.
Once Jim recovers, he and Grace Trescott visit her parents out of town. Dr. Trescott, however, continues to nurse Johnson back to health at Hagenthorpe’s house. The judge hints that perhaps Johnson would suffer less if he were dead. Yet, Dr. Trescott is adamant about expressing his gratitude to Johnson by treating his injuries. Johnson recovers, but his face has essentially been burned off.
Dr. Trescott brings him to the house ofAlek Williams, a black man who lives on the outskirts of Whilomville. He is tasked with caring for Johnson, since he cannot stay at Trescott’s house. Williams claims that his wife and children are quite disturbed by Johnson’s disfigurement. He seeks more money from Judge Hagenthorpe in exchange for housing the injured man.
In town, people gossip about Johnson’s plight and debate whether Trescott was wise to save his life. Reifsnyder understands Trescott’s motivation, borne out of gratitude to Johnson for saving Jim’s life. Many of his customers, however, find the thought of such disfigurement horrifying and believe that Trescott should have allowed Johnson to die from his injuries.
Williams returns home to his family one day to discover that Johnson is missing. Johnson has escaped from the Williams home. He walks through the town. His presence outside a window disrupts a birthday party held by Theresa Page, a young girl, because one of her guests, the daughter of Jake Winter, sees Johnson through the window and becomes alarmed. Likewise, Johnson attempts to visit Bella but only frightens her and Mrs. Farragut.
Dr. Trescott is visited by Sam, a policeman, who informs him that Johnson has been caught and jailed. Sam also informs Trescott that Jake Winter wants Trescott arrested, too. Winter considers Trescott to be indirectly the cause of his daughter’s fright. Other gossipers—notably, Martha Goodwin, her sister Kate, and their friend Carrie—keep tabs on the situation. Carrie believes that Trescott deserves to lose his patients, having been responsible for Johnson’s formidable presence.
Jimmie plays with some other young children, who mock Johnson. Willie Dalzel and the other children do not believe that Jimmie has the courage to approach Johnson. Jimmie accepts their dare and does so. However, Dr. Trescott witnesses this poor behavior and later admonishes his son for it.
Dr. Trescott learns that another doctor in the town, Dr. Moser, is occupied and has requested that Trescott attend to his patients. Thus, Trescott goes to see the Winters. However, Jake Winter remains very upset at Trescott for the incident at the birthday party. He claims that his daughter remains ill from her fright. Winter makes clear that he wants nothing to do with Dr. Trescott.
Carrie, Martha, and Kate discuss the latest developments between Winter and Trescott. While Carrie and Kate follow the town hysteria about Johnson, Martha asserts that their fears and prejudices are foolish and unfounded. Her companions point out Winter’s daughter’s illness, but Martha rejects these claims and insists that she has seen Winter’s daughter attending school without any problem.
One night, John Twelve and two other men meet at Judge Hagenthorpe’s house. They visit Dr. Trescott to request that he send Johnson to an institution. Trescott refuses.
The people of Whilomville do not spare Mrs. Trescott, either. At the end of the story, Dr. Trescott returns home to find his wife crying. She usually hosts a tea party every Wednesday for some other women in the town. At the latest party, however, only one woman, Mrs. Twelve, has attended. Grace Trescott is even being snubbed by Judge Hagenthorpe’s wife. Dr. Trescott comforts his wife.
“The Monster” is an extremely insightful portrayal of the negative consequences of mob mentality and small-town pettiness rooted in prejudice against people who are disfigured. The title of the story itself has multiple meanings in this regard. First of all, the monster refers to Henry Johnson, whose scarred features are monstrous. Crane also suggests that the people see Dr. Trescott as a kind of monster for not letting Johnson die, and that the the townspeople’s attitudes and unkindness are also monstrous. In reality, neither Johnson nor Trescott is a monster from a moral point of view—quite the opposite, since Johnson saves Trescott’s son and Trescott saves Johnson. The worst monsters are not the ugly ones but the morally prejudiced ones, like Jake Winter (and even, to some degree, Judge Hagenthorpe).
The theme regarding the importance of appearance and losing face appears at the beginning of “The Monster.” These subtle descriptions foreshadow the events of the story. More specifically, Jim destroys a flower and attempts to straighten it, but “could do no reparation.” Likewise, Trescott’s later attempt to save Johnson’s life will not restore normalcy to Johnson due to Johnson’s disfigurement. After Jimmie is scolded by Dr. Trescott, “[i]t was apparent from Jimmie’s manner that he felt some kind of desire to efface himself” (emphasis added). Furthermore, Johnson is described as being extremely meticulous and proud of his appearance. In fact, his fancy clothes attract the surprise and admiration of the townspeople. Later, however, his appearance inspires their horror and hatred.
Johnson’s loss of his face serves as a metaphor for a more dramatic loss, not his own. The true face of unkindness of the townspeople is revealed; there is no face of kindness—it is nothingness. Their humanity is lost simply because they do not want to tolerate a man who looks scary and thus frightens the children. For example, Judge Hagenthorpe is at first a respectable figure who supports Trescott and his family after the fire destroys their home. Yet, he does not stand by Trescott’s decision to allow Johnson to remain in Whilomville. Likewise, Bella Farragut is at first eager to pretend that she was engaged to Johnson, when he is presumed to be dead. Yet, as soon as she learns of his physical impairment, she rejects him outright.
Throughout the story, Crane creates the theme of mob mentality even before Johnson’s misfortune occurs. The town is often described as a collective entity, expressing unity in thought and action. “And then they wheeled upon each other simultaneously, and, in a single explosion, they shouted, ‘One!’“ The townspeople are not really described as single individuals with their own opinions, outside of the Trescott family. Instead, Crane describes conversations between Reifsnyder and his patrons, as they gossip about Trescott and Johnson; the gossips reflect the prevailing attitudes of the whole community. When the small group of men gathers at Hagenthorpe’s house first to prepare for their confrontation with Trescott, they are relying on safety in numbers and mutual support for something that is at root discriminatory. Through such scenes, Crane reinforces the strength of mob mentality in Whilomville.
It is interesting that Crane chose to make Johnson black. Perhaps Johnson suffers multiple kinds of discrimination and would have been tolerated better, or at least not arrested, if he had been white and a more prominent or richer person in town. Still, being a prominent white doctor does not save Trescott from ostracism. The people know what they want, and they engage every resource at their disposal—the police as well as social sanctions—to achieve their goal of removing the pariah from the community.
One of the men who approach Trescott near the conclusion of the story is named John Twelve. This is considered to be an allusion to the twelfth chapter of the Gospel of John, in which the story of Lazarus is given (Sorrentino 140). According to the Gospel of John, Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus four days after his death. Thus, Crane’s allusion would be relevant because Trescott has saved Johnson from the jaws of imminent death.