The trial and incarceration of Andy Dufresne.

AuthorVan Patten, Jonathan K.
PositionShawshank Redemption character

    The Shawshank Redemption (1) had a relatively humble beginning. Stephen King wrote a ninety-page novella, entitled Rita Hay-worth and the Shawshank Redemption, one of four short stories or novellas, published collectively under the title Different Seasons, in 1982. (2) In terms of movie interest, this novella was not the first choice among the four. (3) Frank Darabont, a then relatively inexperienced screenwriter and director, purchased the movie rights from Stephen King for the grand total of one dollar. (4) The movie was shot over an intense three-month period during the fall of 1993. It was released in 1994 to mixed, albeit generally positive, reviews. (5) While the movie was not initially a box office success, managing only barely to cover the expenses of production, it found a niche in secondary distribution, particularly as a staple on night-time television on Ted Turner's classic movie channel. (6) Together with continued strong word-of-mouth support and growth in DVD sales, The Shawshank Redemption's reputation grew steadily until, ten years after its initial release, it had become a very popular film. (7) Today, it is ranked by the Internet Movie Database as the most popular movie of all time. (8)

    How did this happen? It is a good story, but there are many good stories out there. Why did this one touch so many people so deeply? It has roots in the genre of stories about revenge, including the classic The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. (9) The story connects with a deep-seated sense for righting a wrong. The victim of an injustice eventually escapes to freedom and exacts a measure of revenge against his principal tormentor, a representative of the system. But revenge is not the main attraction. To be sure, revenge is no small part of this story. It is more about redemption, however, as the title suggests. The injustice does not destroy the victim. Rather, it provides the setting through which he becomes transformed. Moreover, it is not just about the victim. It includes at least one other character who becomes redeemed through this experience as well.

    The power of story is well-known. (10) Stories help make sense of life; they provide a moral framework for understanding. (11) People think in terms of metaphors, which are actually compact stories. (12) A good story entertains, charms, and inspires. It thereby has the peculiar power to get past our natural resistance to argument. (13) Stories touch deeply-held values of the audience and cause them "to know without knowing that they know." (14) Stories not only affirm, they can move us to want to be better. We are given the freedom to participate along with the characters as they work through the problems posed in the story. We can judge them without actual recrimination; we can suffer with them without having to undergo the trials they face; we can laugh with and at them as we suspend disbelief and enjoy the wonderful possibilities of human frailties and the spontaneity of life; we can learn from their mistakes as well as applaud them for good choices that we may not have had the understanding or the courage to make; and we can be pulled along to a greater awareness of who we are and who we might be. Allan Bloom captured this in his introduction to Shakespeare's Politics: "What is essentially human is revealed in the extreme, and we understand ourselves better through what we might be. In a way, the spectators live more truly when they are watching a Shakespearean play than in their daily lives...." (15)

    Director Frank Darabont explained, in part, the success of The Shawshank Redemption by noting how people saw themselves in the story:

    The film seems to be something of a Rorschach for people. They project their own lives, their own difficulties, their own obstacles, and their own triumphs into it, whether that's a disastrous marriage or a serious debilitating illness that somebody is trying to overcome. They view the bars of Shawshank as a metaphor for their own difficulties and then consequently their own hopes and triumphs and people really do draw strength from the movie for that reason. (16) While this begins to get at the Shawshank phenomenon, this alone cannot explain its overwhelming popularity. There is something deeper. The connection is more than a metaphor for personal experiences. It involves an identification with the moral infrastructure that shapes the story. It triggers our own emotions about injustice and redemption through this story of a man, wrongfully imprisoned, who finds himself as a result. The system failed him in the most fundamental way, and yet, he was not crushed. Hope eventually led to self-discovery and redemption.

    I experienced some of this connection when I recently visited what is left of the prison used for filming the movie. On an ordinary weekday in April, there were cars with license plates from all around the country gathered in a parking lot in Mansfield, Ohio. (17) Like myself, these people had traveled there to experience a tangible part of this story that had become a part of how they understood themselves. It was indeed a pilgrimage.

    This article will tell that story, in shortened form. Because it is a story that has many admirers, one cannot possibly speak about the meaning for all. I will attempt to articulate the meaning of that story for myself, as part of my own journey for understanding. The story is about justice long denied, but eventually delivered. The injustice that put Andy Dufresne in prison became amplified through the almost random imposition of solitary confinement, interspersed with the constant threat of physical assault by fellow inmates. The story of Shawshank involves the politics of incarceration, the politics of parole, the politics of corruption, and the politics of freedom.


    The movie opens on the night of the murder of Andy Dufresne's wife and her lover. We see Andy, who earlier that night had confronted his wife about her infidelity, now sitting in his car outside of the lovers' trysting place, drinking and loading a gun. The opening shifts forward and back between this scene and Andy's eventual trial, where the prosecutor makes a strong case for Andy's guilt. Although we only see short portions of the trial, the core of the case is delivered through the prosecutor's cross-examination.

    [Prosecutor]: Mr. Dufresne, describe the confrontation you had with your wife the night that she was murdered. [Dufresne]: It was very bitter. She said she was glad I knew... that she hated all the sneaking around. And she said ... that she wanted a divorce in Reno. [Prosecutor]: What was your response? [Dufresne]: I told her that I would not grant one. [Prosecutor]: "I'll see you in Hell before I see you in Reno." Those were the words you used, Mr. Dufresne, according to the testimony of your neighbors. [Dufresne]: If they say so. I really don't remember. I was upset. [Prosecutor]: What happened after you argued with your wife? [Dufresne]: She packed a bag. She packed a bag to go and stay with Mr. Quentin. [Prosecutor]: Glenn Quentin, the golf pro at the Snowden Hills country club, the man you had recently discovered was your wife's lover. Did you follow her? [Dufresne]: I went to a few bars first. Later, I drove to his house to confront them. They weren't home, so I parked in the turnout and waited. [Prosecutor]: With what intention? [Dufresne]: I'm not sure. I was confused... drunk. I think... mostly I wanted to scare them. [Prosecutor]: When they arrived, you went up to the house and murdered them. [Dufresne]: No. I was sobering up. I got back in the car, and I drove home to sleep it off. Along the way, I stopped and I threw my gun into the Royal River. I feel I've been very clear on this point. [Prosecutor]: Well, where I get hazy is where the cleaning woman shows up the following morning and finds your wife in bed with her lover riddled with .38 caliber bullets. Now does that strike you as a fantastic coincidence, Mr. Dufresne, or is it just me? [Dufresne]: Yes, it does. [Prosecutor]: Yet you still maintain that you threw your gun into the river before the murders took place. That's very convenient. [Dufresne]: It's the truth. [Prosecutor]: The police dragged that river for three days and nary a gun was found. So there could be no comparison made between your gun and the bullets, taken from the blood-stained corpses of the victims. And that, also, is very convenient. Isn't it, Mr. Dufresne? [Dufresne]: Since I am innocent of this crime, sir, I find it decidedly inconvenient that the gun was never found. (18) There is no lawyer in sight for the defense. Andy is naive in his trust. He apparently thinks the truth will be enough. He is even slightly indignant that his story has not ended the matter. "I feel I've been very clear on this point." His testimony only serves to make the prosecution's case stronger. Whether or not Andy's decision to testify was against the advice of his lawyer, the testimony, together with the tangible evidence from the crime scene, became the core of the prosecutor's summation to the jury.

    [Prosecutor]: Ladies and gentlemen, you've heard all the evidence, you know all the facts. We have the accused at the scene of the crime. We have footprints, tire tracks, we have bullets strewn on the ground, which bear his fingerprints, the broken bourbon bottle, likewise the fingerprints, and most of all, we have a beautiful young woman and her lover lying dead in each other's arms. They had sinned. But was their crime so great as to merit a death sentence? And while you think about that, think about this. A revolver holds six bullets, not eight. I submit this was not a hot-blooded crime of passion. That at least could be understood, if not condoned. No. This was revenge, of a much more brutal and cold-blooded nature. Consider this. Four bullets per victim. Not six shots fired, but eight. That means that he fired the...

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