A central theme in Monster is deceit. Even from the moment that the novel begins, it is impossible to determine Steve's innocence by merely evaluating his journal entries. As the court case continues, it is also impossible to figure out which characters are actually telling the truth. The testimonies of the witnesses cannot be trusted, as many of these individuals have made deals with their lawyers to exchange their testimony for a sentence reduction. The pervasiveness of deceit speaks to the inhumane prison conditions in the United States. Prisoners resort to their survival tactics and act in immoral ways in order to preserve their safety and sanity.
Isolation and Loneliness
Although Steve is constantly surrounded by fellow inmates, jail is the loneliest place that Steve has ever been. Due to Steve's age and the nature of his alleged crime, he is kept in a cell by himself. At night, he yearns for the comfort of his home life and his younger brother's companionship. Steve's physical state of loneliness is further exacerbated by his sense of emotional loneliness. Both in jail and in the courtroom, everyone treats Steve with suspicion, disgust, and pity. His family's reaction to his incarceration also magnifies Steve's sense of isolation. Although his family vows to support him, Steve recognizes that he has broken their sense of trust. This realization prompts Steve to feel even more distant from those he loves.
The Effects on the Family
While Monster provides insight into the American justice system, it also tells the story of a family. Although Steve is the only one who experiences prison and his trial firsthand, each family member is individually affected by Steve's alleged involvement in the crime. Jerry, Steve's younger brother, must grapple with the absence of one of his best friends. Mrs. Harmon is insistent in defending her son's innocence, but she incessantly worries about his safety and well-being. Mr. Harmon struggles to accept Steve's alleged involvement in the crime. Although he claims to believe in his son's innocence, Mr. Harmon becomes less and less confident following each prison visit. Even after Steve is acquitted, Mr. Harmon is unable to accept Steve back into his home and his life. Steve's realization that he has disappointed his family heightens his feeling of self-hatred.
The Personification of Fear
Throughout the novel, fear is described in a way that personifies the emotion. Fear is experienced by nearly all of the novel's major characters in some form or another. For example, many of the convicted felons experience a primal fear for their life and well-being. On the other hand, Mrs. Harmon fears for son's safety in prison. Osvaldo offers yet another perspective on fear when he testifies that he was coerced into the crime due to his fear of Bobo.
In prison, Steve worries about being beaten, raped, or killed. Additionally, he fears the verdict of his court case. While Steve experiences a primal sense of fear in prison, he also fears for his life once he is acquitted. Steve worries that he will be unable to resume a sense of normalcy due to the societal stigma of criminals. Steve also fears that he has violated his family's trust. In his core, what Steve actually fears is the truth. He worries that he is a "monster" and he fears that he may have to confront the implications of his morality.
Art as Therapy
In the novel's opening pages, we learn that Steve is overwhelmed and upset by his experience in prison. As a way of coping with his depression, Steve decides to chronicle his reality in the form of a screenplay. This creative decision gives the reader a glimpse into Steve's playful imagination. Steve also uses the screenplay to distance himself from his reality. While Steve has lost his autonomy and individualism in prison, the screenplay is a way for him to maintain a sense of creative control. Steve is able to channel his energy into the screenplay instead of dwelling on his negative thoughts. Thus, the screenplay is incredibly therapeutic for Steve.
Throughout the novel, Steve references numerous adages and tenants that are mottos for the American legal system. At the beginning of the novel, Steve believes that he is "innocent until proven guilty" and that there is "liberty and justice for all." In the courtroom, Steve looks up to see images of the United States flag and George Washington. The novel's inclusion of these ideas and images reflect how idealism has been tightly interwoven into the fabric of the American subconscious. Throughout Steve's trial, he realizes that individuals lie under oath in order to fulfill their own selfish needs. He also learns that bribery is omnipresent. In these ways, Steve's idealism is shattered.
The Violence Epidemic
There is violence in nearly all aspects of Steve's life. In Steve's neighborhood, crime and violence are normalized. In jail, Steve fears being assaulted, beaten, and sexually assaulted. Even within his own psyche, Steve is violently tormented by his own anxious thoughts. This epidemic demonstrates how violence is particularly present in lower-income and non-white American communities.
Monster Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Monster is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.