By Wes Alwan
While The Shawshank Redemption (1994, directed by Frank Darabont) was not a box office hit, it is now routinely near the top of many greatest movies lists. That’s a suitable result for a story that is in part about the redemptive possibilities of endurance and perseverance. And the film’s appeal lies partly in the hope that this idea inspires. It convincingly argues that there is a way of being in the world that can see us through the worst of times. I think “decency” is the best word to describe this way of being. If I’m right, the film ends up being about more than the long-suffering perseverance of its protagonist Andy (Tim Robbins), or even his altruism.
The engine of the movie is the therapeutic quality of the relationship between Andy and his friend Red (Morgan Freeman), one predicated on their mutual decency. What Red recognizes in Andy on first seeing him—I think only unconsciously, at first—is a kindred spirit in the trappings of a very different personality. Andy’s strange aloofness seems to have an arresting, almost mesmerizing effect on Red. In the beginning he misinterprets this effect, and tries to incorporate it into his cynicism, placing a bet that Andy will be the first newly arrived prisoner to break down and cry. What he thinks he sees is a sort of opportunity—both to win a bet, and to accrue more evidence for an idea that has become the central organizing principle for his life.
What Red has wrong is the assumption that the kindred quality he detects—Andy’s decency—must (unless it is suitably curtailed) imply psychological vulnerability, and be susceptible to immediate elimination. We know that Red has tempered his own decency with a good dose of cynicism and fatalism. And yet he has preserved it to some degree by serving as provider for his fellow inmates. Because this role involves selling contraband, its giving and nurturing quality can be rationalized and disguised as transactional. In any case, Red’s ability to act on his decency—to express his humanity—is highly curtailed by his circumstances: men who cry get taken advantage of and beaten up. Red is beyond crying, but curious as to whether a kindred decency can find a different way to survive interminable confinement, and whether decent instincts can be safely and successfully acted upon within walls that contain so much anguish and aggression. This is another way of wondering whether, within such confines, he can become free.
What Red will learn from Andy is that decency can come packaged as rock-like patience and imperviousness. This isn’t an obvious pairing, and Andy’s stony demeanor is in many ways a deficit. His emotional withdrawal helped land him in prison, alienating his wife and making him seem heartless to judge and jury. It prevented him from saving his marriage and saving himself from a wrongful conviction. Presumably It kept him socially isolated enough that he had no one to talk him out of stalking his wife and her lover, armed and intoxicated; or to talk him through his anguish before it came to a head. Andy’s aloofness is the particular trait of personality that leads Red to bet against him. Red reads this aloofness not as hardness but as a kind of softness: it seems to be a manifestation of Andy’s upper-class pedigree, and a life in which he has not experienced enough hardships to become truly tough. In the world of Shawshank—generally lower in class and much higher in expressions of affect, impulsivity, and aggression—this way of operating will make Andy stand out like a sore thumb. Given this particular social environment, it might seem to Red to be—recalling the word that Andy later uses to insult the prison’s warden—socially obtuse.
While Andy’s hardness does not, on first blush, make him look tough, Red will learn that this first impression is mistaken. Like Red, Andy is beyond crying. And it becomes clear that Andy has a stoicism so profound that it almost seems to transcend prison’s worst forms of violence and degradation. In fact, he seems to arrive at Shawshank already a prison-of-one, far better matched to his new environment than to the life he left behind. There is a dreamlike quality to this, and perhaps part of what fascinates Red is Andy’s own stunned fascination with his newfound circumstances. Shawshank just seems like a good representation of Andy’s inner life, including his confinement of his emotions. It’s like waking up inside one’s own mind—or encountering it out in the world, writ large—and so finding oneself oddly well-suited to navigating its deficits. Surviving Shawshank’s sociopathic boy’s club is the sort of thing Andy is designed to do.
This is the most obvious upside to Andy’s hardness. It differs from the hardness of the stereotypical inmate, whose survival is portrayed as being dependent on aggression and violence and various other forms of impulsivity. Naturally, such things don’t turn out to be legitimate strengths. They might serve the purpose of establishing and maintaining power in the short term. But such power is brittle and subject to overthrow and retaliation. Andy is the epitome of true hardness, which takes rather than delivers blows.
The advantage of Andy’s form of hardness is that in withstanding and calibrating those blows over a long period of time—“pressure and time,” is the way Red puts it—it can gradually be reformed, chiseled (like Andy’s chess pieces) into something with more form and structure. Hardness in this sense is a form of willingness to undergo a certain sort of change—the long-term changes that come with chiseling. One is either shaped by fate and chance—the weathering of rocks by the elements is the apt metaphor here—or one takes shaping into one’s own hands, and makes it deliberate. This requires subjecting oneself less to random than to therapeutic circumstances and influences. But during this process, one is never simply soft: a psychotherapist, for instance, deals with defenses and resistances and, ultimately, character. And the result of the process cannot be soft either, if it is to be a new way of coping with the world.
That Andy and Red turn out to be mutually therapeutic influences for each other is a nice twist on the more typical film trope of the protagonist finding a mentor in the second act, their Yoda-figure. In Shawshank there are two protagonists, each playing the role of mentor to the other, and finding in each other disavowed parts of themselves. Where Andy is intent on securing his freedom from the moment he arrives at Shawshank, Red sees himself as “institutionalized,” and unable to handle freedom on the outside. Where Andy is emotionally and socially closed off, Red can help him navigate the practicalities of relationships, self-care, and getting what he wants. That includes, in the most immediate and practical terms, obtaining contraband—including the rock hammer that will ultimately set Andy free. What Red seems to provide is the kind of warmth and security (and so the name “Red” is suitable here) that Andy will need to do something different with his hardness. Red performs what is, in psychoanalytic parlance, a containing function, and shows Andy that security need not be cold: rather than requiring withdrawal or retreat, it can be paired. Andy, meanwhile, will show Red that security doesn’t require giving up, and warmth doesn’t require staying put. And so he might be seen as a manifestation of Red’s suppressed desire to “get living” and become free. This is another way of explaining Red’s initial fascination with him.
Through his relationship with Red, Andy is able to develop his desire to escape from prison into a desire for spiritual freedom, one that involves accepting and atoning for the failure of his relationship with his wife, and so for his indirect role in her death. Students of psychoanalysis might see this as a kind of softening—a movement away from introversion and emotional (and perhaps schizoid) withdrawal to relatedness; or, in Kleinian terms, from a paranoid-schizoid to a depressive position. While I think it’s true that we see this movement, perhaps softening isn’t the right metaphor. And there’s more to be said about the upsides to Andy’s hardness, and the advantages he brings to the table even before his psychological journey begins. Beyond giving him the capacity to survive a tough prison environment, and the persistence to suffer a long period of therapeutic transformation, there is something that connects Andy’s hardness to his decency, the trait that he brings with him to prison. I think of this connection under the rubric of good will. We see this will manifested in the many good works that Andy does, including tax returns for guards and building up the library for his fellow inmates, not to mention the transcendent moments in which he risks his own wellbeing to get beers for friends who have been working in the sun all day, or to play opera over the prison’s PA system.
To a cynic, they might seem merely like attempts to curry favor, by someone who is too aloof to establish real relationships on more intimate grounds. But good will establishes an ethical rather than personal relationship. This relationship is, as the philosopher Kant thought, empathetic but not sentimental; it is not a matter of passion or desire. It must be passionless, if it is to be free of the personal vicissitudes of love and hate. Good will is universal. When we have it, we have it for all human beings, not just those that please us, or those to whom we have become close. Good will is the sort of thing we have just as much for the sinner as for the saint, for the murderous felon as much as for the Mother Theresa. It is the basis of ethical life, for treating people not merely as a means to our own ends, to obtaining pleasure or avoiding pain, but as ends in themselves. This is the basis of empathy, which is not the same as pity and not based on a passionate connection to suffering (or, more generally, victimhood). We might call it “love,” in some broad sense, as long as we don’t confuse it with love in its more personal form. We find a similar idea in Freud (see, for example, Civilization and Its Discontents), in which our positive fellow-feeling for other human beings is a form of sublimated, desexualized libido based on empathetic identification rather than desire. Andy’s good deeds are not merely (or even primarily) manipulative, although there are ways in which they earn him power. They are also not personal—he is not simply rewarding friends and good guys, and punishing or ignoring others. Andy is engaged in sublimating, constructive projects that express an impersonal good will toward humanity as a whole, and this amounts to an impersonal—strange as it sounds—regard for what is good for him.
What I’m trying to say is that there is something genuinely rocklike or hard about our ethical capacities, about our capacities for empathy and good will, and the movie cleverly develops this idea. We begin with Shawshank’s walls and Andy’s emotional withdrawal, and end up at a transcendent place of freedom, both physical and spiritual. Withdrawal becomes transcendence. This is not accomplished by leaving hardness behind, but by shaping it and becoming—as Andy does—a master chiseler of rocks, which is to say himself. If identification is the basis of empathy, then we might say there is something truly rocklike in the capacity to become others: one is no longer merely affecting, or affected, but becomes structurally isomorphic by way of identification. It is more like the relation of picturing, or signification (as in the carved chess piece), than it is of causation. One can be a picture of others, or signify them, precisely because one is not merely trying to do something to them, or trying get them to do (or stop doing) something to or for you. To play its role, the signifier must be somewhat impervious, and ultimately like the piece of reflective obsidian that Andy buries to mark the place that will help Red reestablish a connection with him. And so this capacity is not just for identification, but for facilitating identification in others. When polished, rock can be made shiny enough for others to see themselves in it.
All of this is to say that empathy and good will are more than feelings. They transcend a particular subjective experience, and are better described as an activity, or kind of work. The ethics of Aristotle implies a similar distinction between feeling happy at a particular moment, and genuinely being happy in the sense, broadly speaking, of being psychically healthy. For a human being to signify others, is in part to engage in the activity of self-development or self-fulfillment (or, in Aristotle’s way of speaking, being-at-work-being-oneself). This does have its effects: Andy’s good works help to improve others, and to improve the environment of the prison. But what’s more important than such effects is the form of functioning that tends to produce them, and the way such functions can be imitated and adopted by others. Andy’s good works help people mean something to him, and to each other. To create a library is a way to enter the experience of another. This entry does not pity or condescend: it recognizes existing potentialities that, given the right environment, can be fulfilled. For other inmates, the library comes to signify such potentialities: as such, it provides the means to a new self-concept, in which intellectual progress (and therefore other progress as well) is possible. The point, in the end, is self-recognition through mutual recognition, and vice versa. In this process, others are not simply passive recipients to a gift (soft objects to be shaped by good deeds): rather, they are induced to be similarly hard, in the sense of similarly active. They are inspired to various forms of functioning and sublimation. They are induced to work.
And so, strangely enough, Andy’s problems with emotional connection give him capacities that, when properly engaged, may be a means to becoming capable of such connections. They do this by giving him a way to practice a more impersonal but highly ethical relation to humanity. The hope is that his ethical transcendence will become immanent, and personal, and so return him to the human fold. Until that time, he is—Christ-like as he seems—not likely to be the easiest person to be with. That’s why it’s important that Red’s narration intervene between Andy and the audience. Without Red’s charitable frame of reference, we might be put more in the mind of Andy’s wife, judge, or jury. We need instead to see him through the modulating effects of Red’s sympathetic eyes. This is the work that Red does best, and it is also the best evidence of the way in which his relationship with Andy has helped Red.
This relationship does not rehabilitate Red—the nominal function of prisons, and the thing at issue before his many parole board hearings, in which he has always insincerely parroted the words he believes they want to hear, and which if they believed them would make him free. Andy has not molded Red into someone fitter for society, and such molding was never necessary. What Andy has helped him do is fulfill a kind of potential that was there all along, which includes the ability at work in Red’s framing of Andy’s story. Instead of making Red a better human being, Andy has given him practice in finding the better things already there in human beings, and so given him the task of doing the work of freedom, instead of asking others to give it to him. Red’s story is in turn precisely an account of his therapeutic effect on Andy, even if we see little overt mentorship in the film: it is because Andy’s good will and decency were so apparent to Red from the beginning, that Andy was able to bring them to fruition. The story that Red tells us is, in a sense, the story he had been telling Andy from their first meeting: it is an act of good will and decency, in the form of a mirror that allows Andy to see himself anew—one that shows potentialities rather than actualities. This is the work of empathetic signification, and it is hard, in the several senses of requiring resilience and perseverance; being difficult and impersonal; and finally involving something rock-like: reflective when polished, well-formed but durable when sculpted, and susceptible not to easy fixes or sudden misfortunes, but to the liberating work of pressure and time.
Wes Alwan is a student at The Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis and co-host of two podcasts: The Partially Examined Life, about philosophy; and the soon-to-be-launched (sub)Text, about literature and film.