English – Book Report: The Green Mile Essay
English – Book Report: The Green Mile
I originally read this book when it was first published as a complete volume in 1998 and it has been my favourite book ever since. I have never read another book that has evoked such emotion, and I have been known to have trouble seeing a few of the pages through my tears.
At first glance it is a long book (453 pages), with a rather imposing picture of ‘Old Sparky’, the electric chair, on the front cover. As you read the blurb on the back it manages to fill you with questions about the characters and a taste for more. Like most of Stephen King’s books, The Green Mile is widely considered to be in the horror genre. But personally I don’t think that quite does the book justice and certainly isn’t what I would consider to be classic horror. There are no monsters or zombies, and although there are serial killers and death it is all in context, Death row at Cold Mountain Penitentiary, Southern USA, in the 1930s. The first edition consisted of six thin, low-priced paperbacks, published a month apart in 1996.
The story is told form the perspective of Paul Edgecombe, head guard on ‘E Block’ of the penitentiary. Paul is now retired, living in a nursing home, trying to get rid of some of the ghosts from his past by writing a retrospective account of his time working on death row. He has a friend at the nursing home, a fellow resident named Elaine Connelly, who he likes to share his time and thoughts with. Paul comes across as a wise and gentle man who is very sensitive to others feelings.
Other than Paul there are five guards that work on E block. Brutus Howell is next in command to Paul, a tall and well built but gentle man, who is not violent unless absolutely necessary. His nickname is, ironically, ‘Brutal’. Then there is Dean Stanton, Harry Terwilliger and Bill Dodge, who are ‘floaters’ and not permanent staff. Lastly is Percy Wetmore. Percy is the nephew of a state warden and the other guards have to be civil to him despite their dislike of him, and Percy knows he is pretty much untouchable and uses it to his advantage. He is young, arrogant and extremely sadistic guard who enjoys goading and tormenting the prisoners when he can – he shouts things like “Dead man walking” when moving prisoners.
The book revolves around John Coffey, a black man of formidable size who is convicted of raping and killing two small white girls. He is very quiet and keeps to himself. He cries an awful lot, and is even afraid of the dark – “do you leave a light on after bed time” is the first thing he asks when he arrives on E Block. Coffey appears to be of very low intelligence and is the calmest and mildest prisoner the guards have ever seen. Despite this he is imprisoned for allegedly luring the girls away from their home, killing the family guard dog in the process and then committing a very violent and depraved double rape and murder.
Other than John Coffey, there are five other prisoners on the cell block over the duration of the book focuses on: Arlen Bitterbuck, nicknamed “The Chief” because of his Cherokee heritage, convicted of killing a man in a drunken fight; Arthur Flanders, nicknamed “The Pres”, an insurance executive who killed his father; William Wharton, nicknamed ‘Wild Bill’ by the guards and ‘Billy the Kid’ by himself, an extremely dangerous and unpredictable trouble-maker due to be executed for multiple murders he committed during a robbery; and Eduard Delacroix, a Cajun who is on death row for arson and the murder of seven people. Despite his crimes he is very meek and cowardly which makes him a target for Percy’s abuse.
While on death row Delacroix befriends a very intelligent mouse with a penchant for peppermint sweets and names him Mr Jingles. Delacroix teaches the mouse to do tricks and he appears to follow his commands. At first the guards try to kill him, but then everyone becomes rather fond of Mr Jingles. Mr. Jingles shows the loneliness that the men feel on the Mile. They are even willing to take in a mouse. Only Percy still holds a grudge against the mouse, and one day he steps on it. After Percy steps on Mr. Jingles, Coffey uses his powers to save him. After Delacroix is executed, John takes care of the mouse, and a little of his power transfers into it.
The other characters are: Hal Moores, The Warden at Cold Mountain Penitentiary and his wife Melinda who is dying of a brain tumor; and Jan Edgecombe, Paul’s Wife. The name of book comes from the nickname given by the guards to the corridor with a green linoleum floor that leads from the cells where the prisoners live to the execution room beyond Paul’s office.
Paul finds out Percy is prepared to leave Cold Mountain once he has had the chance to ‘be out front’ and play a key role in an execution. Seeing the bigger picture Paul goes against his instinct and agrees he can be in charge of Delacroix’s execution, with horrendous consequences. Delacroix has several run-ins with Percy and in return, Percy deliberately sabotages Delacroix’s execution by not wetting the sponge on the man’s head before the execution begins, and as a result the electric causes the dry sponge and his head to catch fire leading to a very gruesome death.
Paul comes to learn of Coffey’s extraordinary healing abilities when one quiet evening he asks him down to his cell. Paul goes against everything he knows and goes into Coffey’s cell. Coffey touches Paul and in the process heals his urine infection, letting out from his mouth what looks like a cloud of gnats. When asked to explain what he had done could only say that he knew he had helped it. After this and the resurrection of Mr Jingles Paul begins to believe Coffey is innocent of his crimes and was in fact trying to save the little girls he has been accused of murdering. Wanting to help the terminally ill wife of his friend Warden Moores, and with the help of the other guards they drug Wild Bill lock Percy into the padded restraint room, before smuggling Coffey out of the prison site and take him to heal Melinda’s deadly brain tumor using his magical powers.
As John Coffey is being smuggled out of E Block, Wild Bill grabs his arm and Coffey senses that Wharton is the true killer of the two girls, the crime for which Coffey has been falsely convicted and sent to death row. When they return to E block, Coffey grabs Percy through the bars of his cell and presses their mouths together. Coffey gives Percy the same ‘sickness’ he drew from the warden’s wife. Whilst in a trance like state Percy shoots Wild Bill six times, killing him. After which Percy falls into a comatose state in which he will stay for the rest of his life. Percy ends up as a patient at the very asylum to which he promised Paul he would transfer after Delacroix’s execution.
Despite Coffey’s innocence and incredible ability, he is still executed, partly because of the very racist attitudes of 1930s southern USA. The story then returns to the present, where it is revealed that those healed by Coffey gain an unnatural lifespan. Mr Jingles is revealed as being still alive though he dies at the nursing home. Paul is now 108 and dreads to think how long he himself has left to live, especially after the death of his friend Elaine. As he puts it at the very end, “We each owe a death, there are no exceptions, I know that, but sometimes, oh God, the Green mile is so long”.
Throughout the story, Stephen King’s magical use of description brings the story to life and helps to build up a strong rapport with the characters. The flitting from Paul’s time at the penitentiary back to his time in the nursing home adds depth and gives Paul the opportunity to reflect, which I feel is an important part of the story. Although the book deals with some dramatic and very violent ideas, it does so in a very matter-of-fact way. I think this is mostly down to Paul’s matter-of-fact personality, for example when they are doing a ‘practice’ execution for Arlen Bitterbuck using another man Paul comments on how an inmate’s leg is usually shaved to aid the flow of current and mentions “Indians have very little body hair as a rule, but we would take no chances”.
I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who likes fantasy books or just fancies a bit of a darker read, from young adult upwards. The book explores the realm of the supernatural and opens the possibility that such forces may exist in our world – it certainly gives the imagination a workout. I always have problems putting it down – but then maybe I am a little biased being a hardened fan already.