Each of the inmates inside Shawshank Prison is locked up metaphorically as well as literally, hiding from himself or unable to function in the unregulated world that extends beyond the prison walls. There are many levels of isolation inside Shawshank, from the large, enclosed recreation yard to the smaller work crews down to the cellblock, cells, and, finally, solitary confinement. The prison is thus a multilayered world, a microcosm of the world outside that the prisoners have been forcibly removed from. The bars, strict schedules, sadistic keepers, and predatory Sisters only add a sense of entrapment and suffocation to these layers of isolation.
Shawshank’s confines, however, also highlight the extent to which the prisoners have isolated themselves and compromised their sense of identity. Beneath the hardened criminals lie insecure, maladjusted outcasts, many of whom believe they can’t function outside the prison system. Elwood Blatch, for example, is a braggart and an egomaniac whose exaggerated accounts of his exploits fool none of his listeners into believing that he is the master criminal whom he makes himself out to be. Red, meanwhile, identifies Andy as the part of himself who never let go of the idea of freedom. Freedom is a frightening concept for Red, who dreams of being paroled but eventually struggles to find his place in society after almost forty years in prison. Recounting Andy’s escape, therefore, allows Red to face his fears and find the psychological freedom he seeks.
Hope, more than anything else, drives the inmates at Shawshank and gives them the will to live. Andy’s sheer determination to maintain his own sense of self-worth and escape keeps him from dying of frustration and anger in solitary confinement. Hope is an abstract, passive emotion, akin to the passive, immobile, and inert lives of the prisoners. Andy sets about making hope a reality in the form of the agonizing progress he makes each year tunneling his way through his concrete cell wall. Even Andy’s even-keeled and well-balanced temperament, however, eventually succumb to the bleakness of prison life. Red notes that Tommy Williams’s revelation that he could prove Andy’s innocence was like a key unlocking a cage in Andy’s mind, a cage that released a tiger called Hope. This hope reinvigorates Andy and spreads to many of the other inmates in the prison. In his letter addressed to Red, Andy writes that “hope is a good thing,” which in the end is all that Red has left. Red’s decision to go to Mexico to find Andy is the ultimate proof of Red’s own redemption, not from his life as a criminal but from his compromised state, bereft of hope and with no reason to embrace life or the future. Red’s closing words, as he embarks tentatively onto a new path, show that hope is a difficult concept to sustain both inside the prison and out.