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The Green Mile | Themes

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Atonement and Absolution of Sins

Atonement is the basis for the major event in The Green Mile. Brutus "Brutal" Howell calls this "balancing" in The Bad Death of Eduard Delacroix, Chapter 9, which isn't too far off the mark. Atonement is an action to make up for a sin. Paul Edgecombe learned all about atonement during his childhood in various Baptist and Pentecostal churches. He was taught "[o]nly God could forgive sins," but those who committed those sins have a responsibility to atone for them, or make things right. Paul is wracked with guilt over the torturous death of Eduard Delacroix. He didn't personally harm Delacroix, but he feels responsible for allowing Percy Wetmore to remain on E Block long after he had proven himself unfit for the job. He can't bring Delacroix back, but he can save another life, that of Melinda Moores. He believes doing that will not only assuage his guilt for Delacroix's death but also save him from eternal damnation. For him, atonement is "the lock on the door you closed against the past."

Atonement is also important for the men and women whose lives end on E Block. Every one of them (with the exception of John Coffey) is on the Green Mile because of sins they committed against others. Even coldhearted killers lose their nerve in the shadow of the electric chair. For this reason Paul and the other guards make it a priority to begin "the talk" with their prisoners. "The talk" is central to the guards' work on E Block. Paul doesn't go into particulars, but clues in the text hint its purpose is to prepare prisoners for death by coming to terms with what they did and what the afterlife will be like after they die. In The Mouse on the Mile, Chapter 3, The Chief asks Paul what happens if a man "sincerely repent [sic] of what he done wrong." He wants to atone for his sins so he can make it into heaven.

This is also why nearly every prisoner headed to the electric chair stops to pray in Paul's office with a member of the clergy. They ask for mercy on their souls and absolution of their sins. Paul doesn't think God will show any leniency to rapists and murderers. But he knows the very act of praying for forgiveness does a lot to make the long walk to one's death a little easier.

Salvation and Damnation

The Green Mile is also about salvation, damnation, and the place where the two meet in between. Salvation is experienced by those who are healed by John Coffey. He literally saves lives by extracting illness and injury from suffering bodies. Because of him Melinda Moores outlives her husband, and Mr. Jingles is given another chance at life. At the opposite end of the spectrum is damnation, or condemnation to hell. Paul Edgecombe believes all the prisoners on E Block are automatically damned for their crimes. They will "burn in torment" until their souls "wink out." In Coffey on the Mile, Chapter 10, Paul indicates those who attended Coffey's execution are also damned by describing the circumstances of their future deaths. The implication is that Curtis Anderson, Klaus and Marjorie Detterick, and all the guards on hand are complicit in allowing the death of an innocent man.

Paul hasn't suffered a single major illness or injury since John Coffey passed some of his "energy" to Paul in Coffey on the Mile, Chapter 8. He's 104 when he writes The Green Mile, and though he's slowing down a little, there's still a lot of life in him. Coffey's parting gift has undoubtedly saved Paul's life numerous times. The same thing can be said for Mr. Jingles, whom Coffey brought back to life in The Bad Death of Eduard Delacroix, Chapter 2. Both man and mouse have seemingly eternal (or at least really long) lives. But as Paul learns during the bus crash of 1956, salvation comes at an enormous price. Like nearly everyone else on the bus that day, Paul should have died in the crash. It's only thanks to Coffey's protective powers that he walks away with just a scratch on his hand. In retrospect, Paul feels as if he would have been better off dying alongside his wife. Living without her for 40 years has felt like damnation on earth. Being impervious to injury and disease damned Paul to spend the second half of his life without his partner. Then his friends die off one by one, and he is left completely alone. As Paul writes in Coffey on the Mile, Chapter 13, "sometimes there is absolutely no difference at all between salvation and damnation."

Morality and Duty in Conflict

It's unsurprising that the theme of morality surfaces throughout a book about criminals facing the death penalty. What is surprising is that those who struggle with morality the most are the people on the other side of the bars, the guards. Before John Coffey arrived on E Block, Paul Edgecombe, Brutus "Brutal" Howell, Dean Stanton, and Harry Terwilliger had a clear understanding of where they stood in relation to their prisoners. They were the good guys. Yes, they were killers, but only in the technical sense of the term. What they did was different from the men and women who lived their last days on the Green Mile—the guards were ordered to end lives. It was part of their job. They were fulfilling the state's moral responsibility to the victim's families as well as carrying out God's punishment for the ultimate sin.

The confirmation of John Coffey's innocence in Coffey on the Mile, Chapter 4, throws the guards' perceptions of themselves as moral men into disarray. They liked Coffey a lot. Not only did he cure Melinda Moores and resurrect Mr. Jingles, he was about as good of a prisoner as one could have on the Green Mile. He was kind, vulnerable, and endearing. But before Paul had a hunch that Coffey didn't kill the Detterick twins, they still viewed him as a killer. He was a nice guy, but they wouldn't feel too bad for killing him. His innocence puts them in an impossible position. Paul, Brutal, Harry, and Dean all think of themselves as moral, God-fearing men. They always try to do the right thing. "The right thing" in this situation would be to declare Coffey's innocence to anyone who would listen and get him off Death Row. But they can't do that. It would put their own jobs in jeopardy, for one thing, and it wouldn't make a difference in the end. John Coffey is black, which means he'll never get a retrial. The people of Trapingus County would rather kill an innocent black man than consider that a white man could commit such an atrocious crime. The guards are left with a singular, immoral choice: kill John Coffey.

None of them want to do it. Killing Coffey is immoral at best and will lead to their own damnation at worst. Leading up to and after Coffey's death, Dean, Harry, Brutal, and Paul all independently realize their years on the Green Mile have skewed their perceptions of right and wrong. Now they understand any murder, even one sanctioned by law, isn't quite right. It doesn't matter if one's intentions are good—killing is still wrong. And that's why John Coffey's execution was their last.

Power Dynamics and Political Connections

Imbalances of power define many of the relationships in The Green Mile. The most visible power struggle is between Paul Edgecombe and Percy Wetmore. As the head officer on the Green Mile, Paul ostensibly has the most power out of all the guards. He sets the tone for the cell block, including the prisoners' behavior, the guards' conduct, and how much information is disseminated to his superiors. Prisoners who abide by the rules are treated respectfully and given little things to enhance their comfort, like a mug of soda. Those who rebel against Paul's authority end up in the restraint room wearing a straightjacket. Guards who follow protocol are given more responsibility and more freedom to make their own decisions. Those who fight against the system are written up for insubordinate behavior and either transferred to a different part of the prison or fired altogether.

By all accounts Percy Wetmore should have the least amount of power in E Block. He's the youngest member of the staff and the newest hire. He has absolutely no experience working in the prison system. Yet he wields the most power on the Green Mile thanks to his political connections. Percy's uncle is the governor. He got Percy the job in the first place, and he could end the employment of anyone at the prison for virtually no reason at all. Percy uses this to his advantage. The Green Mile is set in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression, a decade-long period of worldwide economic struggle. Jobs were hard to come by, especially in the rural South where farming was no longer a viable money maker for most people. Percy threatens the other guards with unemployment every time he gets in trouble or does the wrong thing. It's an extremely effective strategy that renders Paul mostly powerless over Percy.

Power dynamics are also at play in the relationship between Paul and Brad Dolan, the Percyesque orderly at Georgia Pines nursing home. Paul is again the one without any power. This time it's because of his age. Dolan is one of the few people who knows how old Paul is. It's not exactly a secret, but it's also something Paul doesn't talk about unless directly asked. His age is also an issue when Dolan does things that would get him trouble with his bosses, like causing physical harm to the facility's residents. "I'll tell them you're having delusions," Dolan threatens after leaving a ring of bruises around Paul's wrist. "Onset of senile dementia, likely. And you know they'll believe me." Paul does know. People are more likely to believe a young, supposedly capable orderly than a very elderly nursing home resident. Paul has no power over Dolan until Elaine Connelly threatens to have him fired. This time political connections work in Paul's favor.

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