"Remember that hope is a good thing, Red, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies."
Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption is subtitled 'Hope Springs Eternal' - and that perfectly sums up the soul of his book. It's hope that keeps you going - even after everything horrible that you can ever imagine has already happened to you, even after life has knocked you down over and over again, even after there seems to be nothing left.
Hope is the last thing to die, they say. Andy Dufresne has taken that saying to heart, apparently.
The Shawshank Redemption is a prime example of why Stephen King will always remain among my favorite authors. Branded a horror writer, a representative of a genre that is so easy and tempting to altogether judge and dismiss by book snobs lovers¹ (and I have been among them on more than one occasion, I must confess) results in way too frequent overlooking of his captivating storytelling skills and excellent character development that is the driving force behind his stories. His best books - and this is one of them, undeniably - are based on "what if?" approach, and then watching his characters try to find their way out of the "what if?" situation, shaping themselves in the process of writing into fully fleshed figures which are so much more than just the vehicles for necessities of plot development.
¹ From Neil Gaiman's interview with King:
"I was down here in the supermarket, and this old woman comes around the corner, this old woman – obviously one of the kind of women who says whatever is on her brain.
She said, 'I know who you are, you are the horror writer. I don’t read anything that you do, but I respect your right to do it. I just like things more genuine, like that Shawshank Redemption.'
And I said, 'I wrote that'.
And she said, 'No you didn’t'. And she walked off and went on her way."
The Shawshank Redemption is the story narrated by Red, a prisoner at the fictional Shawshank prison in Maine, immortalized by Morgan Freeman (what a fitting last name!) in a well-known Frank Darabont screen adaptation of this book. Red tells us the story of his fellow prisoner Andy Dufresne, falsely accused of a murder he did not commit and sentenced to a life behind bars as a result.
Andy, a small calm level-headed former banker, who would seem to be destined for the role of perpetual victim in the place where brawn seems to be worth more than brains, where he has met violence and humiliation and senseless brutality from both guards and prisoners. It was a place destined to break Andy's spirit. It's supposed to do that to everyone. That's the point.
And yet Andy Dufresne calmly refuses to be broken. Andy so fiercely clings to his humanity, to his hope that he becomes a legend. His demeanor - that of a free man even caged seemingly forever - is what gives hope to others, especially Red, his friend and narrator.
"So yeah - if you asked me to give you a flat-out answer to the question of whether I'm trying to tell you about a man or a legend that got made up around the man, like a pearl around a little piece of grit - I'd have to say that the answer lies somewhere in between. All I know for sure is that Andy Dufresne wasn't much like me or anyone else I ever knew since I came inside. He brought in five hundred dollars jammed up his back porch, but somehow that graymeat son a bitch managed to bring in something else as well. A sense of his own worth, maybe, or a feeling that he would be the winner in the end... or maybe it was only a sense of freedom, even inside these goddamned gray walls. It was a kind of light he carried around with him."
Andy Dufresne meticulously and patiently clings to a bit of hope, so irrational and fickle that anyone would have given up. And it's this hope, so inherent to his nature, that allows him to retain his humanity and quiet but undeniable dignity in a place where neither is supposed to exist. Violence, corruption, power, greed, cruelty - Andy goes through it all with his unexpected backbone of steel, allowing all of it to only barely tarnish his amazing resilient spirit, winning his little victories against the system along the way, in his own way brightening the existence of those for whom there'd appear to be little left, patiently fighting his fight to keep little glimpses of humanity in the place where they are rarely seen.
"Some birds are not meant to be caged, that's all. Their feathers are too bright, their songs too sweet and wild. So you let them go, or when you open the cage to feed them they somehow fly out past you. And the part of you that knows it was wrong to imprison them in the first place rejoices, but still, the place where you live is that much more drab and empty for their departure."
I first read this book as a fourteen-year-old teenage cynical know-it-all - and when I got to the end, I cried. Because it hit me then how, despite my teenage sense of invulnerability, the world can be cruel to you for no reason, and sometimes hope is all you have left. Now I'm twice that age, having seen a bit of the life's cruelty that King so frequently alludes to, and I no longer cry at the ending of this book; instead, I marvel with a feeling of sadness and quiet fascination at how aptly he captured the need to keep going despite all odds, even when it appears there is nothing left to live and hope for. Because hope dies last, and sometimes you just need to see it through to the end. And as long as you haven't lost yourself, your inner little sense of worth, there remains something to live and fight for.
"I find I am excited, so excited I can hardly hold the pencil in my trembling hand. I think it is the excitement that only a free man can feel, a free man starting a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain.
I hope Andy is down there.
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.