The Shawshank Redemption is one of the greatest movies of all time. That’s not an exaggeration. It became an instant classic by dealing with timeless truths concerning the human condition. In this case, it is the intersection of hope and despair. The story is of a man who escapes from prison through the power of hope. Andy Dufrense possesses an unquenchable hope that faces off against situations and characters that should extinguish it. In the end, his hope inspires another in the grip of institutionalized despair.
There’s something inside that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch. It’s yours. Hope.
Let me tell you something my friend, hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.
Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.
I find I’m so excited that I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it’s the excitement only a free man can feel. A free man at a 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.
For the sake of clarity, it will be helpful to define the term hope. Hope means “to want something to happen or be true and think that it could happen or be true.” It is to have a desire accompanied by an expectation that the desire could be fulfilled.
Hope as an Evil
The first pair of quotes above makes it clear that hope can be a good or an evil. At first glance, it seems hard to understand how hope could be an evil. However, hope as an evil has roots in antiquity. The ancient Greek myth of Pandora demonstrates hope to be an evil. According to Hesiod’s telling, Pandora is the first woman created by the gods, at the command of Zeus, to be a curse for men. She is delivered to Epimetheus, brother of Prometheus, and with her is a jar. She opens the jar and releases great evils upon humanity: ills, hard toil, heavy sickness, plagues, old age, all manner of evils and the Fates. The only thing that does not escape the jar is Hope. Zeus ensures that Hope gets caught on the rim of the jar and Pandora seals it in an effort to keep any more evils from escaping. This was the will of Zeus concerning men who had stolen fire from the gods.
Hesiod, while not the charmer with the ladies, depicts hope as an evil. Hope was in the jar with all the other great evils found to afflict humanity on earth. Hope is a dangerous thing; a great evil. Perhaps it is the greatest evil since it was the only one not released from the jar.
This may seem confusing until one remembers that a major theme in ancient Greek mythology is Fate. Fate is the concept in which there is no chance for the future to be otherwise. The future has already been determined by the gods and nothing can change it. The infamous Greek example of this is found in the tragedy of Oedipus the King. Oedipus was fated to kill his father and commit incest with his mother by marrying her and fathering children by her. The whole play Oedipus’s father and Oedipus himself try to avoid their fate, but in so doing they fulfill it.
From this example, it can be seen that hope is negated by fate or determinism. In the case of Pandora and her jar, Zeus orchestrated the creation of Pandora for the purpose of bringing suffering to men. He also was the one responsible for not allowing hope to escape Pandora’s jar. There is no way to escape the will of Zeus. In this context, Zeus did a favor for men by withholding hope. What could be more evil than to give someone hope that things could be better or different in some way when the reality is that fate is what is driving existence?
Going back to The Shawshank Redemption, the reason for Red’s despair comes into focus within the context of prison. What is one to do when pain and suffering are a constant in life? One must accept one’s fate. Red truly believes he will never get out of Shawshank. Since escape is impossible, it would be insanity to hope such a circumstance would be otherwise. Hope is an evil that only has the power to drive a man insane. It is this kind of hope that men are saved from by Zeus. Such hopes can only lead to despair. In fact, there can be no true despair without hope. So Red avoids despair by rejecting hope and accepting his fate. Hope in his context can only be a great evil. That is why he says what he says to Andy.
Hope as a Never Dying Good
There is a principle lurking in the background here. The difference found between hope (expectation) and reality is disappointment, frustration or even despair. The inverse is true. When expectation and reality match each other there can be anything from alleviation of frustration to blissful fulfillment. Notice that with Red, the most he can have is alleviation of frustration because he has no hope. Andy Dufrense embraces hope rather than fate. He believes circumstances could be otherwise. He has bad reasons for believing this: he has been framed for double murder, imprisoned for life with no chance of parole, and repeatedly raped by The Sisters.
Yet, he knows that everything about his situation is unjust. He knows that his situation ought not to be that way it is. It ought to be different. He rejects what is for what should be. He cannot presently experience what should be, but he hopes for it. His metaphysical hope becomes concrete in concrete. When he discovers the slightest chance of escape through a crumbly concrete cell wall, he hopes to escape. As long as there is a chance for circumstances to be different there can be hope. Choices are real, not determined as in a fatalistic worldview. Andy can choose to hope and make choices to achieve his hope.
However, just because there is a chance for circumstances to be different does not mean that circumstances will change for the better. Andy has hope, but it is an uncertain hope. He does not know if his hole in the wall will be discovered by someone. He does not know if he will be caught bringing dirt out to the prison yard. He does not know if the septic pipe ends or if it has an end. He possesses a shaky hope.
As uncertain as his hope is, it still drives him to achieve things that seem impossible. This is how hope is portrayed as an undying good in The Shawshank Redemption. Its goodness can be found in what it produces. In a world without hope, one can only get busy dying. In a world with hope, one can get busy living.
Hope Makes a Man Free
When Red sees what hope accomplishes in Andy’s life, he is willing to venture out into uncertainty. While in despair, his choices are made for him. There is absolute certainty. This is depicted in his prison life routine. Everyday is the same without any opportunity to choose otherwise. In hope, he has the opportunity to choose. This choice is what makes him free. Just like Andy, he does not know if he will make it to Mexico, but hope empowers him to try. In some sense, and in the context of the movie, to embrace hope is to embrace uncertainty. There is an opportunity to fail, but there is also an opportunity to succeed. Through Andy’s example, Red is freed to hope. Hope makes him free. He hopes.
I will end this post with a quote from a philosophy professor of mine. Many people say where there is life, there is hope. Dr. Randall would disagree. “Where there is hope, there is life.”
Film Poster retrieved from: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0111161/mediaviewer/rm363899904
Red on Bus retrieved from: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0111161/mediaviewer/rm1299913216