Christian Symbolism in 'The Shawshank Redemption'

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January 6th 2022
Published: January 6th 2022
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When ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ was released in 1994, I couldn’t make head nor tail of the title and assumed it must be pretty boring. And it may have been the title that put off a large section of the public, because the movie earned a mere $16 million in its first theatrical run, way short of its $25 million budget. By contrast, the critics loved it, and in 1995 it was nominated for 7 Oscars.

Since then ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ has become legendary, rated by all and sundry as one of the finest movies ever made. The imdb website gives it a 9.3 rating, the highest of any movie – higher than ‘The Godfather’ (9.2) or ‘The Godfather: Part 2’ (9.0) or ‘Pulp Fiction’ (8.9) or ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’ (8.9) or ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (8.6) or ‘Casablanca’ (8.5).

I too have the highest regard for 'The Shawshank Redemption'. When I first watched it – from a friend’s video cassette circa 2000 – I was gobsmacked. Why hadn’t I watched it before? As I say, it was the incomprehensible title that had frightened me off.

Yesterday, January 4th 2022, while surfing the internet, I came across a short feature on ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ pointing out the Christian symbolism. This is something I had never considered but which now seems obvious.

The movie’s title recalls Jesus Christ, often referred to as the Redeemer, because he saved Mankind from original sin. In the same way, Andy redeems Shawshank Prison by exposing the corruption of the Warden.

Andy Dufresne is a Christ-like figure because, although innocent of any crime, he is wrongfully imprisoned. Like Jesus, he suffers terribly during his 20 years of incarceration but, despite this, does his best to make life better for the inmates and the employees. He uses his professional skills to help the guards with their tax returns. He makes a deal with Captain Hadley to reward the prisoner working party with cold beers. He plays Mozart's opera, 'The Marriage of Figaro', through the prison tannoy, giving the prisoners a rare musical treat. Describing this moment, Red reflects: “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.” Andy writes countless letters to the powers-that-be requesting extra funds for the prison library – until finally his wish is granted. He saves Red by giving him something to live for after his prison release.

When Andy’s cell is found mysteriously empty one morning, we are reminded of the empty tomb of Jesus after Jesus has risen from the dead. This is emphasized by a guard exclaiming: “Oh my holy God!

Andy’s passage through the sewer pipe before reaching freedom mirrors the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is reborn after dying. In the same way, Andy is reborn, as it were, after his years of incarceration. Moreover, the journey through the pipe mirrors the journey of the foetus from incarceration in its mother’s womb to the freedom of the outside world. This is further emphasized when the Warden puts his finger through the poster of Raquel Welch hiding Andy’s escape tunnel; the hole he makes is close to her navel – which ties in with the idea of a foetus being born and an umbilical cord being severed.

After Andy’s disappearance, the prisoners talk about his exploits in the same way as the disciples of Jesus talk about Jesus after his ascension into heaven.

When Red finally meets Andy on the Pacific Ocean beach, paradise compared to Shawshank, it is as if he has gone to heaven.

I wonder how many of these Christian allegorical interpretations were intended by Frank Darabont, the director and screen-writer? Without them, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ is still exceptionally powerful; but with them, the story of Andy Dufresne acquires an extra quasi-mythical dimension.


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