The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
A stoic young bank executive who is wrongly convicted for killing his wife struggles to improve his lot and that of others in the terrible prison to which he has been sentenced.
Writer(s): Frank Darabont
Director: Frank Darabont
Production Co.(s): Castle Rock Entertainment
Story by: Stephen King
Adapted from: Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (Novella) by Stephen King (© 1982)
The Story on the Screen
In The Shawshank Redemption, the main character, Andy Dufresne, is a stoic young banker who is convicted of killing his wife and her golf-pro lover and sentenced to serve two life terms in an infamous New England prison called Shawshank. In a quick series of flashbacks and courtroom testimony at the start of the story, we-the-audience are led to believe that Andy is innocent and that his conviction is an act of injustice founded entirely on circumstantial evidence.
Andy Dufresne is a stoic young banker who is wrongly convicted of killing his wife and her lover and sentenced the cruel and unforgiving environment of Shawshank Prison.
The prison proves to be a cruel and unforgiving environment the brutality of which is fostered and administered by the prisoners and guards alike—and Andy’s natural stoicism is tested from the start. On his first night as an inmate, a fellow newbie prisoner is taunted into crying, and when he refuses an order by Captain Hadley, the vicious leader of the guards, to cease doing so, he is beaten so severely that he dies the next day in the infirmary. On the inmate side, such brutality is primarily carried out (in Andy's case) by the Sisters, a small group of prisoners who set their sights on beating and raping Andy whenever they can catch him alone.
In the midst of this hellish environment, Andy meets and becomes friends with Red, an admitted murder who has been in prison since he was a teenager.
In the midst of this hellish environment, Andy meets and becomes friends with Red, a middle-aged inmate who admits to being guilty of the murder for which he was accused as a teenager. Red is the local source for contraband items, and from him Andy is able to procure a rock hammer, ostensibly to help him pursue his interests as a rock hound.
One day, while assigned to a roof-tarring detail, Andy overhears Captain Hadley telling the other guards about an inheritance he is about to receive and lamenting the loss he will take at the hands of the Internal Revenue Service. When Andy offers advice on how to avoid the loss completely, he reveals a bit of his banking knowledge and gives birth to a reputation that spreads quickly through the ranks of the guards as a source of free tax advice. Soon, even guards from other prisons are visiting Shawshank to have Andy do their taxes—and Andy’s financial talents come to the notice of Warden Norton, the severe and unforgiving personage in charge of the prison.
Andy's reputation as a knowledgeable banker comes to the notice of the severe warden, Norton, who has a man murdered so that Andy will stay under his thumb and not be freed from prison.
Years later, when Norton implements a self-serving plan for using prison labor for public works projects under the guise of liberalism and rehabilitation, he enlists Andy to keep the books in a manner that allows him to skim money. Andy complies, creating a fictitious person into whose bank accounts the money is deposited, so that he and Norton cannot be traced to the skimming. And when a new prisoner (Tommy) appears with evidence that could allow Andy to demand a retrial, Norton has the prisoner killed so that Andy will remain imprisoned and under his thumb. He also has Andy thrown into “the hole” for two months to reaffirm his complete control over Andy’s life and limb.
When Andy is released from “the hole,” he pulls the trigger on two operations that he has been preparing in secret for a long time. One involves his escape via a tunnel that he has been patiently digging through the wall of his cell for two decades (using the rock hammer). The other involves a second set of books that he has been keeping regarding the financial improprieties of Warden Norton. The first leads to Andy's freedom; the second leads to public exposure of the money-skimming scheme, the arrest of Captain Hadley, and the suicide of Warden Norton.
In the end, Andy exacts subtle revenge on Norton and retires with Red to a secluded Mexican beach.
And when Red is finally paroled after four decades, he follows a trail of clues that Andy has left for him and joins him in freedom on a secluded Mexican beach.
Behind the Scenes
When evaluating a story or tale that involves the imprisonment of the main character, it is natural to assume, as a first guess, that his intent must lie in the realm of regaining—specifically, the regaining of freedom (the treasure). In this case, however, the assumption is misleading.
Although Andy works secretly for decades to dig the tunnel that will ultimately lead to his freedom, its digging cannot be said to drive the events in the story. In fact, we-the-audience do not even discover the tunnel until it is revealed to exist after his successful escape. Likewise, although he jumps at the chance to try to obtain a retrial when the opportunity presents itself (via Tommy), at no time does he attempt to do so by other means. He merely attempts to make use of the opportunity when it arises. Consequently, his intent in the story cannot be said to lie in the realm of regaining his freedom.
On the other hand, he cannot be said to be satisfied with the predicament in which he finds himself when first incarcerated in the Shawshank prison (the inciting incident). And he certainly would not attempt to keep his incarceration against the efforts of someone else to take it away. And although it is true that he must sometimes fight to preserve his physical or mental well-being, doing so is not the primary focus of his efforts; therefore, he cannot be aptly described as a keep character, either.
By process of elimination, we discover that Andy is a gain character whose treasure lies in improved conditions for himself and his fellow prisoners.
By process of elimination, then, Andy is a gain character—which leads to the question: What treasure can he attempt to gain? And the answer is: An improvement in conditions for himself and those around him. When he first enters the prison, he has no reason to believe (and we are given no indication of a possibility) that he will ever get out. He has been handed two life sentences, and the court is firmly convinced that he is a murderer. As far as he knows, he will live out his life inside the prison walls—and we-the-audience have no reason to doubt that to be the case.
But instead of focusing his efforts on attempting to free himself (except for the secret project we don’t learn about until the end), Andy sets about applying his intelligence and resourcefulness to improve what he knows might be his lifelong lot. When he first offers tax advice to Captain Hadley, he asks not for payment for himself but for beer for his fellow prisoners. And he does not even partake of the beer himself. When he earns access to Warden Norton’s office, he asks for permission to write once a week to the state requesting funds for the prison library—so that it can become a place to benefit all prisoners, not merely himself. When he has the chance to play a record of music by Mozart, he shares the music with the entire prison over the loudspeaker system—knowing he will merit the wrath of the warden. And when the young prisoner Tommy expresses a desire to improve himself, Andy tutors him so that he can earn his GED.
All of these actions and their results may be classified under the umbrella of “improving one’s personal and public physical and mental environment.” And such acts of improvement may be considered gain actions, wherein the treasure in each case does not exist until Andy works to foment its creation.
The issue concerns "using resourcefulness to improve one's environment."
The primary issue in The Shawshank Redemption, therefore, does not concern “reacquiring freedom” or even (despite several references in the dialogue) “maintaining hope.” It concerns, instead, “using resourcefulness to improve one’s environment,” where “environment” may be broadly defined as “the physical and mental condition that one inhabits.” (In Andy's case, the improvement includes the building of a means of escape, but that is a consequence of his larger intent, not the focus.) And because the storytellers appear to support his efforts, the proposition can be aptly stated:
- One should attempt to use resourcefulness to improve (gain the improved condition of) his environment, because success in the attempt will lead to a happier and more fulfilled life for himself and those who inhabit the environment with him.
In this case, the main character succeeds in his attempt to improve the environment that he shares with his fellow prisoners, and they are happier and better able to deal with their situation as a result. We-the-audience support his efforts and are pleased with the outcome; consequently, The Shawshank Redemption may be added to the group of succeed/pleased stories. And because the main character is rewarded with freedom and friendship by the time the credits roll, the ending may be said to be happy.
Aspects Worthy of Special Note
The Shawshank Redemption provides an excellent illustration of the important difference between the “narrator” and the main character in a story. In this case, the story is narrated by (and told from the perspective of) Andy’s fellow prisoner, Red. But Red is not the prime mover in the story. He is merely the window through which we-the-audience may look into the world of the story and watch what happens to Andy. It is Andy whose intent and actions move the story forward, and it is he who serves as the vehicle through which we experience its internal aspects—such as the fear of being unjustly convicted and imprisoned and the satisfaction of using one’s talents to help others.
This example may be easily extended as a general rule: The narrator of a story is not necessarily (and perhaps not usually) its main character.
For More Information
For details regarding the concepts and terms used in this analysis, refer to the Discovering the Soul of Your Story overview video and the glossary. For more story analyses like this, visit the Story Analyses page (or use the search tools in the sidebar).