King: "[T]he idea of a novel in installments [came] at what was, for me, the perfect psychological moment. I had been playing with a story idea on a subject I had always suspected I would get around to sooner or later: the electric chair. ... What, I wondered, would it be like to walk those last forty yards to the electric chair, knowing you were going to die there? What, for that matter, would it be like to be the man who had to strap the condemned in ... or pull the switch? What would such a job take out of you? Even creepier, what might it add?"
When the prospect of serial fiction was pitched to King, he was intrigued. King liked the "high-wire aspect" of writing a novel in installments, since when the first volume was published, the novel was "still far from done, even in rough draft, and the outcome remain[ed] in some doubt".
Most of the novel is set during the Depression, a few weeks in late 1932. Paul Edgecombe is superintendent of E Block at the Cold Mountain penitentiary. E Block is the prison's death row, where men were held in the weeks before their execution. Edgecombe, in the present day a resident of the Georgia Pines nursing home, is writing a memoir of sorts, recalling what happened after a prisoner named John Coffey, a black migrant worker convicted of raping and murdering two nine-year-old girls, arrived at Cold Mountain. (E Block is also referred to by the guards as the Green Mile, because of the lime-coloured linoleum hallway that extends from the cells to the room in which the electric chair - nicknamed Old Sparky - sits.)
At first, there is little doubt about Coffey's guilt. He was found with the bodies of the dead girls. "I tried to take it back," he says when discovered, "but it was too late." His words are accepted by everyone as an admission of guilt, but as the novel continues, Edgecombe becomes convinced of Coffey's innocence. Part of his change of heart stems from Coffey's supernatural gift of healing. Edgecombe's urinary infection is cured when Coffey takes hold of Edgecombe's hands. Coffey also breathes life back into a mouse that another prisoner, Eduard Delacroix, has adopted as a pet.
While guards Brutus Howell, Dean Stanton, and Harry Terwilliger take seriously their boss's edict of keeping the prisoners calm and comfortable until their execution dates, one employee takes sadistic glee in physically and emotionally tormenting the prisoners. Percy Wetmore, an arrogant young man who secured his job only through nepotism, is the clear villain in the novel, as he purposefully botches Delacroix's execution so the man is not so much electrocuted as burned alive in the chair.
That scene, which could probably have been even more gruesome that King portrays it, is one example why The Green Mile can be read as an anti-capital punishment novel. Coffey's execution is the last one (the 78th) over which Edgecombe presides, and Coffey's case seems to have turned him against the death penalty in his later years. Setting the scene early in the first chapter, Edgecombe uses the phrase "state sanctioned murder" and wonders "if execution is a proper punishment". Later on, he writes: "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."
Coffey is rather obviously presented as a Christ figure, weighed down by the hate and cruelty he sees in the world. Tired of the pain he hears and feels, tired of being alone, tired of people being ugly to each other, he accepts his fate.
During the rehearsal for Coffey's execution, Howell admits that this is the first time in his life he feels in danger of hell.
We're fixing to kill a gift of God. 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?As Edgecombe comes to understand that Coffey is innocent of the crime for which he is to be killed - and that nothing can be done to stop the impending execution - Edgecombe feels he must atone for the sin of playing a part in the murder of an innocent man.
Only God could forgive sins, could and did, washing them away in the agonal blood of his crucified Son, but that did not change the responsibility of His children to atone for those sins (and even their simple errors of judgment) whenever possible.When Coffey cures Edgecombe of his urinary infection, Edgecombe knows that he has witnessed a miracle.
For one to rejoice at the sick made well is normal, quite the expected thing, but the person healed has an obligation to then ask why - to meditate on God's will, and the extraordinary lengths to which God has gone to realize His will. ... What did God want of me, in this case?Edgecombe devises a plan for smuggling Coffey out of the prison late one night and bringing him to the home of Warden Hal Moores. By having Coffey heal the warden's wife of a brain tumor, Edgecombe attempts to balance the wrong he will participate in when Coffey is put to death.
Paul F.M. Zahl, writing in Christianity Today, called The Green Mile "an imaginative and dense parable of the triumph of sacrificial love over wickedness and false accusation".
I read The Green Mile in 1996 as each installment was published, feeling that King had produced an excellent first draft - which perhaps made sense considering the schedule he was on - but that the story needed tightening and punching up. Reading the novel 17 years later, I was more accepting of King's framing device of Edgecombe looking back on these momentous few weeks. However, the added supernatural aspect of Mr. Jingles the mouse at Cold Mountain and the Percy-esque character in the nursing home that terrorizes Edgecombe - still seemed superfluous.