Shawshank Redemption is a fascinating case study on the prison or freedom of the mind. A man falsely convicted of double homicide, who has to deal with repeat assaults, battles to keep free the only thing he has control of. The first night in prison, we meet Captain Hadley. After the inmates have goated one of the fresh fish (new inmate) into crying saying he doesn’t belong there, Hadley reminds everyone that hope is useless in prison.
The men of Shawshank prison have created a world inside that makes sense. There are rules and people of influence. Brooks, for example, is an educated librarian. The sisters’ brothers are a gang of rapists who prey on the fresh fish (new inmates). Captain Hadley for all intents and purposes is the wrath of God (the Warden). In this cruel world, hope is dangerous.
Andy Dufresne slowly carves out his purpose in this world; he becomes a teacher, an advisor and the Warden’s pet. His struggles at the beginning cannot be understated; Andy was a favorite target of the sisters’ brothers. Until Hadley (only because Andy helped save him money) beats the life out of Bogs (the sisters’ brothers gang leader). Andy with his financial acumen pulls himself out of the hell in which he lived.
Brooks, an old man now, after spending fifty years in prison, is paroled. A man who was someone on the inside and had a purpose becomes terrified at the thought of leaving. He holds a knife to his friend’s throat, so they would have to lock him up. In the end, he had to go. He tried finding a purpose, some illusion of hope, but it eluded him. He took his life; because there was nothing for him on the outside; there was no hope.
At this point in the film, Andy begins digging his heels in, sending letters every week to get funding for a library. The government sends funds and a shipment. Andy has found a way to bring culture into his life, or more importantly, hope.
The shipment includes several records and a record player. With the guard gone, Andy does the unthinkable; he plays “The Marriage of Figaro” over the speakers of the entire prison, “and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.” After spending time in solitary confinement, Andy says, “You need it so you don’t forget…that there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s…there’s somethin’ inside that they can’t get to; that they can’t touch. It’s yours…Hope.” Red, narrator and fellow inmate/friend to Andy, answers Dufresne’s previous sentiments on hope with his own, “Hope can drive a man insane. It’s got no use on the inside.”
After some time helping the Warden launder money from the prison labor, hope springs up again. Tommy arrives. Andy takes Tommy under his wing and teaches him how to read and write culminating in Tommy receiving his GED. A year later, Tommy reveals that his former cellmate had taken credit for killing Andy’s wife and lover. With proof of his innocence, Andy desperately tries to convince the Warden to help him and ends up insulting the Warden. The Warden, not wanting to lose Andy, has Tommy killed. Andy is distraught; his one chance at legal freedom snatched away.
It is important to state that in Shawshank the Warden should be seen as a man exploiting others for his gain. A man who would rather stomp out any hope in his inmates in order to extend his reign of power. He was God in Shawshank. A purveyor of fear, the antithesis of hope. He gave Andy a false sense of hope in the library and Andy’s jobs.
From this point on, the coziness of false hope and purpose begins to die. Red says, “I don’t think you ought to be doing this to yourself, Andy. This is just shitty pipedreams. I mean, Mexico is way the hell down there and you’re in here, and that’s the way it is.” While Andy responds, “Yeah, right. That’s the way it is. It’s down there and I’m in here. I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.”
Andy is no longer the man his friends knew, and they became afraid of the path they assumed Andy was on. At last, the time has come. There is only one hope Andy has left: freedom. Andy breaks out, and it seems like a miracle. The Warden, furious, discovers the hole behind Rita Hayworth. Andy is gone.
Now, there is only Red, the narrator. Why did they choose Red to be the narrator? Wasn’t Andy the main character? However, if Andy was the main character why aren’t we in Mexico? Because Red is the main character. Red is our eyes. A cynical man who has lost all use for hope, though he let hope seep back in through Andy. On being paroled, Red finds himself in Brooks’ situation, but rather than wait to die, Red makes a choice. He follows instinct and finds the tree Andy talked about earlier in the film. He finds a note, and the end of the note says, “Remember, Red. Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. I will be hoping that this letter finds you, and finds you well. Your friend, Andy.”
Red, now full of hope, boards a train and meets Andy in Mexico. The last word in the film is “I Hope.” Red has wholly transformed from a cynical man to one full of hope due to his friend Andy Dufresne’s unrelenting hope. Hope as represented in the Shawshank Redemption is contagious. When pitted against fear in Shawshank, hope wins out for Andy and Red. In the end, they are not only free in their physical bodies, but also in their minds.
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Photo Cred: Columbia Pictures/Courtest Everett Collection