The underlying symbolism in Stephen King’s “The Green Mile”

tempo di lettura: 8 minuti

Guys, let’s talk. You are probably here for a book review, but I am afraid none is forthcoming. It is an evening of raised visors, so I am admitting fair and square – you have to read the book first. Unless you do, the insightful and altogether wonderful explanation of the symbols provided to you below will make no sense. At least watch the film, have some decency.

We are going to have to start with the character that is not the protagonist, but is crucial to understanding the biblical and philosophical undercurrents that soaked the book. A lot of people have guessed, and correctly as later Stephen King himself said, that the initials of John Coffey stand for Jesus Christ. He represents the new Messiah, someone sent to us two thousand years after by Mighty God. It explains his extraordinary powers, his gentleness and benevolence, his ability to heal without bringing harm to himself. He is astoundingly tall too, which can be interpreted as the Greatness of God, but in spite of his appearance and his gift he suffers his whole life as he feels the pain of everyone he touches or sees:

I’m rightly tired of the pain I hear and feel, boss. I’m tired of bein on the road, lonely as a robin in the rain. Not never havin no buddy to go on with or tell me where we’s comin from or goin to or why. I’m tired of people bein ugly to each other. It feels like pieces of glass in my head. I’m tired of all the times I’ve wanted to help and couldn’t. I’m tired of bein in the dark. Mostly it’s the pain. There’s too much. If I could end it, I would. But I can’t.

Whenever he exercises his healing power on someone, he lets a swarm of flies out of his mouth, meaning he expels injury or disease out of his body. Now, there are a lot of flies-related references in the Bible, as you might recall. One of the names of Satan is the Lord of Flies. The flies symbolize Evil, and John Coffey, being the embodiment of Good, is able to defeat Evil whenever they clash, and the flies disappear in a cloud of pure white without causing him any true harm.

That spirit of discord, which had jumbled my thoughts like powerful fingers sifting through sand or grains of rice, was gone. I thought I also understood why Harry had been able to act when Brutal and I could only stand, hopeless and indecisive, in front of our boss. Harry had been with John… and whatever spirit it is that opposes that other, demonic one, it was in John Coffey that night. And, when John stepped forward to face Warden Moores, it was that other spirit – something white, that’s how I think of it, as something white – which took control of the situation. The other thing didn’t leave, but I could see it drawing back like a shadow in a sudden strong light.

Then there is a scene in the book when John saves the wife of Warden Moores, and this is in itself a direct reference to the Bible and the fable “Jesus Heals the Gerasene Demoniac”, where Jesus exorcises the demons out of the body of a man. When the guards “smuggle” John out of the prison to see Melinda, she is a mere shadow of herself. One may go as far as saying that she acts as if possessed. Her bedroom stinks atrociously, and Melinda has a malicious, horrible look on her face and because of her disease she keeps hurling crude and blasphemous words at everyone she sees. She is saved by John who leans in, kisses her and heals her with his all-encompassing love and kindness.

“I dreamed of you,” she said in a soft, wondering voice. “I dreamed you were wandering in the dark, and so was I. We found each other.”

Mr. Jingles also deserves some particular attention, as there have been a lot of speculations about the significance of this character. Many believe that Mr. Jingles is a sort of angel, sent to Delacroix to prepare him for his transfer to the other world. This same angel reenters, again miraculously, Paul’s life, apparently because Paul needs to be reminded that the story of John Coffey was not yet told.

Others suppose that the mouse is there to reveal the true aspect of people, a kind of mirror that does not lie. Delacroix adopts the mouse and loves it to his last breath, asking just to get it a nice home when he dies, and somehow the reader feels great sympathy for this character in spite of everything he did in the past. Delacroix committed the most terrible crimes of all people in the cell as he has more victims on his consciousness than anyone apart from Wharton, but when the reader meets him, Delacroix is gentle and caring to the tiny creature that would have had no significance to anyone else. One could notice that Eduard Delacroix has an interesting name, because the final part of his surname is the French word for “cross”. It also refers us to the dream Paul once had of John Coffey being crucified along with two thieves (who are actually prisoner Eduard Delacroix and guard Percy Wetmore, the first one representing the “good” thief and the second one – the “bad” thief).

The mouse also reveals the petty obnoxious nature of Percy Wetmore, as he would rather crush a little defenseless mouse or maliciously torture a convicted man than go against William Wharton who terrifies him with his mere presence. Likewise, Mr. Jingles represents how small humans are in front of God. Its contrast with John Coffey, it being a little white mouse and John being a black giant, emphasizes the point.

I want to say I don’t know why I felt that way – no one likes to come out with something that’s going to make them look or sound ridiculous – but of course I do, and if I can tell the truth about the rest, I guess I can tell the truth about this. For a moment I imagined myself to be that mouse, not a guard at all but just another convicted criminal there on the Green Mile, convicted and condemned but still managing to look bravely up at a desk that must have seemed miles high to it (as the judgment seat of God will no doubt someday seem to us), and at the heavy-voiced, blue-coated giants who sat behind it.

We see other Biblical characters in the book. The four guards of the prison are the four centurions who accompanied Jesus to the cross and crucified him, not because they wanted to, but because it was their job.

On the day of my judgment, when I stand before God, and He asks me why did I kill one of his true miracles, what am I gonna say? That it was my job? My job?

Warden Hal Moores symbolizes Judas, as he still signs John’s act of execution even after he saved Moores’ wife, a traitorous action unworthy of the great miracle John had done to him. John’s public defender, Burt Hammersmith, relates to Pontius Pilate for his indifference and cold-heartedness when he sends to death an innocent man without any questions, mechanically and almost bureaucratically. And there is of course Satan, represented by William Wharton. Wild Bill is the embodiment of all evil, and much like Satan himself, possesses paranormal strength and incredible vanity. He finds pleasure in doing evil just for evil’s sake and in the end is vanquished by John Coffey because the divine justice shall always prevail over the forces of Hades.

Paul is a very interesting character himself. At the time he finally decides to tell his story, he is already 104 years old. John Coffey bestowed upon him the gift of uncommonly long life, but here is another philosophical point of the book – Stephen King makes us question if the immortality is such a desirable gift after all.

Sometimes there is absolutely no difference at all between salvation and damnation.

He outlived everyone who cared about him, he is alone and old and spends his life is a senior care home. In fact, this place is very much like E block in Cold Mountain and the elderly are much like the inmates of the prison, patiently waiting for their turn. The author goes as far as saying that we all are condemned criminals, just staying in our cells waiting for our chance to walk the Green Mile.

We each owe a death, there are no exceptions, I know that, but sometimes, oh God, the Green Mile is so long.

There is an ultimate moral lesson to the book in the sense that if once again God decided to send His son to us to atone for the sins of humans, things would not be different from what they were two thousand years ago. Jesus would still be executed by humans for being beyond their capacity to comprehend, and accused even when innocent. We would judge for what we see with our eyes, much like in the case of John Coffee who was accused by default just because of his race. Still blinded from the obvious truth by prejudices, we all are just as likely today to commit mistakes as we were when Christ was crucified. And this is the end to this story.

 

by Darya Paramonova

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