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Literature / The Green Mile

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"This happened in 1932, when the state penitentiary was still at Cold Mountain. And the electric chair was there too, of course."
Paul Edgecombe

1996 dramatic novel by Stephen King. Originally released as a Serial Novel in six installments.

The year is 1932. John Coffey, a Gentle Giant black man, has been condemned to die by the electric chair for the raping and killing of two young girls. What follows is a supernatural journey that not only reveals Coffey's wondrous powers, but proves he didn't do the crime. Sadly he still does the time, but the journey toward Old Sparky changes the compassionate lead guard's life forever.

Eventually made into a movie in 1999, directed by Frank Darabont, who also directed The Shawshank Redemption, and starring Tom Hanks. And like Shawshank, it was an Oscar charmer, if not a winner.


The book provides examples of:

  • Adoring the Pests: This book features Mr. Jingles / Steamboat Willy, a mouse found running around the death row cells. They decide not to kill him, aside from the Jerk Ass Percy, because of his unusual behavior: fearless in the face of humans, accepts food only from the regular guards, and his searching of the cells as if he's awaiting for somebody. Mr. Jingles adopts Eduard Delacroix when he arrives and entertains all with his spool fetching trick, even performing a show for the guards on another block.
  • Age Without Youth: See Long-Lived, below.
  • Ailment-Induced Cruelty: Melinda Moores, the wife of Cold Mountain Penitentiary's warden, develops an inoperable brain tumor. Her condition starts out as severe headaches, and as she declines, she begins to lapse into swearing. It initially sounds like Hollywood Tourette's, albeit Played for Drama as it's so obviously unlike her, but becomes so crude and malicious that it's described like Demonic Possession.
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  • Angel Unaware: John Coffey may or may not be an angel.
  • Animal Motif: Paul compares Percy Wetmore to a Banty Rooster because of his large hair and aggressive personality to make up for his rather small stature.
  • Artistic License – History: King admits that he did not research the time period very heavily, so there are some anachronisms — for example, Mr. Jingles could very well have been called "Steamboat Willy", but the Tijuana bible with Popeye and Olive Oyl probably couldn't have happened and neither Allen's Alley nor Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge had premiered in 1932. In-universe, this is justified as Paul being an Unreliable Narrator because of his aging memory — for example, Elaine notes that Paul said his son was an adult at the time, which Paul admits doesn't add up.
  • Ask a Stupid Question...: Warden Moores's wife Melinda has a brain tumor, which causes her to swear uncontrollably. When Paul is on the phone with Moores and asks him if he'll be home at the evening, he answers: "No, I'm taking Melinda out squaredancing. We're going to do-si-do, allemand left, and then tell the fiddler he's a rooster-dick motherfucker." Paul has to force himself not to laugh.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: To show how tough he is, Edgecombe tells a story of how Moores faced down a prisoner with a shank. It ended with the prisoner on the ground with a broken wrist, calling for his mommy. Moores replies, "I'm not her, but if I were, I'd hike up my skirts and piss on you from the loins that gave you birth."
  • Ax-Crazy: William "Wild Bill" Wharton. The true culprit of Coffey's accused murder, he takes complete pleasure in what he did and spends his stay in the prison practically bouncing off the walls.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For
    • Percy is only working at the prison because "he wants to experience one right up close where he can smell the guy's nuts cooking". The results are bad enough when read. On film? Hoo, boy.
    Paul Edgecomb: [Paul grabs Percy to face Del as he's being electrocuted] "You watch, you son of a bitch!"
    • Percy also made mention he wanted to go to the Briar Ridge mental facility after seeing an execution. He'd eventually end up there, all right...
  • Benevolent Boss
    • Warden Hal Moores, while somewhat gruff and authoritative, nonetheless cares for the men under his charge, treats the prisoners decently enough, and is a devoted family man. Especially when placed in contrast with a certain other warden from a different Stephen King story.
    • Paul Edgecombe as well. He's in charge of the cellblock, and treats both his colleagues and the prisoners with respect.
  • Berserk Button: Wharton likes his nickname to be Billy the Kid, not Wild Bill. Wharton earns himself some time in solitary by abusing a guard. Paul Edgecombe calls him Wild Bill while applying a straitjacket, and gets back a writhing, agonized lecture about the difference between the two names. "Brutal" Howell proceeds to lean in to the restrained Wharton and push that red, shiny, jolly candy-like button with both hands.
  • Big Electric Switch: Labeled "Mabel's Hair Drier (sic)", it's the one that kicks off the prisoners' execution. It being the main power source, Paul actually demands that it be kept on because Delacroix's death is just that bad.
  • Blatant Lies: "I didn't know the sponge was supposed to be wet," Percy's pathetic excuse after he condemns Delacroix' to a painful, excruciating death.
  • Blessed with Suck
    • Coffey's full powers are unknown, but he's capable of feeling the pain of others and can "absorb" said pain into his body and expel it, a process that is very painful for him. "It's like pieces of glass in my head. All the time."
    • Edgecombe's long life. He gets to live well past the average human lifespan, but at the cost that he still ages until he's weak and in constant pain. This is on top of losing all his loved ones, including his wife. "Sometimes there is absolutely no difference at all between salvation and damnation."
  • Card-Carrying Villain: Wharton, who awarded himself his own card. When Coffey calls him "a bad man" he responds: "That's right, nigger. Bad as you'd want."
  • City with No Name: While the film is very explicitly set in Louisiana, the novel is only set in a nameless southern state (definitely not Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, or Florida). Geographical and demographic cues (references to Baton Rouge and LSU, the multiple Cajun characters) point to Louisiana as the likely setting, but a few things, like Brutal calling Del a "Louisiana boy" and the state being divided into counties rather than parishes, leave matters ambiguous and render the setting less an explicit state and more a stand-in for all of the Deep South during the Great Depression.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death:
    • Paul mentions that one of the prisoners Arthur Flanders (nicknamed 'The President) had his death sentence commuted to life in prison, but was drowned in the prison laundry twelve years later — drowned in dry-cleaning fluid, which apparently melted most of his face off, let alone what it did to his lungs.
    • Delacroix's botched execution. It's not called "The Bad Death of Eduard Delacroix" for nothing. The guards are supposed to soak a sponge in saltwater and put it inside the electrode cap so the current can easily flow through the prisoner's brain and kill him with on suffering. When Percy deliberately leaves the sponge dry, Del catches fire in the chair and suffers a prolonged, agonizing death.
  • Cursed with Awesome: Coffey blesses (or curses) those he helps with unnaturally long lifespans. Paul is 104 when he narrates the events of the book, and doesn't look like a day over 60. Mr. Jingles lives for 64 years after Coffey's execution.
  • Cut the Juice: Averted during Del's execution. Even though it goes horribly wrong, Paul orders his men to continue because shutting down and doing the whole thing again would be even crueller.
  • Deadly Distant Finale: In each character's last appearance, Paul describes their eventual fate. Every major character in the book is covered.
  • Death by Woman Scorned: Paul mentions that during his time, there was only one woman in the death row, who put up with years of her husband beating her, but when she found out that he's having an affair, she killed him right away.
  • December–December Romance: Paul and Elaine. Considering how old Paul actually is, you could argue that this is actually a Mayfly–December Romance.
  • Deconstructed Character Archetype: John Coffey is a deconstruction of messiah figures. John's powers are more a burden to him than a blessing, as he feels the pain of others and often feels their feelings at the point of death. Causing Coffey to be in constant agony and pain. He can bring people back from the dead, but the guilt with failing is too immeasurable to handle. He can cure any disease, but he has to absorb it and literally vomit it out, draining him of his energy and requiring rest. The fact that he's a black man in the 1930s makes things more difficult for him due to racial profiling and segregation, as he can feel their hatred for him.
  • Deep South: Though the state is unnamed, it is heavily implied to be in Georgia (though The Film of the Book puts it in Louisiana).
  • Despair Event Horizon: Kathe and Cora Detterick's deaths, for their parents. It so visibly aged them that Paul didn't recognize them at Coffey's execution; as he puts it "you don't often see elderly people who haven't yet climbed out of their thirties." Klaus dies of a stroke not long after, which doesn't surprise Paul the least.
  • Dirty Coward: Percy. Emphasis on dirty. He constantly harasses, beats, and overall torments the prisoners for no other reason than that it amuses him. However, the second Wharton gets his hands on him, he's reduced to a pathetic puddle of tears. On top of condemning Delacroix to a painful death for the offense of just laughing at him, Percy can't even look at the resulting horror, let alone fess up to it.
    • Percy is given one golden opportunity to lay into a prisoner with his beloved hickory baton - a prisoner who legitimately deserves a brutal beating, no less, and in a situation where he'd turn out a hero rather than a pathetic bully - yet he's too busy quaking in his boots to do anything of use.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: See the Nightmare Fuel entry in the YMMV page? Percy did that because Delacroix laughed at him for pissing himself when Wharton grabbed him. The stupid bastard thought it would be a "cute little prank" to see what would happen if he didn't wet the sponge that they used to channel "Old Sparky's" shock into a person's brain. He got more than he bargained for, and Paul made sure he watched the entire thing.
  • Downer Ending: Edgecombe is spiritually broken after executing Coffey, and is still alive sixty years later, hoping he'll die before any more of his friends do.
  • Dramatic Wind: Right before the storm on the night of Eduard Delacroix' execution.
  • Due to the Dead: Or rather, due to the dead men walking (even though Edgecombe doesn't like that phrase). It's very important to the regulars of E Block that the prisoners in their care spend their final days treated with respect and consideration, that execution is painless and the body disposed of with decency.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: Mostly because King was writing by the seat of his pants, a few of the sentiment's of Paul's in the first two books (especially those of Coffey actually being guilty of the crime) don't make sense for someone who was writing the manuscript in his old age to do (as he would know everything about it...even the spoilers). An entire chapter between the aside from the first time the mouse came onto the Mile and the return to the "present time" of Coffey presented Paul as someone who was totally insinuating Coffey was a rapist and murderer.
  • Electric Torture: Not by the intention of most of the guards, who try and take care that the executions are quick, clean, and as painless as Old Sparky allows. But what happens in the Bad Death of Eduard Delacroix certainly qualifies.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Wharton hates being called "Wild Bill"; he wants to be called "Billy the Kid".
  • Empathic Healer: Coffey heals by touch, then spits out the hurt in the form of weird firefly-like things.
  • Exact Words: During the early stages of writing up his memories of the past, Paul says that Percy had gone to Briar Ridge Hospital after the main events of the story. He recalls this late in the book, but reveals that Percy went not as an employee but as a patient.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin: The installment/chapter titled "The Bad Death of Eduard Delacroix"
  • The Executioner: Paul and most of his coworkers are tasked with the electrocutions of convicts, with Paul reminding he executed 73 prisoners.
  • Eye Scream: Melting eyes, as part of a horrific electrical execution.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Paul mentions that some inmates had to be dragged to the chair kicking and screaming; however, the people who are executed in the book (The Chief, Delacroix and Coffey) all manage to remain more or less collected and dignified.
  • Fate Worse than Death: One can say Coffey inflicted this on Percy. And Paul. The former intentionally, the latter not.
  • Fiery Coverup: Part of the crime that put Delacroix on the Mile including setting a building a blaze, which killed six other people.
  • Flying Dutchman: Paul, at least to some degree. It's unknown whether or not he can or will die one day, but as it is at the end, he has to walk the other old, in pain, and losing his friends and family.
  • Forced to Watch: A rare example of it being done on a villain. While Delacroix is being slowly electrocuted to death due to Percy's actions, Paul forces Percy to watch the horror unfold after the latter turns away.
  • Framing Device: Georgia Pines nursing home, Paul's current home as he writes down the events that happened in the prison.
  • Full-Name Basis: Most of the guards called John Coffey by his full name. Most of the other prisoners got nicknames like The Chief and The President.
  • Gentle Giant:
    • John Coffey, whose huge size is noted several times, but he's very timid and kind.
    • Brutus "Brutal" Howell, who only gets the nickname for his size and somewhat short temper. He's actually very kind and soft-spoken.
  • Healing Hands: Coffey's powers require him to be able to touch his patients, as close to the injury as possible. Thus is he mistaken for a murderer: when the posse finds a Scary Black Man with a mangled white girl under each arm, bloody hands pressing their crushed skulls, who would believe he had found them that way and was trying to heal them using magic? Also creates an awkward situation when Coffey heals Edgecombe's groin infection.
  • I'll Kill You!: Paul threatens to electrocute Old Toot-Toot for real if he continues with his salacious remarks during the rehearsal for Bitterbuck's execution.
  • Irony:
    • Percy finally got to go to that hospital, but not as a guard. Instead, he goes as a patient, having been completely brainwashed by what Coffey does to him.
    • Similarly, Dean Stanton, whom the other guards had protected on account of his kids, is the first of the four main guards to die, only a few months after Coffey is executed.
  • Jerkass
    • Percy Wetmore, a spoiled new guard who joins the cellblock just because he wants to bully the prisoners and watch them die. He insults pretty much everyone he comes across, kills Steamboat Willie just to upset Delacroix, and makes Delacroix die very painfully just because he laughed at him once. Percy never gets better, and he certainly doesn't apologize for anything.
    • Also Wharton. On top of hurling insults often, he also likes to torment the guards by spraying food and drink in their face, pissing on them, and in general just being crude as can be. He's also the one who really killed the girls, and lets Coffey take the fall for him.
  • Karmic Death: Delacroix, on Death Row for rape and murder by arson, burns to death during his botched execution. It was bad enough that even the victims' loved ones were shocked at the brutality of Percy's Disproportionate Retribution
  • Karma Houdini: Averted Trope. Stephen King sets up Percy to be this at the start of the book by stating that he eventually went to the Briar Ridge Mental Hospital, which is supposed to be much easier, friendlier, cosier and much better paying than working in the Death Row. And then Laser-Guided Karma kicks in, his mind gets destroyed, and he does indeed go to Briar Ridge Mental Hospital, but as an inmate patient.
  • Kick the Dog: Two by Percy; when he stomps Mr. Jingles and what he says to Delcroix about Mouseville not existing before executing him.
  • Kick the Son of a Bitch: The prison guards do this to Percy a lot. In particular, they often mock him for fearing Wharton so much, and can't help but take some glee in shutting him off before they pull off the "prison break."
  • The Lancer: "Brutal" (although he also qualifies as a Big Guy.
  • Last-Minute Reprieve: Subverted; Edgecombe makes it a point to say the governor's line next to Old Sparky never rang. Both commutations (to a black woman who killed her womanizing husband and an insurance salesman who killed his father to collect the insurance money) were well before they were scheduled to be executed.
  • Let Them Die Happy: A basic rule of the care of the condemned. Edgecombe hears many pleas and last requests, and promises to keep each one, no matter how unlikely. Can he keep each one? No, the important point is that the prisoners die with an easy conscience. Another reason Percy's a Jerkass is that he broke the rule regarding a quick, painless death with a condemned in the chair...
  • Long-Lived: Paul and Mr. Jingles, as a result of being cured by John Coffey, wind up "cured" of everything for the rest of their lives. Functionally, this means they keep aging but are immune to everything that would eventually kill them. When Paul is telling the story, he's over 100, and Mr. Jingles - a freaking mouse, - is over 60. Paul considers it his punishment for allowing Coffey to be executed. However, Mr. Jingles does finally die, so the punishment will end someday. The average lifespan of a mouse is one and a half year, topping at 3. Mr. Jingles lived to see 60. If we follow the pattern, Paul will live up to 20 times the human lifespan, or about 1000 years for someone born at the early 20th Century.
  • Magical Negro: Literally. Coffey, a black man in 1930's America, has the power to take the pain of others. He's the most kindhearted of the cast and only has ill intent to people like Wharton and Percy, and often helps the white guards of his cellblock. It's a combination of ill circumstance and the current-era racism that leads to his death. Though one could argue this is not an example of the trope as Spike Lee would define it, since John Coffey's influence actually makes Paul's life far worse than it would have been otherwise.
  • Magical Realism: A textbook example. Psychic visions, supernatural healing and near-immortality are all plot points, but the real focus is on the fairly mundane story of a prison guard bonding with a wrongfully accused prisoner on death row.
  • Meaningful Name
    • John Coffey, i.e. Jesus Christ- King even joked about how blatant it was in On Writing.
    • Percy Wetmore. Fitting, for the guy who talks a lot of talks but wets his pants in the face of trouble.
    • Inverted with Brutus "Brutal" Howell; despite being a rather intimidating powerhouse of a man, Paul acknowledges that he's really a very kind and noble person, who rarely uses his size and strength to intimidate or harm others... except for Percy and Wild Bill, who both deserve it. Could also be an averted case of Names to Run Away from Really Fast. Interesting that the main character's right-hand man is named Brutus.
    • Paul Edgecombe— he "combs" the "edge" between life and death, making sure that the condemned die cleanly.
  • Nobody Poops:
    • Averted, as Edgecombe's urinary infection is a plot point.
    • Wharton pisses on a passing guard: promising "I'm also cooking up some turds to go with it, nice soft ones!", and scares Percy into soiling himself with threat of buggery.
    • Percy soils himself again (out both ends) when Coffey infects him with the disease he took from Melinda, and then he goes catatonic.
  • Not What It Looks Like: Dramatic example. Coffey is found with the bodies of the raped and murdered girls in his arms. When he's asked what happened, he says: "I couldn't help it. I tried to take it back, but it was too late!" Everybody assumes that he killed the girls, and was talking about his own murderous impulses. Actually, he found them and tried to heal them, but it was too late for that.
  • Offscreen Villainy: Used deliberately to allow audience sympathy. Remember, the men on death row are there because they were convicted of murder. Yet because we never witness the crimes of Delacroix or Bitterbuck, only their last days, we get to know them as people and not just criminals.
  • Older Than They Look: Paul comments on Melinda retaining a youthful look through her older years due to Coffey's healing powers. The same applies to Paul himself; he looks like he's around 80, but he's actually 104.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Klaus and Marjorie Detterick go to sleep with their young twin daughters camping out on the porch for the night — and wake to find the girls not only gone, but the screen door destroyed, spatters of blood on the porch and the family guard dog with a broken neck. A frantic search only results in the discovery of the girls' raped and murdered corpses, in the arms of the man who murdered them. However, Paul then works out that John Coffey didn't actually abduct the girls; it was William Wharton who did the deed, after he worked as a hired hand on the Detterick farm for a few days and learned exactly when there'd be a prime opportunity to strike. It's all too easy for a cunning and sadistic person to get close to your children...
  • Pop-Cultural Osmosis Failure: At the guards' meeting that brought out the simple plan to cure Moores' wife, Paul's wife butts out by saying she's "visiting with Miss Jane Austen, and she's very good company." Harry immediately inquires as to Miss Austen's availability, and Brutal has to tell him that she's an author that's been dead for over a century.
  • Possession Presumes Guilt: The novel has Gentle Giant John Coffey brought to Cold Mountain Penitentiary, convicted of raping and killing two young girls. The damning evidence was being seen with the lifeless bodies in his arms. Coffey is not a killer; he was trying to use his Magical Negro powers to restore them to life.
  • Pretty Boy: Percy is described as "pretty" at least twice in the book—once by Wharton and once (grudgingly) by Paul.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Everyone throws one at Percy after what he does to Del.
    Paul: You son of a bitch, you stand there and watch!
    • Paul's wife gives the crew one after they've exhausted all the ways they could save Coffey from his fate. They get over it later.
  • Resourceful Rodent: Mr. Jingles is a mouse that was caught by Eduard Delacroix to perform tricks. For his most famous trick, Delacroix would throw a wooden spool and Mr. Jingles would roll it back to him. Delacroix even jokes about the idea of joining the circus with trained mice.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Who exactly is John Coffey? Why does he have healing powers? Why does he have so many scars? Even he doesn't know.
  • Rule of Three: Three executions take place during Edgecombe's time at the E Block. The first two don't go as planned, with Bitterbuck only going after a "roll on three" but otherwise just as painlessly as expected and Delacroix's execution being sabotaged. Only John Coffey, the last to be executed under Edgecombe, goes out both painlessly and with the "roll on two".
  • Say Your Prayers: The condemned are given an opportunity to pray with a minister before their execution. Delacroix also recites the Hail Mary in French.
  • Scary Black Man: Subverted. Coffey is big and scary looking, but gentle and childlike.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Connections!: Percy really only gets and keeps his job because of his relations. Later defied when the rest of the guards warn him not to tell anyone that they straitjacketed him and locked him in solitary confinement, reminding him that he's not the only one who knows people. And when John Coffey renders him catatonic by giving him Melinda Moore's cancer, his 'connections' get him a cushy room in Briar Ridge — not that he's aware enough to appreciate it.
  • Serial Novel: A very rare latter 20th-century example.
  • Shout-Out: In editions released after The Film of the Book, Paul and his wife dance to "Cheek To Cheek".
  • Significant Monogram: John Coffey.
  • A Simple Plan: The entire scheme to heal the Warden's wife, and the cover-up afterward.
  • Sissy Villain: Percy causes quite a lot of pain for the guards and prisoners alike, but in the end, he's a coward who can't put up even a bit of a fight.
  • Stupidity-Inducing Attack: John Coffey does this to Percy, not through evil intentions but to remove the threat to his friends, resulting in the guard ending up in an insane asylum.
  • Survivor Guilt: Paul Edgecombe, by the end of the story, has survived almost all of his friends and family and hates himself for it. This is especially true in the case of his deceased wife, who died in the same bus crash he was in.
  • Sympathetic Murderer: Eduard Delacroix. He committed a horrible crime: he raped and murdered a young girl, then set the corpse on fire to destroy the evidence, but the fire spread to a building and six more people died. However, on death row he appears to be a shy and gentle man, who never does anything violent. Paul states that "whatever it was that had done that awful thing was already gone".
  • Team Pet: Steamboat Willy a.k.a Mr.Jingles.
  • This Is Reality: Elaine guesses correctly that Coffey was executed, because "Providence-with-a-capital-P is greatly overrated in the lives of ordinary humans"
    • Similarly, Paul comments on how, in the movies, the governor's line to the execution room always rang right before the switch was pulled, and the contrast was that it never did ring in any of the 78 executions he took part in.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Percy, Percy, Percy. He kept having to be reminded to walk down the center of the corridor so none of the inmates could reach them. This cost him twice, the second more catastrophic than the first.
  • Tuneless Song of Madness: One of the many hints that Wild Bill Wharton hasn't been neutered by prison discipline is his gleeful singing at the death of Eduard Delecroix.
  • Unreliable Narrator: The events might not have happened exactly as the aging Paul remembers them; for example, he remembers his son being grown at the time; when Elaine asks about it, Paul admits that it doesn't add up correctly.
    • Except it does add up; Elaine mistakenly assumes Paul must have been quite young during the events at Cold Mountain, as she believes he is in his 80's as a Georgia Pines resident, 60-odd years later. Paul admits he was 40 in 1932 when Coffey came to the Green Mile, and did indeed have 2 grown children. He is around 104 when he relates his story to Elaine in the nursing home.
  • Villainous Crush: Wild Bill Wharton is explained as looking at Percy with a "dreamy like gaze". He even tells Percy he'd "rather fuck your asshole than your sister's pussy", though that was probably more of a "screw with the guard" moment.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Literally; King's wife asked the question and it led to the Framing Device. Before this, he'd actually forgotten that he'd included a magically resurrected and seemingly immortal mouse in the story.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Paul Edgecombe, at the end, wishes for death after living for so long and losing so many people close to him.
  • Woman Scorned: Paul mentions that he had only one woman on the death row, Beverly McCall. Beverly put up with her husband beating her for six years, but murdered him on the day she found out that he was cheating on her.
  • Younger Than They Look: By the time Coffey's execution rolls around, the 30-something parents of the two dead girls turned into an elderly couple from grief.