Red is the lifeline of the prison, the man who can smuggle almost anything into Shawshank from the outside world. By making himself indispensable to the other inmates, Red affords himself protection and an esteemed place in the pecking order of the prison yard. He forces the other men to do business on his terms and knows full well the need to defend his own interests in a world where violence and exploitation are the norm. Ultimately, however, Red’s hardened stance conceals his fear and insecurity as he struggles to make sense of his life both in and out of prison. Even though Red’s narrative focuses on Andy and his eventual escape, Red admits that the story is really all about himself. Andy’s inner confidence and sense of self-worth represent the part of Red that Hadley, Norton, and the other prison authorities never managed to crush. Although Red has undoubtedly thought of escaping numerous times during his thirty-eight years in prison, it is Andy’s resolute sense of hope that Red admires. Red knows that hope is what keeps him and every other inmate alive.
Andy is an enigma to Red and the other inmates, a man they admire but never really understand. An element of fantasy infuses the characterization of Andy: at one point King even refers to the mysterious “myth-magic” that his protagonist seemingly possesses. In truth, Andy is an anomalous figure who stands out from the rest of the inmates at Shawshank Prison, but not for any mythical or spiritual reason. Andy’s calm, cool collectedness govern his interactions with the world around him, and he rarely succumbs to emotion or cheap sentiment. What many inmates take for snobbery is actually reserve and caution as Andy tries to stay one step ahead of his adversaries. Without this strength and inner resolve, Andy would never have survived his twenty-eight years in prison nor managed to escape. Andy emerges as an object of fascination for many of his fellow prisoners, a figure onto whom they project their various embellishments of the ideal man: Andy, the man who can talk down the guards; Andy, the man who can manipulate the warden; and Andy, the man who can escape out from under everyone’s noses.
Warden Norton embodies the hypocrisies and contradictions of the penitentiary system. The national exposure and adulation he gets for his “Inside-Out” program belies and conceals the corruption that prevails during his tenure and the campaign of threats, intimidation, abuse, and excessive cruelty he employs to maintain control of the inmates. At times aligned with images of death—his face is compared to a cold slate tombstone—Norton is a self-deluded despot who justifies his exploitation and the promotion of his self-interest at the expense of others in the name of his faith and the fire-and-brimstone Bible passages he often quotes.