At the heart of the novel “The green mile” by King is the narration of the interaction between the key characters playing the role of either the jail guards or death row inmates, in a state penitentiary located at Cold Mountain. Although the story was recounted from a single point of view, the story is complicated by the description of three major scenes. First, the retelling of events and relationships of the key characters interacting at E Block.
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Paul Edgecombe, the main character asserted that there was no death row facility. However, his recollection of the prison system’s E Block fits the description of a facility holding convicted felons known in popular parlance as “dead men walking” (King, 2017).
Second, the recounting of events and the relationships of primary and secondary characters outside the prison facility. Finally, the description of events and relationships of key and supporting characters several decades after some of them retired from active duty or released from imprisonment. Nevertheless, the most critical parts occurred at the E Block, especially the events that transpired before, during, and after an inmate was condemned to die via the electric chair.
Aside from key moments related to the final hour in the life of a death row inmate, the story follows the interaction between Paul Edgecombe, Harry Terwilliger, John Coffey, William Wharton and other key characters. Edgecombe and Terwilliger were the top two jail guards responsible for the upkeep and the harmonious relationships of the people that were working, and those who were waiting for the arrival of the next dreaded order known as “date of execution” or DOE (King, 2017).
The novel highlighted common issues in a typical prison system but offers no resolution to the said problems. The social aspect of a penal system influenced the behavior of the guards and the prisoners. For example, the presence of Percy Wetmore threatened to disrupt the relatively harmonious interaction of the jail officials and the convicted felons under their care. Edgecombe hated Wetmore, especially when the former shamelessly utilized his personal connections with the state governor in order to get employment favors and the power to bail him out of scandalous situations. However, Edgecombe himself broke the law when he wanted to help the warden’s wife to get treatment from an unlikely source.
One of the important sub-plots was the description of the life of John Coffey. He was a giant of a man towering over six feet and eight inches, and weighing close to 300 pounds. Coffey was wrongfully accused, a fact that was not lost to Edgecombe when he considered the extent of the gigantic fellow’s mental retardation. It turned out at a later time, that it was actually another death row inmate, William Wharton who was the real perpetrator in Coffey’s alleged double murder and rape case.
In addition to Coffey’s mental health struggles and the injustice that he suffered, he was also described as having special abilities. In an interesting twist in the novel’s plot, Coffey was illegally smuggled out of prison in order to heal the warden’s wife.
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Although Coffey had special powers and he was considered as an important member of the jailhouse community, he chose to die, because he cannot find any reason to keep on living in a world that hated him because of his size and mental deficiencies. In another critical twist in the story, the narrator presented the readers with the far-reaching impact of Coffey’s healing powers. In the end, Edgecombe lived beyond the age of one hundred.
The same thing can be said of the other living creatures that tasted Coffey’s gracious healing touch. These images were juxtaposed to the image of Coffey’s cruel death. It was a powerful and profound ending, one revealing an old Paul Edgecombe who refused to die and Coffey the healer, an innocent man condemned to die a painful death. The ending created a complex dilemma and a haunting question as to who has the power to let one person succumb to an early demise, while allowing another one to suffer through the ignominy of a long life without meaning.
Stephen King’s novel does not contradict the concepts and assertions that are found within the class material. Although the book under review is different from the textbook, it does not contradict the contents of the said reference material. In fact, the novel reinforces the ideas presented by the authors and other resources that provided the bulk of the information used in class. King’s novel reinforces the class material in two ways: it helps students visualize prison life and provides a narrative that clarifies the human-to-human interaction within a prison system.
Using Stephen King’s book as a tool to visualize the challenges that jail guards and prison inmates experience within the context of incarceration is one of the appropriate and effective ways to utilize the novel. In the book entitled Prisons and Prison Life: Costs and Consequences, the author lamented the fact that prisoners with mental health problems are subjected to the same treatment as other convicts (Pollock, 2013).
During class discussions, students encounter similar information discussing the plight of inmates suffering from undiagnosed health problems. They also learn about the need for the implementation of relevant policies in order to distinguish the purpose of a prison system versus a mental health facility. However, in the process of absorbing quantitative data from research findings on how imprisonment exacerbates the mental health issues of certain inmates, the students may find it difficult to empathize with the victims of a flawed system.
The novel helps people to focus not on the numbers but the convicts that require special assistance. The characters in the novel can help students realize the seriousness of the problem. For example, John Coffey and William Wharton’s characters provide visual representations of the terrible consequences and cost-inefficiencies when jail guards are forced to handle the effects of mental retardation or psychotic behavior.
In Coffey’s case jail officials were made aware of the reason for his incarceration. Thus, when they found out that he was charged with homicide, some were distressed on account of his size. For some of the guards it was not hard to imagine how Coffey could easily break their spine if he wanted to bolt out of his jail cell. However, Coffey’s mental state made him as meek as a lamb. In Wharton’s case jail officials tried in vain to rehabilitate him in order to make him into a normal inmate.
They failed, and they wasted a great deal of time and effort, because they were not trained to handle a mentally ill prisoner. Thus, the author’s vivid description of the inmates’ feelings and the psychological struggles of the jail guards can help develop a more nuanced appreciation of prison life.
Using Stephen King’s tome as a tool to analyze the human-to-human interaction of the jail guards and the prisoners is another appropriate way to utilize the said novel. During class discussions, students were presented with seemingly unconnected pieces of information. For example, a sub-topic discussing the unregulated use of a prison system’s solitary confinement facilities informs students about some of the inhumane treatment of people behind bars.
Several days later another sub-topic covers the perils of being incarcerated in a maximum security prison that has little interaction with the outside world. In another occasion, a text or video clip informs the students about the huge disparity in power relations between the jail guards and their prisoners. These topics when presented in a lecture format may seem disjointed and separate from each other. However, the novel provides a narrative that helps the students to see the relationship between the aforementioned sub-topics.
The power of the narrative stitches together the interrelated ideas and insights. Consider for instance the section in the novel that deals with the interaction of the prisoner William Wharton and guards Paul Edgecombe and Harry Terwilliger. Wharton spit into the face of Edgecombe. At a latter time, he urinated into the shoes of another jail guard. As a consequence, Edgecombe and Terwilliger dragged him into a padded cell, the 1930’s version of solitary confinement.
After some time, the guards returned Wharton to his original cell convinced that a prolonged stay inside a dark and windowless room taught him a lesson about the merits of a refined jail house behavior. However, Wharton did not behave himself afterwards and frustrated the guards with his unusual behavior. This sequence automatically creates a mental image as to the impracticality of using harsh behavioral techniques to reform a mentally unstable inmate. One can argue that the presentation of critical information leads to a more persuasive argument, because the students were allowed to see the interconnections of the different facets of prison life.
Conclusion and Final Thoughts
Stephen King’s novel reinforces the class material by providing a narrative that helps the students to visualize the human-to-human interaction between the jail guards and the inmates. Therefore, it is possible to unify the various sub-topics that were discussed in class through a narrative that combines different elements, in order to present a unified story about the struggles, challenges and issues within the confines of a jail cell.
As a result, it is easier for the students to empathize with the incarcerated members of society. More importantly, a heartfelt understanding of the issue may yield positive results at a later date, especially if some of the students become part of a group of stakeholders concerned with the long-term impact of the issues encountered in 21st century prison systems. If allowed to make suggestions on how to improve the effectiveness of Stephen King’s novel as a teaching tool, it has to be made clear that there is a high probability of experiencing better results through the use of a visual medium. In this regard, it is a prudent option to also utilize Green Mile’s film adaptation (Valdes & Darabont, 1999).
Through film viewing, the students are going to have a better understanding of the various elements of prison life. For example, the jail guards are always at risk, especially when handling violent repeat offenders. It is easier to see this problem when the issues are dramatized through a film or video.
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King, S. (2017). The green mile: Complete serial novel. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Pollock, J. (2013). Prisons and prison life: Cost and consequences. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Valdes, D. (Producer), & Darabont, F. (Director). (1999). The green mile. United States: Castle Rock Entertainment.