By Jin-yeong Yi
“[A fundamental mistake of man is] to think that he is alive, when he has merely fallen asleep in life’s waiting room.”
“What if you slept, and what if in your sleep you dreamed, and what if in your dream you went to heaven and there you plucked a strange and beautiful flower, and what if you when you awoke you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then?”
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Why is The Shawshank Redemption the #1 film on IMDb? People regularly question the wisdom of the multitudes on this count, as can be seen from posts on the movie’s forum.
Having watched it for the third time last weekend, I can say with confidence that The Shawshank Redemption is the film for our age–for all ages, past and present.
Freedom, or at least the idea of freedom, is tremendously important to most people. Did Patrick Henry not say 238 years ago,
“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, Give me Liberty, or give me Death!”
The thought of freedom is constantly on our minds, and the word is constantly on our lips. In this light, it’s no mystery that The Shawshank Redemption would strike a chord with so many people. We don’t need freedom to survive, but we need freedom to feel that survival is worth the trouble in the first place.
Once during a visit to a Buddhist temple or Shinto shrine (I can’t remember which) in Japan, I was conversing with a fellow exchange student who was an atheist and an individualist anarchist. At one point he asked me, “How do you define freedom?” As an aspiring Orthodox Christian at the time, who was inspired by the lives of the saints, I could only think of one answer: “Freedom is freedom from vice.” My interlocutor conceded that there was some merit to my definition, but he was obviously dissatisfied. We drifted away from this subject shortly after. (Interestingly, we watched The Shawshank Redemption together with some other people during a short sojourn in Kyoto.)
Years later, after having accepted atheism and nihilism, my definition of freedom changed radically. Now I define freedom as having no restrictions on the will, having no barrier between fantasy and reality. In other words, to be free is to be able to do anything one can imagine doing. My definition of prison expanded to the same degree. Now I define prison as a state in which freedom is restricted in any way whatsoever. Prison is not merely political–it is metaphysical. It is the boundaries of time and space, the laws of nature.
In his review of the film, Roger Ebert mentions the theory that life is a prison. Life is not a prison; life is what is being trapped and suffocated in prison, its potential stultified by its walls.
Some might argue that prison is nothing more than a matter of perspective. The unhappy fate of Brooks could be adduced for this view. However, if the message was that prison is completely internal, that prison is in the mind and nowhere else, then the film would not have been about Andy escaping Shawshank, but instead accepting it and finding peace within its walls. Prison is very real, as real as anything–and only part of it comes from within. The question is: is freedom real?
Despite the fact that the chief villain in The Shawshank Redemption is a piously Christian man without an atom of compassion or empathy, I do not view the movie as being antireligious or anti-Christian. I do, however, see it as being heavily naturalistic. There is no God who cares, no liberty, no justice, no miracles. Andy Dufresne is innocent of the crime he is charged with, but Lady Justice is not omniscient and there’s no God to rectify human errors…and “justice” is a human construct to begin with. There is no Lady Justice. There is only Lady Luck, and she’s blind as she is indifferent.
Furthermore, Andy is a man of science rather than a man of faith. His weapons of choice are not scripture and prayer, but the practical tools of logic, mathematics, physics, and geology. He is well-versed in the rules of reality. And it is with this knowledge that he is eventually able to win freedom.
But this film is not about science. It’s about something that is innate in humanity, something that existed long before science did.
Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, “Beauty will save the world.” Beauty is one of the things that keeps Andy going, whether it is the sublime beauty of a Mozart record, the sensuous beauty of a Rita Hayworth poster, the noble beauty of a genuine friendship, or the transcendental beauty of a cherished dream.
One day, Andy fortuitously receives a recording of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro given as a library donation. Understanding the power that music has to sustain and revitalize the human spirit, Andy risks severe punishment to play the record on the public address system. Why exactly he decides to do this is not completely clear, but my guess is that he wanted to remind everyone in Shawshank State Penitentiary that their tiny world is not the entirety of the universe, that life and its possibilities extend far beyond what their eyes can see.
Mozart’s music flows out of the speakers like cool, pure, crystal-clear water in a hot desert. Red describes the moment thus:
“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you those voices soared, higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away. And for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.”
Free from worry, free from fear, free from the confines of language, free from the world and its petty rules. All the walls and shackles vanish, leaving only a glorious moment, however transient, in which fantasy and reality unite.
The message of The Shawshank Redemption does not seem to be that only the Andy Dufresnes of the world can find redemption. If it was, the film would be relevant to only a small segment of humankind. Not everyone is blessed with Andy’s ambition and determination, to say nothing of his level of intelligence and education. The key to redemption is, if nothing else, something that just about anyone can find within themself: hope.
Returning from two weeks in solitary confinement, Andy joins his friends in the mess hall, and the following dialogue takes place:
Y-y-you couldn’t play somethin’ good, huh? Hank Williams or somethin’?
They broke the door down before I could take requests.
Was it worth it? Two weeks in the hole?
Easiest time I ever did.
Bullshit. No such thing as easy time in the hole.
That’s right, a week in the hole is like a year.
I had Mr. Mozart to keep me company.
So they let you tote that record player down there, huh?
[Taps head, chest] It was in here…and in here. That’s the beauty of music; they can’t…get that from you. …Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?
I played a mean harmonica as a younger man. Lost interest in it though. Didn’t make much sense in here.
Here’s where it makes the most sense. You need it so you don’t forget.
Forget that…there are…places…in the world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s a…there’s something…inside…that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. That’s yours.
What’re you talking about?
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. You better get used to that idea.
Like Brooks did?
Pace Red, it can be argued that the “inside” is where hope has the most use. Hope is not necessarily false expectation; it can be the feeling that maybe, just maybe, things will turn out better than expected. Hope is not a belief in the inevitability that one’s dreams will come true; hope is a belief in the possibility that one’s dreams will come true. Hope is the inner flame that give one the strength to persist, to endure in the face of all odds. As Andy later tells Red:
[H]ope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.
If one wants a basic guide to life in the prison of the real, one need not look any further than The Shawshank Redemption. Its advice is simple and sound: educate yourself and keep your wits about you. Be good to others. Retain your integrity and self-worth. Fill your life with beauty. Persist. Above all, never, ever accept prison as an absolute. Keep hoping and dreaming…until the bitter end.
Beauty and hope are intertwined. Like hope, beauty may, in the last analysis, be nothing but an emotional reaction, but in any case it gives me the feeling that maybe, just maybe, true freedom is not only possible, but that it is also waiting on the other side.
All these landscapes are timeless,
And this is all just a part of cosmos,
But all is mine and past and future is yet to discover…
Much have been discovered, but tomorrow
I will realise I existed before myself.
I will be reborn
Before I die.
I will realise planets ages old,
Created by a ruler with a crown of dragon claws,
Arrived with a stargate…
A king among the wolves in the night…
An observer of the stars.
—Emperor, “Cosmic Keys to My Creations and Times”