Dead Man Walking | Study Guide

Sister Helen Prejean

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Dead Man Walking | Symbols


"Despair" Sign

In several places in the text Prejean drives past a road sign on her way to Angola State Prison to visit an inmate on death row. The road sign reads: "Do not despair. You will soon be there."

This road sign can be viewed as a dual symbol. In one sense it may represent the persistence of hope that injustice can be overcome ("you will be there"—having achieved your goal) and the inmate's death sentence overturned (so no need for "despair"). In another sense it may represent the inevitability of the execution soon to come. In this latter context the sign might be instructing the inmate (or his spiritual counselor) to accept the impending death and not feel despair over it. Death is coming "soon" and the executed inmate will then be "there," perhaps in heaven, with God, or in a place where punishment is meted out after death.

"Marlboro Man"

Robert Willie, a death row inmate, presents a casual, devil-may-care attitude toward his upcoming execution. He seems never to shed his "macho" persona. He is sometimes referred to as the "Marlboro Man" who is a symbol representing the unrealistic machismo of this inmate in particular and a mythologized American male in general.

The Marlboro Man, as embodied in Robert Willie, represents a type of strength (real or not) that he presents to the world as almost fearless indifference to his fate. The Marlboro Man is the quintessential idealization of American masculinity. He represents the hard, rough-edged, emotionless male who stares down with cool indifference both the things he has done and the fate that awaits him.

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