In The Green Mile, the justice system is not always as effective as it should be. While it may succeed in punishing dangerous criminals, it can also mandate the death of innocent people such as John Coffey. The justice system is limited, too, in that many violent and cruel actions go unpunished because they take place beyond its reach. As such, even though the law can separate what is legal from what is illegal, it does not account for all unjust or immoral actions. Faced with the stark limitations of the American justice system, many characters turn to a higher authority when it comes to questions of morality and justice in order to make sense of the world around them, trusting that only God can judge what is right and wrong. Relying blindly on God’s judgment, however, is also shown to have its pitfalls, as “God’s will” is used throughout the book to justify a variety of actions—from the horrific to the deeply courageous. As such, morality and justice, each in their own way, remain elusive and subject to personal interpretation as characters attempt to give meaning to the world’s injustice and cruelty.
While the law is meant to punish criminals, King shows that it does not always succeed in differentiating the guilty from the innocent. William Wharton is a perfect model of sadism. His entire existence is focused on hurting others, and he takes joy in even the most insignificant acts of violence. Even after he is condemned for various crimes and knows he will die on the electric chair, he still takes pride in harming the people around him. He attempts to strangle Dean to death, threatens to rape Percy, and shoots liquefied Moon Pie into Brutal’s face, even as he knows these actions will lead to him spending a day or two in solitary confinement. Curtis Anderson, the warden’s chief assistant, summarizes Wharton’s mentality by underlining one sentence in his report: “This man just doesn’t care.” Wharton’s amoral attitude and crimes—and in particular the discovery that he is the actual murderer of the Detterick girls—only confirm that he is deserving of punishment.
John Coffey, by contrast, is an example of the law’s failings. While the circumstances surrounding the Detterick twins’ rape and murder seem to clearly indicate John Coffey as the culprit, Paul later realizes that Coffey is entirely innocent and that he was, in fact, trying to heal the girls, not kill them. However, this realization does not lead to exoneration for John, who dies on the electric chair like any other criminal, executed for a crime he never committed. This combination of impunity (as some terrible crimes evade punishment by the law) and injustice (as innocent men are condemned as criminals) suggests that the law does not provide the right standard through which to judge each person’s true guilt and innocence. Neither does the law succeed in creating a more moral society. While it might punish crimes that have already been committed, it proves incapable of eradicating the human impulse to harm others. Paul portrays cruelty as something inherent to humanity, as even ordinary civilians—not just locked-up criminals—prove capable of deeply sadistic behavior.
The behaviors of Percy Wetmore and Brad Dolan suggest that, while human cruelty can undergo transformations and reincarnations, it never fully disappears. Percy is a character who derives joy and excitement from harming other individuals. The only reason he works as a prison guard instead of accepting an easier job elsewhere is because he is fascinated by the idea of taking part in executions. He beats Delacroix upon his arrival, stomps his mouse to death, and, in his last and most cruel action, makes him suffer an agonizing death on the electric chair. In the completely different setting of the nursing home, Brad Dolan is reminiscent of Percy. Brad takes pleasure in harassing Paul, spying on him as he goes out on his walks, and threatening to hurt him if he doesn’t reveal his “secret.” His hatred for Paul has no clear motive, for Paul has done nothing to antagonize Brad. Rather, it is motivated by a pure desire for control and manipulation. His behavior reminds Paul so much of Percy’s that he repeatedly confuses the two names in his head and begins to believe that Brad is a reincarnation of Percy. Yet despite these men’s cruelty and immoral behavior, neither of them is ever punished by the law, suggesting once more that the law and the justice system do not necessarily have anything to do with justice or morality. Paul, in fact, begins to believe that cruelty is inherent to the human race and that no form of punishment, not even the electric chair, can suppress the evil inclinations of mankind.
Faced with the limitations of human law, many characters turn to divine law in order to make sense of the world around them. However, even this moral perspective proves limited, for much of what people consider to be “God’s will” remains subject to personal interpretation. Wishing to atone for Delacroix’s horrific execution, Paul decides to use John Coffey’s divine powers to heal Melinda Moores of her brain tumor. Despite having to sneak John out of prison to do so, Paul and the guards feel that the moral value of their deed outweighs the importance of abiding by the law. At the same time, in their everyday tasks, the guards are involved in actions that they know might be morally wrong. Paul admits that it is possible to think of his job as criminal: “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.” Paul’s wife Janice sees the situation in a similar light when she realizes that Coffey, who is innocent, will still face the electric chair. She calls Paul and his fellow guards “cowards” and “murderer[s],” arguing that executing an innocent man on the electric chair is the same as killing him in cold blood, as any murderer might do. During John Coffey’s execution, Brutal, too, becomes convinced that he is taking part in an immoral action. Despite the legality of what he is doing, he fears that God will send him to hell for killing an innocent man.
Throughout the book, different characters refer to God’s will in order to justify a variety of actions, sometimes even deeply horrific ones. After Delacroix’s execution, Brutal realizes that people will not necessarily understand his horrific death as proof of the evils of capital punishment. Rather, he argues, they will see his suffering as the will of God. “As for your witnesses,” he says cynically, “most of them will be telling their friends tomorrow night that it was poetic justice—Del there burned a bunch of people alive, so we turned around and burned him alive. Except they won't say it was us. They’ll say it was the will of God, working through us.” Paradoxically, a single unspeakable act of cruelty (burning someone alive) is considered moral or immoral depending on mere circumstances. What the guards see as the unwarranted suffering of an innocent man can be interpreted by others as just retribution for a horrific crime.
Neither human law nor divine justice thus proves capable of righting all wrongs or accounting for human suffering. While some people believe that behaving morally means showing everyone compassion and respect, others trust that morality involves retribution, however violent the punishment may be. In both cases, people invoke “God’s will” as a justification for their views. Thus, Morality, justice, and God’s will are ideas that remain open to subjective interpretation throughout The Green Mile, as people use these concepts to justify actions of all kind, compassionate or cruel, according to what fits with their conception of the world.
Morality and Justice ThemeTracker
Morality and Justice Quotes in The Green Mile
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.
Meanness is like an addicting drug—no one on earth is more qualified to say that than me—and I thought that, after a certain amount of experimentation, Percy had gotten hooked on it. He liked what he had done to Delacroix’s mouse. What he liked even more was Delacroix’s dismayed screams.
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.
As for your witnesses, most of them will be telling their friends tomorrow night that it was poetic justice—Del there burned a bunch of people alive, so we turned around and burned him alive. Except they won't say it was us. They'll say it was the will of God, working through us. Maybe there's even some truth to that. And you want to know the best part? The absolute cat’s pajamas? Most of their friends will wish they'd been here to see it.
“[…] 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 believe there is good in the world, all of it flowing in one way or another from a loving God. But I believe there’s another force as well, one every bit as real as the God I have prayed to my whole life, and that it works consciously to bring all our decent impulses to ruin. Not Satan, I don't mean Satan (although I believe he is real, too), but a kind of demon of discord, a prankish and stupid thing that laughs with glee when an old man sets himself on fire trying to light his pipe or when a much-loved baby puts its first Christmas toy in its mouth and chokes to death on it. I’ve had a lot of years to think on this, all the way from Cold Mountain to Georgia Pines, and I believe that force was actively at work among us on that morning, swirling everywhere like a fog, trying to keep John Coffey away from Melinda Moores.
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?”
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.