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Because The Green Mile is an anti-capital punishment exemplum, characters are defined morally in the simplest terms. King emphasizes the fundamental humanity of the two men who are the first to be executed, Arlen Bitterbuck and Eduard Delacroix. While King tells the reader that the two men are murderers, he shows them speaking and acting with such dignity, love, and simple faith that one perceives their executions as evil, unnatural acts. Sentenced to die for crushing a man's head with a cement block in a drunken argument, Arlen Bitterbuck ("The Chief) fantasizes about a mountain lodge in Montana, where he hopes to return after death. Mass murderer Delacroix lovingly cares for his pet mouse and, before going to the electric chair, recites the "Hail Mary" in French.

The other characters in The Green Mile are polarized between totally evil and unequivocally decent. William "Billy the Kid" Wharton (a death row inmate), Percy Wetmore and Brad Dolan are sadists with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Like George Stark (The Dark Half), Wharton joys in inflicting pain and humiliation on others. Choking prison guard Dean Stanton with the chain on his handcuff, Wharton cries gleefully: "Whoooee, boys!. . . Ain't this a party, now?" (The Mouse on the Mile). In King's fictional universe, child abuse is the blackest crime of all. Therefore, when Wharton, the savage murderer-rapist of the Detterick twins, is shot by Percy, the reader is relieved and delighted.

Because Percy Wetmore (in 1932) and Brad Dolan (in 1996) are both motivated by a single-minded compulsion to bully the institutionalized people in their power, they become confused in the mind of the 104-year-old Paul Edgecombe. In contrast to Paul, who works in death row because the Depression offers him few employment options, Percy had used his relationship with the governor to become a prison guard because he wanted to view an electrocution up close. Brad inflicts pain on elderly residents, secure that the Georgia Pines administration will regard them as delusional if they complain. King, characteristically, uses the books and magazines that characters read to suggest their moral nature: Percy's fascination with executions has been fueled by Argosy and Men's Adventure; Brad reads (and searches for put-downs) Gross Jokes and Sick Jokes. In painting Percy and Brad so blackly, King suggests that prisons, nursing homes, and other institutions are magnets for sadists, who can, with impunity, inflict pain on a helpless or unresisting population.

Unlike Percy, Paul Edgecombe and the guards he supervises are committed to easing the suffering of the condemned criminals during their last days. The guard who is most fully developed as a character, Brutus Howell, is nicknamed "Brutal," a humorous antonym for his extraordinarily kind nature. By the end of the events that culminate in Coffey's execution, all the E Block guards, with the exception of the evil Percy, are determined to find other employment at whatever cost to themselves and their families.

The story's supernatural elements are embodied in John Coffey and the mouse, Mr. Jingles, who comforts Delacroix during his last weeks of life. The mouse and the giant, retarded black man appear on E Block at the same time. Wrongfully convicted of murdering two little girls, Coffey joins the company of King's other holy innocents, retarded men like Tom Cullen in The Stand (1978; 1990) and Sheemie in Wizard and Glass (1997). The imagery surrounding Coffey is, however, the most explicitly Christ-like. Next to nothing is known of Jesus before His thirties, when He began His public ministry. Similarly, Paul can find no clues to Coffey's life before his disastrous attempt to heal the Detterick twins, except what can be deduced from the scars that cover his body. Coffey, like Jesus, heals, exorcises demons, and brings the dead back to life. Coffey heals Paul's urinary infection, draws the demon (which doctors have diagnosed as a brain tumor) out of Melinda, and brings Mr. Jingles back from the dead after Percy has crushed the mouse. Coerced into executing "a gift from God," Paul and "Brutal" fear for their souls.

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