The Thing With Feathers

             What is it about certain people that draws us to them? How can there be people that overturn everything you ever thought you knew just by being who they are? What is it about the countenance of these people that sets them apart from everyone else we’ve ever known? The 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption, directed by Frank Darabont and based on the novella by Stephen King, tells us the story of an innocent man and how prison did – and didn’t – change him. Andy Dufresne faces many conflicts throughout the film, from being wrongfully convicted and sent to prison to serve out a double life sentence, to keeping the books for shady warden Norton. But the human spirit is something that is not easily broken. Certain situations can dampen it, but rarely is it ever truly gone. Hope is something that you can choose and fight to keep in situations like these. Andy, perhaps because of his innocence, perhaps because of the way he sees the world, manages to hold fast to his hopes and dreams. This in turn offers the inmates a glimpse of what it is like to live life with hope, as this is something many of them had long since lost, or perhaps never really had in the first place. Andy Dufresne is an example of what happens when we refuse to give up hope even in the darkest of situations and how our attitudes can influence others.

In the beginning, it seems as though prison life will get the best of Andy. He’s stripped naked and hosed down, then has delousing powder thrown on him before he is marched to his cell, still nude and carrying his new clothes. The next morning, the prisoners are marched off in lines to breakfast before they begin their daily routine. Andy is assigned to work in the laundry and is a target for a gang referred to as the Sisters. Sometimes he manages to get away, but other times he is not so lucky. After two years of this routine, Andy seems resigned to the fact that all he has to look forward to are days of work and trying to fight off the Sisters whenever they corner him. We see him sporting a variety of bruises and staring blankly as he goes about his duties washing the laundry. All of the fight and quiet hope, everything that seemed to set him apart from the other men, appears to be gone.

However, it is when he offers Captain Hadley financial advice in exchange for beers for his friends that he begins to gain some of his spirit back. In exchange for the things he has worked hard for, such as building a whole new library and helping multiple inmates with their high school equivalency exams, he helps the prison guards with their taxes, and when the warden starts running his many scams, Andy is right behind him, keeping the books and making sure that even if he is caught, nothing will lead back to him. This isn’t because Andy is particularly fond of the warden, but it does grant him the privileges mentioned above. Andy certainly does change over the course of the film, but he never loses that spark that sets him apart from the other prisoners. He is an innocent man when he enters Shawshank’s gates, but within the high stone walls he undergoes a transformation. As he jokingly tells Red late in the film, “Funny thing is, on the outside I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook.”

Perhaps one of the most interesting things about Andy Dufresne is how his attitude and way of life affect those around him. As Captain Hadley has him by the front of his shirt and prepares to throw him from a roof, Andy calmly offers to do the Captain a favor, with the only payment being three beers apiece to each of the men he was on detail with. Hadley gruffly agrees, and on the second to last day of their detail, each man on the crew has ice-cold beer to drink as they relax on the roof of the license plate factory. Red tells the audience that, enjoying that beer in the sun, every prisoner felt like a free man. He also noticed that Andy himself didn’t drink even when a bottle was offered to him, claiming to have given up alcohol. He simply sat in the shade, a small smile on his face as he watched his friends drink their beer. Perhaps he wanted to gain favor with the guards, or maybe he just wanted to make a few more friends. Red has a different theory. He surmises that Andy had done the financial planning and negotiated for the beer not to gain favor with anyone, but “…just to feel normal again, if only for a short while.”

And when he finally receives books and records to add to the prison library, he locks himself inside the warden’s office and plays a recording of “Sull’aria” from Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro over the PA system. When the prisoners hear it, they all stop what they are doing and look up in awe. Hundreds of men stand stock still, simply listening to the music. Red stops his work as well, and tells the audience:

I have no idea to this day what them two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid…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 these walls dissolve away…and for the briefest of moments – every last man at Shawshank felt free.

The warden returns then, angry and shouting for Andy to turn off the record, and for a moment it looks like Andy may do just that. But then he smiles at all the guards and simply turns up the volume. This results in him being thrown into solitary confinement, but he assures his fellow inmates that it was worth it. It was worth it to Andy because he wanted to feel normal, and he wanted every other man in that sorry place to feel normal as well. Just as he did when he got his friends beer, Andy wanted to help people remember that there is more to life than their gray little world. He seeks to help the men he is imprisoned with feel like people again, not just some forgotten convicts locked away behind high walls.

While the whole of the prison is influenced by Andy’s persistence and care, Red is experiencing a personal change, though he doesn’t seem to notice it until Andy is gone. While Andy has dreams all his own, Red denounces them as foolish. However, it is more to protect himself than to hurt Andy. He believes himself to be institutionalized and sees hope of a life on the outside as a dangerous thing. Within the walls of Shawshank, Red is a respected man, but he fears that no life worth living awaits him outside of prison. With the suicide and words of kind old Brooks fresh in his memory, words about how Brooks is tired of living in fear, and how there is truly nothing for him on the outside, Red solemnly warns Andy, “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’d better get used to that idea.”

But what Red soon comes to realize is what Andy had been saying all along: “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.” When he decides to go and “get busy living”, his final words are especially important. We see Red break out of his comfort zone and go, first by bus, then on foot, to find his friend. He has abandoned the thought that he won’t be able to make it on the outside. Red’s final words to the audience display how much his perspective has changed. He tells viewers: “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.” Red has finally allowed himself to hope, to dream. He has managed to find the thing to motivate him into believing that it is possible for him to live a fulfilling life beyond the walls of Shawshank prison.

Andy Dufresne is strong with a spirit that inspires others. Andy came to Shawshank prison a quiet, gentle man whose demeanor puzzled the other inmates and brought ridicule. But even through the beatings and the threats, Andy manages to hold onto what he believes in. He remains hopeful in times of trial. He changed lives because of who he was and the spirit he carried inside him. Red would most definitely testify that Andy Dufresne was special. Perhaps Andy is a lesson to us all. What would happen if we tried to touch people’s lives as Andy touched those of his fellow inmates? What would the world be like if everyone was allowed to have hope and dream? It is important to have hope. It can do extraordinary things and bring people out of situations that they never thought they would make it through. Life without it would be a sad thing indeed. Hope makes us strong, and perhaps the best thing about it is that no one can ever truly steal it from us.

The Shawshank Redemption. Dir. Frank Darabont. Perf. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman. Columbia Pictures, 1994. DVD.