Paul Edgecombe begins his story in 1932, during his time as death-row supervisor at Cold Mountain Penitentiary. He recounts that, through the years, in which he has presided over seventy-eight executions, he has learned to recognize patterns of emotions among inmates. While prisoners often joke about the chair, calling it “Old Sparky” or “the Big Juicy,” the chair has the power to subdue their enthusiasm. As soon as it comes time for the men to sit on it, their ankles tied against the chair’s structure, they become aware, with an awful sense of doom, that they are truly going to die. Paul explains that a black bag placed over the prisoners’ heads keeps the audience from discovering the look of panic and fear that appears on the men’s faces.
Paul’s narrative begins with a fear-inducing account of the electric chair. While the narrator does not yet go into detail about the proceedings, he hints at the horror and violence that characterize this method of execution. Instead of describing the black bag in purely practical terms, he offers an emotional interpretation that evokes the existential and spiritual impact of his job: to make other human beings face the enormity of their own death. Paul does not (yet) overtly claim that the electric chair is immoral, but he does underline its distressing and potentially horrific effects.
Numbering six cells, E block—where death-row prisoners must await their fate—is occupied by women and men of all races. Paul relates the story of an inmate he remembers clearly. Beverly McCall killed her abusive and unfaithful husband—a barber—with one of his own razors, and saw her death sentence commuted to a sentence of life in prison the day before her execution.
Paul mentions that prisoners are of all races, emphasizing that criminal behavior has nothing to do with the color of one’s skin. Beverly McCall is initially described as both a victim and a criminal, yet her own violence ultimately surpasses the abuse she suffered from her husband. Her release from death row might be seen as recognition of her more vulnerable status as a woman and a victim of domestic violence.
Thirty-five years later, when Paul sees McCall’s obituary in the newspaper, he realizes that she has spent the last ten years of her life working as a librarian in a peaceful town. Despite her status as a free woman, Paul can tell from her gaze that she still has the eyes of a murderer. He uses this story to explain that his goal, in writing down his memories, is not to go over people’s crimes or to glorify his job as prison supervisor, but rather to account for one time when he had serious doubts about his job.
Despite McCall’s initial description as both a victim and a criminal, Paul insists that there is something deeply ingrained in her personality that marks her as a criminal. He implies that, even though she finished her life as a free woman, the justice system was right in condemning her. The fact that Paul doubted his job on one occasion serves as a counterpoint to this episode, as it implies that the justice system is not always good at differentiating between innocent citizens and those who are criminals at heart (such as McCall).
Paul explains that E block is called the “Green Mile” because of its tiles, which are the color of old limes. When walking the “mile,” a turn to the left means life, for it leads to the exercise yard, and a turn to the right means death, leading to a storage shed and to the end of the Green Mile. The door of the storage shed is so low that, when crossing it, most mean have to duck. John Coffey, Paul explains, was so tall he had to sit. To the left of the shed are tools (life once again) and, to the right, the electric chair itself (death). The chair is fitted with a metal cap and, to its side, a bucket that contains a sponge soaked in brine, which is used to conduct electricity into the inmate’s brain.
Paul’s description of the Green Mile is objective and technical. Physical places and objects convey a sense of efficiency, as though this mode of execution—and justice in general—were a smooth-running system that cannot go wrong. This unemotional recounting emphasizes the routine nature of Paul’s job—which contrasts starkly with the emotional life-and-death experiences that his prisoners are forced to face. Paul also introduces John Coffey’s extraordinary features, which set the man apart from ordinary humans.