In The Green Mile, death appears first and foremost as a form of punishment. As a consequence of their crimes, all prisoners on E block—known as the “Green Mile” because of the color of its tiles—are meant to wait for the moment of their execution on the electric chair. Although execution by electrocution is still legal in many states, the narrator, Paul Edgecombe, does not refrain from expressing his discomfort—and at times, his utter disgust—at this method of execution. Beyond the electric chair, though, death strikes in a variety of ways, and Paul comes to terms with the fact that criminals and ordinary civilians alike must suffer through the brutal certainty of death. Not only can death never be eradicated but there is also never a guarantee of how one is going to die. Life, then, can be seen as a period of waiting for a potentially painful end, however long or short the wait may be. Through Paul’s story, King shows that ordinary members of society, too, must walk their own version of the “Green Mile,” living their life waiting for the inevitable ordeal of death.
All characters on E block have been condemned to the death penalty for their crimes. Even though this punishment is the result of a legal process, the narrator Paul denounces it on various occasions as an unnecessarily brutal way to die. While the electric chair is described as a familiar presence, given playful nicknames such as “Old Sparky” and “the Big Juicy,” Paul rejects the idea—defended by proponents of the electric chair—that this method is painless. The black bag that covers the condemned men’s faces, he argues, is not meant to protect their dignity but, rather, to keep the audience from seeing the pain and fear that inevitably appear on their face. As such, the bag serves as one of many indications that this form of punishment is far from humane. The potential cruelty of the electric chair becomes all too apparent during Eduard Delacroix’s execution. When Percy, a cruel guard on death-row, intentionally botches the execution, Delacroix is forced to suffer an agonizing, minutes-long death on the electric chair. The electricity kills him slowly and painfully, as his flesh catches flame and he burns alive. Excruciating to witness, the moment of his death becomes a traumatic event for all spectators present—guards, officials, and civilians alike. It highlights the extent to which the electric chair can prove barbaric and inhumane.
As an old man, Paul, who generally refrains from making moralizing comments, cannot help but decry the electric chair when he looks back on his time as death-row supervisor of Cold Mountain Penitentiary. He writes, “Old Sparky seems such a thing of perversity when I look back on those days, such a deadly bit of folly. […] To kill each other with gas and electricity, and in cold blood? The folly. The horror.” What he once considered a normal part of the legal process he now clearly sees as an unacceptable form of punishment. Paul does not clearly condemn capital punishment as a practice, instead focusing specifically on the electric chair, but his outrage suggests that there is something unnatural about making coolheaded decisions (“in cold blood”) about when and how another human is meant to die.
Yet whether or not one dies on the electric chair, death often proves just as painful and unfair on E block as in civilian life. Paul reminds readers that no one—however guilty or innocent—can escape the moment of their death. While there do exist a few ways for prisoners on E block to avoid the electric chair, such opportunities are scarce. In the execution room, there is a telephone that allows the governor to call in to prevent the execution from occurring, but Paul mentions that this does not happen a single time during his entire career. Hoping for the telephone to ring, he suggests, belongs to the realm of delusion more than to reality. In fact, even when execution is postponed, there is no guarantee that one’s death will be any less brutal than the electric chair. When a prisoner called The Pres sees his death sentence commuted to a sentence of life in prison, he escapes the electric chair only to be murdered violently twelve years later in a different prison block. Paul reflects that, “on the whole, he might have been better off with Old Sparky . . . but then he never would have had those extra twelve years, would he?” The death-row guard Harry considers The Pres’s death “a long stay of execution that finally ran out.” Both Harry and Paul imply that it was impossible for this condemned man to escape his fate. Even the chance to live a few extra years, they suggest, might not have been worth it, as a violent death was bound to strike anyway.
Death can prove equally brutal for ordinary civilians. The deaths of both Dean (a guard on death-row) and Paul’s wife Janice are reminiscent of the deaths of criminals. When an inmate stabs Dean in the throat in the prison’s C block, the circumstances mirror the death of The Pres, who was killed in a prison block by a fellow inmate. Similarly, when Janice dies in a bus accident, Paul describes her death as a form of electrocution, thereby associating it with the electric chair. However, “innocent” Janice might have been, she dies, ironically, of a similar cause as many of the criminals whose executions Paul oversaw. These parallels between the deaths of inmates and civilians are reminders that nothing in one’s life or character can determine the more or less painful way in which one is going to die. Death, then, serves as a powerful equalizer between all humans, making criminals and civilians equally subject to the brutal inescapability of death. Paul concludes that life as a whole can be seen as a long “Green Mile,” as everyone—whether locked-up or free—is bound to spend their life waiting for the moment of their death.
At the end of his life, Paul finds himself in a similar situation to the prisoners on E block. He calls the nursing home where he spends his last days “as much of a killing bottle as E Block at Cold Mountain ever was.” As the residents suffer through the various illnesses of old age, the nursing home, like the electric chair, implicitly “kills” its residents—that is, hosts them until they die of a natural death. As Paul lists the various ways in which his friends have died, he realizes that living, in what it contains of loss and grief, can be as unbearable as dying. Forced to survive with the memories of all the people he has lost, he concludes that “sometimes there is absolutely no difference at all between salvation and damnation.” The fact that he is still alive, yet forced to suffer emotionally, proves to be as much of a curse as a gift. Paul’s situation, in this way, mirrors the isolated, joyless waiting that Green Mile prisoners experience as they await their executions. His final words confirm that to live life is to live out a protracted death sentence. Just like John Coffey, who was happy to die if it meant liberation from life’s cruelties, Paul realizes that he, too, almost wishes to die. He writes, “We each owe a death, there are no exceptions, I know that, but sometimes, oh God, the Green Mile is so long.”
While condemned prisoners (such as John) and old men (such as Paul) might be exceptionally aware of the proximity of their death, everyone, without exception, is bound to walk a “Green Mile” of their own—to live their life knowing that death awaits them in the end. The E block’s Green Mile, then, serves as a powerful metaphor for the existential condition of humanity as a whole.
Death and the Death Penalty ThemeTracker
Death and the Death Penalty Quotes in The Green Mile
A left turn meant life—if you called what went on in the sunbaked exercise yard life, and many did; many lived it for years, with no apparent ill effects. Thieves and arsonists and sex criminals, all talking their talk and walking their walk and making their little deals.
In a way, that was the worst; Old Sparky never burned what was inside them, and the drugs they inject them with today don't put it to sleep. It vacates, jumps to someone else, and leaves us to kill husks that aren't really alive anyway.
I think they would have given a good deal to unsee what was before them, and none of them would ever forget it—it was the sort of nightmare, bald and almost smoking in the sun, that lies beyond the drapes and furnishings of good and ordinary lives—church suppers, walks along country lanes, honest work, love-kisses in bed. There is a skull in every man, and I tell you there is a skull in the lives of all men. They saw it that day, those men—they saw what sometimes grins behind the smile.
It was over. We had once again succeeded in destroying what we could not create. Some of the folks in the audience had begun talking in those low voices again; most sat with their heads down, looking at the floor, as if stunned. Or ashamed.
Everyone—black as well as white—thinks it's going to be better over the next jump of land. It's the American damn way. Even a giant like Coffey doesn't get noticed everywhere he goes . . . until, that is, he decides to kill a couple of little girls. Little white girls.
This is the real circus, I thought, closing my eyes for a second. This is the real circus right here, and we’re all just a bunch of trained mice. Then I put the thought out of my mind, and we started to rehearse.
I could hear Del breathing in great dry pulls of air, lungs that would be charred bags less than four minutes from now laboring to keep up with his fear-driven heart. The fact that he had killed half a dozen people seemed at that moment the least important thing about him. I’m not trying to say anything about right and wrong here, but only to tell how it was.
“[…] But none of those things are the reason I want to help save her, if she can be saved. What’s happening to her is an offense, goddammit, an offense. To the eyes and the ears and the heart.”
“Very noble, but I doubt like hell if that's what put this bee in your bonnet,” Brutal said. “I think it's what happened to Del. You want to balance it off somehow.”
I’ll be okay, they ain’t killers, Percy would think . . . and then, maybe, he’d think of Old Sparky and it would cross his mind that yes, in a way we were killers. I'd done seventy-seven myself, more than any of the men I'd ever put the chest-strap on, more than Sergeant York himself got credit for in World War I.
“I mean we're fixing to kill a gift of God,” he said. “One that never did any harm to us, or to anyone else. What am I going to say if I end up standing in front of God the Father Almighty and He asks me to explain why I did it? That it was my job? My job?”
Old Sparky seems such a thing of perversity when I look back on those days, such a deadly bit of folly. Fragile as blown glass, we are, even under the best of conditions. To kill each other with gas and electricity, and in cold blood? The folly. The horror.
John saved me, too, and years later, standing in the pouring Alabama rain and looking for a man who wasn't there in the shadows of an underpass, standing amid the spilled luggage and the ruined dead, I learned a terrible thing: sometimes there is absolutely no difference at all between salvation and damnation.