Literature Study GuidesThe Green MileCoffeys Hands Chapters 4 5 Summary

The Green Mile | Study Guide

Stephen King

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The Green Mile | Coffey's Hands, Chapters 4–5 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 4

The next morning a cheerful Paul Edgecombe drives 50 miles to Trapingus County to learn about John Coffey and the deaths of the Detterick twins. He ends up at the home of Burt Hammersmith, a reporter for the Tefton Intelligencer. Hammersmith is a little standoffish at first. He's used to "vultures" demanding the gory details of the stories he reports, but he relaxes once he realizes Paul is interested in Coffey, not the Detterick girls. Hammersmith tells Paul about the girls' murder, the details of which are relayed in The Two Dead Girls, Chapter 4. Meanwhile he watches his own two children playing at the other end of the yard.

Hammersmith wants to know why Paul drove all this way to ask a few questions. Determined to keep Coffey's healing touch a secret, Paul dodges the question and asks if Coffey had ever been accused of a crime before. Hammersmith has done his research, and his investigation didn't turn up anything indicating a violent past. He does point out the scars on Coffey's back, as if he had been whipped as a child. "Should have spared the rod and just drowned him in the river like a stray kitten," Hammersmith says. Paul's reluctance to agree reveals his hunch that Coffey is innocent. Hammersmith then tells Paul about his family's old dog, Sir Galahad, who attacked Hammersmith's four-year-old son, Caleb, and permanently disfigured his face. A dog is a lot like "your Southern negro," he says. "You get to know it, and often you grow to love it." But neither can be trusted. Hammersmith shot the dog.

Paul becomes even more uncomfortable when Hammersmith calls Caleb over. The little boy has the use of only one eye, and half his face is scared and "bunched up like the stump of a tree." "The boy was there in front of him and the dog bit," Hammersmith says. "And that's what happened with Coffey." He insists he's as "enlightened as the next man," but he also knows "your negro will bite if he gets the chance, just like a mongrel dog." There's no doubt in his mind John Coffey is guilty. Paul leaves the Hammersmiths' house feeling much worse than before.

Chapter 5

William Wharton takes his first trip to the restraint room the next day for peeing on Harry Terwilliger's pants and shoes. He doesn't go quietly—he first threatens to throw poop at the guards, then makes more violent promises—so Paul Edgecombe has Dean Stanton turn a fire hose on the young man. The water nearly knocks out Wharton, giving Paul and Brutus "Brutal" Howell enough time to get the straightjacket onto his body and buckled. Wharton fusses and fights against the straightjacket, but he becomes truly animated when Paul calls him "Wild Bill." "Wild Bill Hickok wasn't no range-rider!" he screams. None of the guards are impressed by Wharton's impromptu history lesson, nor do they really care when he appears to have a seizure in front of his cell. Harry, Percy, and Dean think it might be real, but Brutal is positive Wharton is faking. He is, and he spends the next 24 hours in the storage closet-turned-restraint room.

Wharton is contrite upon his release the next evening, but less than a day later he's back in the restraint room. This time he purchases a Moon Pie (a graham sandwich cookie with marshmallow in the middle and a layer of chocolate completely covering the outside), holds it in his mouth until it liquefies, then spits the whole thing in Brutal's face. That earns him two days in the straightjacket.

Paul is bothered by Wharton's "sheer persistence." There's no telling how long Wharton will be on the Green Mile—his lawyer is trying to get his sentence reduced by arguing it would be wrong to kill someone so young. It also helps that he's "white as old Jeff Davis."

Analysis

Racism is a recurring theme in The Green Mile. Primarily set in 1932, the events of the novel take place just about 70 years after the Civil War. Even though slavery has been officially ended, African-Americans still aren't seen as equals, especially in the Deep South. Even the most educated people had unfounded prejudices. Hammersmith is a good example of that. Though he claims he's "as enlightened as the next man," he firmly believes black people aren't people at all. They're like wild animals who will "bite if [they] get the chance." That's hardly an "enlightened" viewpoint—it's just plain old racist.

Hammersmith's prejudice against African-Americans is problematic for a few reasons. The most notable is his unconscious bias against an entire segment of the population. Hammersmith is a journalist. Today's journalism schools caution their students to leave their personal opinions and beliefs at home. The goal is to avoid slanting their interpretation of their research to match their own point of view. In Hammersmith's case, it is hard to report about crimes allegedly committed by black people objectively when you don't even view them as humans. Biased reporting impacts the public's perception of reality, opening a way for the public to be misled by incorrect information. Racism can't help but thrive when people in positions of influence, such as members of the press, perpetuate it.

The other problematic thing about Hammersmith is the language he uses to describe African-Americans. The comparison to dogs and "mongrels" is an explicit degradation of black men and women. Yet even more troubling is his use of the word "your," as in "your Southern negro." While the use of that word may sound folksy to some, it could also mean Hammersmith views African-Americans as things that can be owned. Although he tells Paul he'd "not bring slavery back for all the tea in China," he still views black people as subordinates who need a master. That master certainly isn't him—he's above consorting with such undesirable riffraff. Instead it is people like Paul—lower class civil servants—who are responsible for taming the African-American population.

The American legislative and judicial systems took much of the same viewpoint in the first half of the 20th century. Many states, particularly those in the South, continue to do so today. Execution records weren't kept until the 1970s, but since then there's been a disproportionate number of African-Americans executed compared to their presence in the general American population. And that's after the passage of federal civil rights reforms in the 1960s. It is also more likely for murderers to be handed a death sentence if their victims are white. John Coffey, a black man, allegedly killed two little white girls. It's completely unsurprising he's headed for the electric chair.

The guards in The Green Mile are well aware of the racial element in the sentencing of those who find their way to E Block. This is why Paul is so concerned Wharton will be under his care for the foreseeable future. Wharton is young and white, which means it's possible his sentence will be commuted, or reduced, even though he killed four people compared to Coffey's alleged two. Despite his criminal past, despite his lower-class status, he is still seen as a valuable member of society by the general public. Coffey is not. Paul compares Wharton to Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Here he makes a not-so-subtle acknowledgement that in 1932 there were still many people who looked upon the ways of the pre-Civil War South with great fondness. Drawing attention to their shared whiteness highlights that these sentiments particularly centered on the treatment and position of minorities. Jefferson Davis was arrested for treason following the war and spent two years in prison before his release. Seventy years later there's a good chance William Wharton will face a similarly easy sentence.

Until then, it appears Wharton will spend a lot of his time in the restraint room. He prides himself on causing chaos, and there's no indication he's going to stop, even after his two trips to the restraint room. It's all a game to him—riling up the guards, getting punished. He doesn't show any "real feelings" unless someone has the audacity to call him Wild Bill. Wild Bill Hickok was an American frontiersman and lawman in the Old West. There are many legends about his exploits, but Wharton doesn't want to be associated with a single one. Hickok was a good guy. Wharton's idol, Billy the Kid, was a bad guy. Wharton's sole purpose in life is to be remembered as the villain, not the hero.

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