The fall of 1932 is a time of unforgettable events. A strong heat makes the fall feel like summer. The warden’s wife, Melinda, is briefly in the hospital. Paul himself suffers from illness: a terrible urinary infection. The inmate Delacroix arrives at E block. Finally, and most importantly, John Coffey is sentenced to death for the rape and murder of the Detterick twins.
Paul’s extremely brief notes about the various stories he is about to recount build a growing mystery and suspense. The final event mentioned (that is, Coffey’s crime) evokes a sense of fear and danger, suggesting that the core of this narrative will revolve around issues of crime, death, and justice.
During this time, there are four or five guards on E block, many of whom are temporary guards known as “floaters.” The regulars include Dean Stanton, Harry Terwillinger, Brutus Howell (nicknamed “Brutal” because of his size, despite his utter gentleness), and, finally, the cruel, idiotic Percy Wetmore.
Paul introduces the central characters in the story. His description of Brutal parallels Coffey’s description as having an outwardly frightening body and a kind, innocent mind. Percy’s meanness, by contrast, suggests that cruelty can exist within the very people who work to defend morality in justice.
One day, Percy and Harry walk in with John Coffey, an extremely muscular, six-foot-eight-inch tall black man whom Paul compares to a captured bear. Despite Coffey’s imposing appearance, Paul notices immediately that something in the man’s face makes him look harmless and lost, as though he doesn’t even know who he is.
Without even knowing Coffey’s story, Paul immediately notices that this prisoner is different from other prisoners—different, in fact, from most people. This highlights, in an evocative way, Coffey’s vulnerability and suggests that there is something uncomfortable—perhaps, even, morally wrong—about condemning a man like this to death.
Percy walks in yelling: “Dead man walking! Dead man walking!” but Paul, annoyed, cuts him short. Paul is waiting in John’s cell to talk with Coffey, as he does with all new inmates, but Harry is nervous Coffey might do something to hurt him. To assuage his colleague’s fears, Paul turns to Coffey directly, asking the new inmate if he should be worried about him. Coffey’s only answer is to shake his head slowly, dreamily, as though he were sleepwalking.
Paul demonstrates his commitment to treating prisoners with respect by keeping Percy from turning Coffey’s arrival into a farce or an unnecessarily cruel event. Paul’s trust in Coffey (which is sufficient to make him believe the inmate’s answer) along with Coffey’s general behavior emphasize that the new prisoner does not at all seem like an ordinary criminal.
When Coffey enters his cell, his incredible size forces him to duck. Amazed at the inmate’s sheer height, Paul also discovers, after reading through Coffey’s forms, that Coffey’s body is covered in numerous scars. In the meantime, while Paul is preparing to welcome Coffey on E block, both Percy Wetmore and Delacroix, the only other prisoner on E block at the time, are watching the scene. Percy, who is busy hitting his baton against his hand as though he were about to use it, soon gets on Paul’s nerves.
Coffey’s body is marked by the potential for aggression (his impressive stature) as well as victimhood (the mysterious scars on his back). While it still remains unclear whether violence or meekness will prevail in Coffey’s character, Paul clearly believes that he will not need to use force against him to subdue him, and his frustration with Percy’s behavior highlights the opposing attitudes of the two men: compassion and understanding (on Paul’s side) versus cruelty and force (Percy).
Despite the fact that Percy has political connections that could threaten Paul’s job, Paul, whose urinary infection has put him on edge, brusquely sends Percy away to help at the infirmary. When Percy refuses, Paul, desperate for him to leave, orders Percy to go wherever he wishes, as long as he gets out of his way. Full of rage, Percy ultimately caves and leaves the block.
The threat of Percy’s political connections is particularly dangerous in this period of the Great Depression, when jobs are hard to come by. Paul’s dismissal of Percy despite this threat suggests that Paul puts his commitment to his job before selfish considerations about his own economic security.
Paul also tells Del—who is watching the action from his cell with his mouse Mr. Jingles on his shoulder—to go lie down, reminding him with authority that this is none of his business. Paul briefly mentions Delacroix’s past crimes. Del’s crimes consist of raping and murdering a young girl, of setting her body on fire to conceal his actions and, in so doing, of involuntarily setting fire to a building where six more people died, including two children.
Even though the people he works with are criminals, Paul respects their right to privacy. His intimate, one-on-one approach to interacting wtih inmates highlights his vision of prison relationships as reciprocal exchanges of respect. This does not blind him to criminals’ pasts, however, and he does not hesitate to mention Delacroix’s crimes, but he never uses this past as an excuse to behave inappropriately toward him or others.
Despite the awfulness of his crimes, Del seems devoid of any malicious intent. Paul explains that this is the worst aspect of Old Sparky’s punishment. While the death penalty is meant to eradicate cruelty, it never actually succeeds in eliminating the human impulse to harm others. Most of the time, people’s inclination to do harm disappears by the time they reach the electric chair. The human inclination to be cruel, then, is never truly punished. Instead, it merely jumps from one individual to the next, never to be extinguished by any form of punishment—not even by the electric chair itself. As a result, all the electric chair does, according to Paul, is to kill prisoners who have already accepted their deaths and who, as such, are not even fully alive.
Paul’s decision to avoid focusing on inmates’ past crimes is the result of his ideological belief that people should be treated with respect regardless of what they have done, as well as his practical consideration that inmates’ crimes rarely influence their present behavior. Paul denounces the justice system’s inefficacy in this regard. He believes that punishment never heals or repairs the wrong that has been committed. Rather, in the way the electric chair kills prisoners who often are no longer inclined to do harm, it proves cruel and unfair. Punishment, it seems, is not the answer to violence in the world.
When Harry comes to unlock John’s chains, Paul realizes that Harry is no longer afraid of John. What truly scared him, Paul concludes, was the guard Percy himself, whose unpredictable behavior can lead him to behave in dangerous, potentially violent ways. Paul launches a conversation with the new prisoner. He asks John to confirm his name, John Coffey, to which John replies in the affirmative, noting that his last name is “like the drink, only not spelled the same way.” He tells Paul that all he can spell is his own name. Throughout the dialogue, Paul is troubled by the man’s eyes, which seem peaceful and absent, as though Coffey were not truly present in the room.
Harry’s fear is highly ironic: he is more afraid of a fellow guard than of a criminal behind bars. This suggests that what makes a person dangerous has nothing to do with their criminal record. Rather, cruelty and violence are attitudes that belong to everyday life, as likely to be found in ordinary citizens as in locked-up criminals. John Coffey will repeat this explanation of his name many times throughout the story, suggesting that, in addition to being illiterate, he has a simple mind.
Paul decides that, despite Coffey’s imposing size, the new inmate will not be any trouble on the block—a prediction he later judges to be both true and untrue. He gives him an introductory speech about life in the prison, laying out prisoners’ rules and rights. Coffey nods uncertainly throughout Paul’s speech. When Paul reaches the topic of visitors, Coffey admits that he has no one to visit him.
It becomes clear that Coffey is not a violent man but, rather, a confused spectator in a world he does not seem to understand. Along with his previously mentioned scars, his lack of social ties emphasizes his vulnerability and isolation. Once again, Coffey seems to exist outside the world of ordinary human experience.
Paul concludes his speech by asking if Coffey has any questions and the prisoner asks if the guards leave a light on during the night, for he is scared of the dark. Paul is taken aback by this question but feels strangely touched. He tells Coffey the corridor does indeed remain lit all night. Then, Paul impulsively decides to offer Coffey his hand, a gesture that surprises both him and Harry. Coffey shakes it gently and, after Paul has stepped out of the cell, Coffey sits down on his bunk. Inside his cell, he says to himself: “I couldn’t help it, boss. I tried to take it back, but it was too late.” Paul, who believes this confession has to do with the man’s crime, feels a chill run down his back.
Coffey’s question makes him seem more like a child than a grown-up capable of committing a crime. Paul’s handshake, an unusual demonstration of respect toward a prisoner, suggests that something in him recognizes Coffey’s inherent innocence. However, when Paul hears what seems to be Coffey’s confession, it seems possible, for a moment, that Coffey could be a typical prisoner. This ambiguity creates mystery around Coffey’s potential guilt or innocence.