by Jim Barker.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” Viktor E. Frankl
Who amongst us hasn’t felt imprisoned by life’s events at one time or another, leaving us with the bitter taste of hopelessness? No matter what we do, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel and the darkness consumes us, affecting our beliefs which, in turn, manifest themselves into our attitudes and ultimately our behaviors.
Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl survived the horrors and atrocities as a prisoner in the Holocaust by finding meaning in all forms of existence, including suffering. In his book Man’s Search For Meaning, he describes the effects of lost faith:
“The prisoner who had lost his faith in the future – his future – was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay.” p. 47
Those such as Frankl who choose to find meaning in their daily existence realized “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how,” a sentiment that rings true in The Shawshank Redemption, where an innocent man’s imprisonment and subsequent resiliency to lose all hope influences a fellow inmate to forgo his years of cynicism and embrace a very similar notion to Dr. Frankl’s:
“Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”
This quote from Andy Dufresne represents the theme for The Shawshank Redemption, a movie that continues to cast a spell on audiences twenty years after its release – demanding repeated viewings while retaining IMDb.com’s #1 ranking as voted by regular users. But for any theme to work, we must have context and events that shape its argument and more importantly, a window to experience it through the main character.
As mentioned in the previous article on No Country for Old Men‘s ending, some stories clearly delineate the function of a main character vs. that of the protagonist (main character = perspective, protagonist = drive). The key is the main character’s perspective is through whom the author wishes the audience to experience the story’s emotions, and ultimately its theme, in what neuroscientists call “mirroring” – and in The Shawshank Redemption, that character is Red.
FLOYD: So they let you tote that record player down there, huh?
Andy tapping his head and his heart:
ANDY: It was in here…and here. That’s the beauty of music. They can’t get that from you. Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?
RED: I played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost interest in it, though. Didn’t make much sense in here.
ANDY: Here’s where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget.
ANDY: Forget that there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone, that’s there’s something inside that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. It’s yours.
RED: What are you talking about?
RED: Hope. Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. It’s got no use on the inside. Better get used to that idea.
ANDY: Like Brooks did?
While Lisa Cron doesn’t distinguish the main character from a protagonist in her book Wired For Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence where she views the protagonist as the function of main character, her sentiment about perspective P.O.V. is an important one:
“But here’s something writers often don’t know: in a story, what the reader feels is driven by what the protagonist feels. Story is visceral. We climb inside the protagonist’s skin and become sensate, feeling what he feels. Otherwise we have no port of entry, no point of view through which to see, evaluate, and experience the world the author has plunked us into.”
-Cron, Lisa (2012-07-10). Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence (Kindle Locations 321-323). Ten Speed Press. Kindle Edition.
Very few are representative of the Vicktor Frankls, and Andy Dufrenses of the world. Rather, most of us – if not all – have struggled with finding meaning in feelings of hopelessness at one time or another in our lives, making Red a more fitting vessel from which we experience the effects of the story’s theme through.