18 Mar The Shawshank Redemption
The Shawshank Redemption is a story of men serving life sentences in a brutal penitentiary. The penitentiary is a metaphor for living in society. Most of us live our entire lives in a penitentiary. But in The Shawshank Redemption, as in society generally, a few have a chance at redemption, freedom: Brooks Hatlen, an old man who managed the prison library; Andy Dufresne, a banker wrongly imprisoned for the murder of his wife and her lover; and Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding, a prison contraband smuggler.
After 50 years of “good behavior” (a model prisoner serving others as a librarian; a kind man who cares for an injured bird) Brooks is free to leave. However, a sentence well-served, like a life well-served, doesn’t guarantee redemption. For Brooks there is no redemption. Redemption requires letting go of our past where we are imprisoned by our mind. While excited at the prospect of freedom, Brooks can’t part with his identity as a prison librarian and embrace the freedom that awaits him. He becomes depressed and hangs himself soon upon his release.
Andy is like everyman, not deserving punishment but punished nonetheless, forced to serve a role in life that’s not to his liking. He makes the most of his life in prison but for years devotes his time and energy on digging a tunnel from his cell to freedom outside the prison walls. On the day of his escape, he emerges from a hole in the earth, essentially reborn. Once free, like all free men he leaves the roles society has slotted him to live carefree in a beachfront village, presumably without risk of extradition. Andy finds redemption. His efforts are like years of meditation that culminate in escaping the prison of the role-plying self and past identities to be one with the world at large.
Ellis is long-imprisoned for a crime he committed in his youth. Periodically he comes up for parole which he’s denied. Again and again he tells the parole board that he is sorry about his criminal past, completely rehabilitated and would never do it again. Again and again, the board rejects his petition for parole. Then, finally, he tells the board that he often imagines a boy who he doesn’t know. He sees the boy about to commit a horrible crime and he only wishes he could grab that boy before the crime is committed. The board then grants him parole. Essentially, Ellis is saying that he no longer is the person who committed the crime for which he went to prison; the person he is now could never have committed such a crime and he would try to stop its commission if he saw it happening. Keeping Ellis incarcerated longer would be punishing someone for a crime they didn’t commit. His redemption comes from completely disavowing his past which allows him to smuggle himself out of prison. Likewise, we are only free when we leave the karmic prison of our mind.
Redemption, freedom, is ultimately the purpose of life. It comes not simply by living a good life, treating others well and satisfying our responsibilities. It comes from long and hard work to realize our personal and societal identities are temporary roles in the play of life. Then, we know the name of the play, “Terrific.”