Tunnelling to the Heart of The Shawshank Redemption


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.


Let me tell you a story about my friend Andy Dufresne – but in telling it, it’s really MY story and how he changed my perspective on life. I just don’t want you to realize that until the end.

Choosing Red for this function places the audience squarely in his shoes so we experience the story through his eyes.  Sure, we experience it somewhat from Andy’s P.O.V., too, but that’s necessary to balance the thematic argument that we get glimpses of.  Whether it’s playing Mozart, building a library or teaching another convict, Andy’s function is to provide the force of change for Red who’s diametrically opposed to the belief and power of hope.  As demonstrated in one of the film’s key scenes, Andy’s perspective after spending two weeks “in the hole” harkens back to Dr. Frankl’s quote:

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.  

RED:                    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?  

ANDY:                  Hope.  

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?  

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“Let me tell you something…” In reality, it’s the absence of hope that ultimately does Brooks in.

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.

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The world of the story itself, the prison, is the context in which the theme is placed: finding hope in the most hopeless of situations.  The dark, cold place is a reflection of the main character’s worldview with regard to the theme.   The events that happen, from murder to rape, far outweigh the affirming values of hope in order to give credence to Red’s perspective and continually test Andy as the story’s protagonist.   But as Cron further notes, it’s the effects of the events that are experienced – and measured – by the story’s main character that gives them meaning:

“Everything in a story gets its emotional weight and meaning based on how it affects the protagonist. If it doesn’t affect her— even if we’re talking birth, death, or the fall of the Roman Empire— it is completely neutral. And guess what? Neutrality bores the reader. If it’s neutral, it’s not only beside the point, it detracts from it.” – Ibid, locations 775-778.  

In almost every scene we have what is an essentially stoic and reserved Andy, described early on by others as “a particularly icy and remorseless man” and as “that tall drink of water with a silver spoon stuck up his ass” in an effort to garner sympathy via misjudgment – but not empathy which is key for an audience’s connection to a character, a fact Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman felt a detriment to the film, stating “laconic-good-guy, neo-Gary Cooper role, Tim Robbins is unable to make Andy connect with the audience.”

Whether he’s about to be thrown off the rooftop or in the courtyard talking about his desires of Zihuantanejo, we’re barely afforded much of a reading towards Andy’s emotions by design because it’s Red and his reactions to the myriad of situations Andy finds himself in that the audience obtains perspective and a means to measure the emotional weight of them by – hence we’re meant to connect with Red.  Even the thought of a pick-axe tunneling through a wall is dismissed by the audience through Red’s reaction once he receives it.  “It would take a man about six hundred years to tunnel under the wall with one of these,”  – and we believe him.

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We feel concern for Andy through Red’s incredulous reaction to his having stopped work.

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So little hope as expressed in a single note. Incidentally, keep your ears tuned for the harmonica played in the soundtrack when Red happens upon the clearing in the Buxton hayfield – it’s a subtle reminder and callback to this scene.

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We sense the irony of Andy’s statement, “On the outside, I was an honest man. Straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook,” through Red’s reaction to it.

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“I don’t think I can make it on the outside, Andy. I’ve been in here most of my life. I’m an institutional man now. Just like Brooks was.” It’s important to note that Brook’s function in the story serves as a potential outcome – this is why the comparison is made more than once to hammer home what happens, as Frankl said when we lose faith (or in this case, hope).

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We feel the uncertainty and dismay toward Andy’s fate as felt through Red. While we’re also cued into Andy’s sentiments from his own words and actions in the courtyard scene, it’s clearly a ruse: we’re meant to feel what this man is feeling at this moment.

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Confusion: we know as much of what became of Andy as Red does.

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Contempt for the system. Instead of giving the parole board what he thinks they want to hear, Red finally unleashes his authentic self and becomes a free man.

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Learning a life lesson from Andy: hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. The epiphany of the story’s theme here resonates with the audience and leads to Red’s deliberation and decision: get busy living, or get busy dying.

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Choosing to get busy living, Red “…find(s) I am so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it is the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I HOPE.”

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Author’s proof: choosing to believe in hope brings a new attitude which ultimately results in a joyous conclusion.

By placing the audience squarely in the shoes of Red – whether it’s via his voice-over narrative or the numerous point-of-view shots, particularly as he enters his parole hearings – we’re attuned to what he thinks, what he feels, and most importantly, what he believes.  Those beliefs, as mentioned previously, are reflected in his attitude and ultimately his behavior, providing a stark contrast to Andy’s perspective of hope.

As the film nears its emotional climax we experience the thematic argument’s weight on Red as he’s overwhelmed with his new sense of freedom: one path, devoid of hope, leads to the same fate as Brooks’.  As a self-confirmed institutionalized man, there’s little hope to be had on the outside if he can’t even squeeze a drop of piss without asking for permission first.

RED:             There’s a harsh truth to face: no way I’m going to make it on the outside.  All I do anymore is think of ways to break my parole so maybe they’d send me back.  Terrible thing to live in fear.  Brooks Hatlen knew it.  Knew it all too well.  All I want is to be back where things make sense, where I won’t have to be afraid all the time.  

What Red speaks of in terms of institutionalized is really conformity and it’s through conformity he’s lost any sense of authentic self, always saying to the parole board what he thought they wanted to hear.   Once we start to conform to another’s beliefs without using our fundamental right and responsibility to think critically of them – whether it’s religion, political or psychological institutions – we strip ourselves of the freedom to choose our own attitudes.  Freedom, however, entails responsibility and the only thing stopping Red is the promise he made to Andy – a responsibility – sending him on something akin to a spiritual journey to solve a mystery: what’s in the box Andy left behind for him?

The tree in which he finds it buried next to feels like it’s part of hallowed ground, but inside that box is the film’s ultimate message – one which leaves Red to finally see the truth in Andy’s perspective…to believe…to choose a new attitude: get busy living, or get busy dying.  That’s goddamn right – and the audience, having been in Red’s shoes since Andy’s arrival to Shawshank, couldn’t agree more as he breaks parole and heads across the border having ultimately chosen his own way.



This article was originally posted on Jim’s blog https://thebarkbitesback.wordpress.com/. You can also follow Jim on Twitter (@BarkBitesBack)


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