Study Guide

Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption Analysis

By Stephen King

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Thanks to its movie adaptation, most of us know this story by its shortened title, The Shawshank Redemption, but the book actually has three parts to its title:

    1. Rita Hayworth: movie star and incredible hottie of yesteryear.
    2. Shawshank: a make-believe prison in Maine
    3. Redemption: meaning, um, redemption.

    Put them all together and you have the book's full title: Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.The title refers to Andy's escape, as well as a shout out to one of the ways he makes life bearable in prison. Even so, it's a weird collection of words—weird enough for the movie to cut a few words from its title—and it doesn't make a lot of sense until you read the book.

    That's sort of the point. King wants you to ask some questions to lead you into the narrative. What's a Shawshank? Do people get redeemed there? Does it do the redeeming? How? And how does an old-time pin-up girl figure into it? They're good questions, good enough perhaps to make us open the book and read it to find out the answers. Most good books have a hook to get us started and this one puts it right there in the title.

    More to the point, the word "redemption" probably refers to the way Andy redeems this injustice that has happened to him. He's chucked in jail for a crime he didn't commit. He's chased around by rapists, forced to do free tax work for the guards and generally subjected to the worst kind of treatment imaginable. Yet, he finds a way to keep it all from getting to him. He keeps that secret light in his soul, and he helps the other cons feel it too:

    He strolled off, as if he was a free man who had just made another free man a proposition. And for a while just that was enough to make me feel free. Andy could do that. (375)

    You might be wondering, "But why Rita Hayworth?" Good question. It might be that King is partial to red-heads or that he really, really digs Rita's movies. More likely, however, is that it's simply the fact that Rita was a well-known pin-up girl in the 1940s when Andy gets thrown in jail. Using Ms. Hayworth instead of a more modern pin-up girl lets King lay the seeds for the long passage of time that Andy spends in prison. Start with Rita, move up to Marilyn, and before you know it, thirty years have gone by. Putting Rita's name in the title makes for a quick and easy way to give the story quite a bit of context, as well as leading readers to ask the whole "What the heck is this about"? question that leads them to pick up the book in the first place.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The ending is an odd one in Shawshank, so odd, in fact, that the movie took creative license to clarify certain details that Mr. King left out (Hollywood hates leaving us hanging.). The story ends with Red telling us about Andy's escape, which is followed by a postscript saying he's been paroled, has found a bunch of cash Andy left for him, and is heading down to Mexico to find him. There's no word on whether he gets there, though he uses the word "hope" a lot during the last few sentences:

    I hope Andy is down there. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope. (541-544)

    Four sentences, five "hopes." The story stresses the power of hope throughout—Hope that things will get better in a tough world, hope that a jerk like Warden Norton will get what he deserves, hope that the heroes will die on a beach in the Pacific instead getting gang-raped in the shower of a Maine prison.

    Hope is strongest when there's no resolution; if we find out what happens, we're not hopeful, only relieved. So when King keeps us from finding out if Red really makes it across the border. He just leaves us feeling… well, you know.

    On a more literary level, it also keeps with King's general dedication to realism. Supposedly, Red is writing his story down and leaving it somewhere, suggesting that he's a real con with a real tale to tell. If he were actually about to break parole and escape to Mexico, he wouldn't come back to his diary to tell us if he got there or not. So not only does Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption's cliffhanger ending serve a useful point, it helps keep the book's overall "this could really happen" vibe intact.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (1) Sea Level

    King didn't become a kajillionaire by making his books hard to read. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemptionis narrated by Red, and we get our prose in quick, clever chunks. King is quite eloquent, which makes for a very engaging tone, but he's also accessible, so it's not like he's not talking over our heads. Sprinkle in some hot dames (or at least some posters of hot dames) and a nice guy in need of a break, and you have a story that's easy, fun, and quick to read.

  • Hope

    As cliché as it might sound, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption is a story about hope.The hope for something better, hope for the future, hope to keep your head up when you're locked in a cell for a crime you didn't commit and spend your days getting harassed. Cold, gray, and repressive prisons might knock you down some days, but you're never really a prisoner so long as you have hope: "Remember that hope is a good thing, Red, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies" (527). Stephen King is pretty straightforward about this theme, especially toward the end of the story, where the word "hope" appears in literally every sentence:

    I hope Andy is down there. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I hope. (541-544)

    He ain't exactly subtle, is he?

    At the same time, King doesn't just leave it at pithy sayings. A bunch of different physical manifestations of hope also appear throughout the story. It can be a bottle of beer, which, as Red puts it, "was still the best I ever had in my life" (191), or it can be a well-funded library, where Andy "discovered a hunger for information on such snail hobbies as soap-carving, woodworking, sleight of hand, and card solitaire" (199). It can even be the pile of money Andy leaves for Red in the hayfield, because, you know, money. Okay, okay, it's the note that comes with the money that really gives Red hope here:

    I opened the envelope and read the letter and then I put my head in my arms and cried. (531)

    That quote right there stresses something that's kind of important to the story: Objects themselves aren't important. Instead, it's what they represent and the way they affect people that matters. That's Andy's secret weapon for giving people hope: A physical object that conveys a strong feeling for whoever receives it.

    The beer the prisoners get to drink up on the roof is a great example of this. The prisoners are toiling on the hot roof with tons of tar and a mean-spirited guard threatening to beat them if they go too slow. Suddenly, with Andy's help, there's a brewski in their hands. They can take a little break, drink their beer, rest and feel good for a bit, just like free men doing hard work. The beer gives the men hope because it helps them remember what it's like to be free.

    The library does even more to give the prisoners hope than the beer. It helps "over two dozen guys who have used the books in here to help them pass their high school equivalency tests" (215) and, more importantly, inspires many of the men to take up those "snail hobbies" Red mentions that help the cons pass the time more productively in the joint. They carve soap, make birdhouses, and even just play new kinds of solitaire. The hobbies the men take up give them a sense of purpose, pride, and hope in creating something worthwhile.

    The most telling symbol of hope in this story is probably the note that Andy leaves Red, the one that makes Red cry. It's a fairly standard letter, at least in terms of the wording—it's designed to deter suspicion (in case the wrong people read it) while simultaneously reminding Red that he, too, has a soul. The friendship and dedication the note embodies means a lot to Red—especially the fact that his buddy sent him a lifeline with no knowledge of whether he'll ever get it—and it gets him moving towards a more hopeful future.

    Each one of those symbols is different, but they all have similar effects on the characters in the story. Andy knows it, and he sends them out with a sense of the exact kind of effect they're going to have. Hope springs eternal, and the symbols here demonstrate that they can pop up just about anywhere.

  • The Posters

    Andy's girlie posters represent a sort of hope, the same way the beer and the library do, but they also symbolize freedom (Which to Andy is almost the same thing.).

    You look at those pretty women and you feel like you could almost not quite but almost step right through and be beside them. Be free. (221)

    There are worse ways of symbolizing hope than a pretty girl, even if she is just a poster. Hey, we're not here to judge—but there is more to those pin-ups than just hope. There's secrecy. They hide Andy's giant escape hole, after all, and unlike real people, they're very good at keeping their mouths shut. They're so good at it, in fact, that no one finds out what they're hiding until Andy has already put on his boogie shoes and split.

  • Rocks

    Andy told me once that all of geology is the study of pressure. And time, of course. (467-468)

    Not so subtle here, Mr. King. The rocks that Andy finds in the prison yard turn into a symbol of how he goes about things: slowly and patiently, but with incredible results. The rocks don't look like much when he finds them, but with a little elbow grease and a lot of time, they can turn into something marvelous.

    For example, take the polished stones Andy gives to Red:

    I didn't even dare touch them, they were so pretty. There's a crying shortage of pretty things in the slam, and the real pity of it is that a lot of men don't even seem to miss them. (135)

    In an awful place like Shawshank, beautiful things don't attract much attention. No one notices them in the yard, and even if they do, no one thinks they're especially beautiful. Only Andy does, and by polishing them up, he can show their beauty to people who need it. The rocks help Red realize that wonderful things do exist in Shawshank, if you know where to look.
    The tragedy of Shawshank is that no one else comes to the same realization as Red. The hope is that someone who does—like Andy—can help teach others to find beauty in places they wouldn't normally look. Spreading the love, one polished piece of quartz at a time.

    Setting:Shawshank Prison

    With the exception of the end of the book, most of this story is set at Shawshank, a fictitious prison located in Stephen King's home state of Maine. King doesn't spend much time describing it in the book. We get the word "grey" a lot, that's for sure, as in "these goddamned grey walls" (194) and "big grey clouds scudding across the sky above the grey walls" (247). King gets to the point and probably figures we can imagine what a prison might look like, so we get a lot of "grey" and a few other tidbits like how horrible the guards are and what happens when the sisters get to you. It's basically an awful place and when you go there, you lose everything.

    They give you life, and that's what they take – all of it that counts, anyway. (33)

    Shawshank's awfulness kind of seeps into you over time. It's not like you walk in and see prisoners getting brutalized in the yard, or line up for your weekly assault or anything like that. It gets to you over the years. Slowly, inch by inch, you lose who you were and become an extension of the prison. You can't escape, even if they let you out.

    When you take away a man's freedom and teach him to live in a cell, he seems to lose his ability to think in dimensions. (386)

    Shawshank is horrible, but its horribleness reveals itself so gradually that you don't even notice.

    For several decades, Andy and his unbreakable sunniness go head to head against Shawshank's creeping dreadfulness. Shawshank almost becomes a character itself—Andy's gotta beat it if he wants to survive. The wardens come and ago, the evil prisoners get shipped off to different penal institutions, but Shawshank? It's always there, waiting for him.

    Luckily, it's got cruddy walls.

    The walls of Cellblock 5 were solid enough, but they weren't exactly dry and toasty. As a matter of fact, they were and are pretty damned dank. After a long wet spell they would sweat and sometimes even drip. Cracks had a way of appearing, some an inch deep, and were routinely mortared over. (466)

    If Shawshank's a character, then that's its Achilles heel. It just takes some patience to get to it, and as we know, Andy has got lots of that.

    In contrast, Mexico serves as a striking juxtaposition to Shawshank. We never see it, but we know it's wide open, forgiving, and doesn't force you to share in its bleakness.

    'You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific?' I told him I didn't. 'They say it has no memory. And that's where I want to finish out my life, Red. In a warm place that has no memory.' (328-330)

    Mexico helps give Andy strength to fight Shawshank. Even if it turns out to be some cruddy little beach full of windblown shacks, it's the idea of Mexico that he needs. His imagination makes it out to be beautiful, and regardless of whether it really is like he dreams, the hope of one day being free helps Andy stave off Shawshank's grey walls.

    • Allusions

      Historical References

      The Miracle of '67

      Stephen King is a lifelong Red Sox fan and always finds ways to slip his team's ups and downs into his books. Before 2004, the Sox epitomized hapless losers, suffering under a "curse" that supposedly came from trading away Babe Ruth in 1918. It lasted for over 75 years, so it's hard to argue with that. 1967 was another step on their agonizing road: the team made it to the World Series for the first time since 1946, only to lose to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games on the Sox's home field. That's the kind of close-but-no-cigar moment that Sox fans love to talk about. Small wonder King uses it in a book about the fragility of hope, and Andy's return to sunniness:

      His dark mood broke around the time of the 1967 World Series. (315)

      Bobby Thomson

      As a baseball fan, King wasn't going to leave the sport at just one reference:

      By World Series time of 1950-this was the year Bobby Thomson hit his famous home run at the end of the season, you will remember… (195)

      Thomson was a professional ballplayer who hit the famous "Shot Heard 'Round the World" in 1951. His New York Giants were playing the Brooklyn Dodgers for the National League Championship. Thomson hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to win the game 5-4, capping a colossal comeback and sending the Giants to the World Series (which they lost). It's considered one of the most dramatic moments in baseball history. And here? It might be a way of referring to Andy's never-give-up attitude, suggesting that miracles aren't always a product of the writer's imagination.

      D. B. Cooper

      At one point in the story, Andy and Red make a joke about one of Shawshank's escaped convicts:

      Andy swore up and down that D B Cooper's real name was Sid Nedeau. (381)

      Nedeau was the convict, but who was Cooper? A real guy, as it turns out, though that might not be his real name. On November 24, 1971, he hijacked a Northwest airlines flight by claiming he had a bomb in a briefcase. The plane touched down in Seattle and the authorities brought him $200,000 and some parachutes. Then, he had the plane take off again, this time headed for Reno. In the middle of the flight, he grabbed a parachute and jumped out of the plane with the money. No one ever saw him or the money again. The FBI says he's dead, but no one ever found a body…

      Again, this is King, telling us that sometimes real people escape from certain capture. His make-believe story at Shawshank really could have happened. At least…we hope.

      Pop Culture References

      Rita Hayworth

      Rita was big deal in the 1940s, thanks in part to World War II. A photo of her in her skivvies showed up in Life magazine in 1941, and when the war started, all those lonely GI's shipped out with Rita in their pocket (so to speak). Movie roles soon followed, usually with her playing sexy and/or dangerous types. The two most notable were The Lady from Shanghai and Gilda, where she does a striptease in a defiant violation of the censors at the time. It might look pretty tame to us today, but trust us: It was hot stuff back the

      Off screen, Rita was a very shy woman who made the mistake of attracting the wrong guys. Today's celebrity gossip fodder doesn't have anything on her: She was married five times, and Columbia Pictures' studio head Harry Cohn treated her like his own life-sized Barbie doll. Yeah, it got creepy. She also struggled with alcohol and Alzheimer's late in her life and retired in the 1970s due to deteriorating health. She died in 1987 at the age of 68…well after helping spring Andy from his prison cell.

      Here's that striptease from Gilda we were talking about, a scene that can still stop traffic almost 70 years later.

      Marilyn Monroe

      There aren't too many people who can top Rita Hayworth in the sexiness department, but Marilyn Monroe definitely qualifies. Born Norma Jean Mortensen, Monroe grew up an orphan and, like Rita, started her career as a pin-up model. She landed small roles in movies like The Asphalt Jungle and All About Eve before nude pictures of her were suddenly made public. They became the talk of Hollywood—prompted in part by her explanation for them, which helped stress the plight of young actresses—and led to pictures in Life magazine.

      Leading roles followed quicker than a wink. Her biggest films included Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Some Like It Hot, The Prince and the Showgirl, and The Seven-Year Itch… whose subway scene appears on the wall of Andy's cell.

      Like Rita, Marilyn didn't do too well off screen. She married three different times, and struggled with drugs and alcohol. She also may have had an affair with President Kennedy, but no one has the real dirt on that. Marilyn died in 1962—only 36 years old—of a drug overdose. Underneath the legend was a very sad woman who, like Andy, hid a lot of who she was under the surface.

      Jayne Mansfield

      Okay, now we're getting positively ghoulish. Andy's third poster girl, Jayne Mansfield, was basically the hot 50s blonde who wasn't Marilyn Monroe. She made her share of sexy posters and she stared in her share of sexy movie roles, including The Girl Can't Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?

      Unlike Marilyn, Mansfield also did a lot of work on stage and television, as well as cutting an album titled Jayne Mansfield Busts Up Las Vegas. We haven't listened to it, but we're pretty sure it's a masterpiece.

      Anywho, Jayne turned out even worse than Marilyn. She was killed in a car accident in 1967, at the tender age of 34. Clearly, rising young starlets needed to stay off of Andy's wall.

      Raquel Welch

      Raquel Welch was yet another pin-up from Andy's wall. Raquel played a bigger role in the movie, since her poster was the one that Andy had up when he finally escaped but she's less prominent in the book.

      Ms. Welch rocketed to stardom in the movie One Million Years B.C., playing a cave-girl who, despite knowing nothing about fire or tools, still scrounged up plenty of make-up and hair products to look absolutely stunning. The movie made her an international sex symbol, and also set her up for a long series of movie and TV appearances. She handled success a lot better than her predecessors, and is still alive and kicking as of 2014 at the ripe old age of 74.

      She still works, too, with a recent role in CSI: Miami and alongside Reese Witherspoon in 2001's Legally Blonde.

      Hazel Court

      Hazel is a decidedly minor entry in Andy's little pin-up harem, an English girl who received classical theatrical training before embarking on her career as an actress. She hit the big time making horror movies for Britain's Hammer Studios, a famous production company that specializes in blood, guts and all things spooky (Daniel Radcliffe's post-Harry Potter movie The Woman in Black was a big deal because it was released under the Hammer label.).

      Hazel appeared in such classics (and not-so classics) as The Curse of Frankenstein, Ghost Ship, and Devil Girl from Mars. We figure that as the "Master of Horror," Stephen King was probably familiar with most of these titles. She retired form acting in the 1960s in order to raise her family, and apparently lived happily until her death in 2008 at the ripe old age of 82.

      Linda Ronstadt

      Lovely Linda serves as the anchor for Andy's girls: her poster is the one left hanging when he finally bids Shawshank adieu. Unlike Andy's other girls, she's primarily known as a singer: wildly popular in the 1970s with hits like "I Can't Help It," "Just One Look" and "You're No Good." She kept going well into the 21st century, with touring dates and a new album in 2004. Considering the fate of some of Andy's other girls, I'm sure she'll take it.

      The Lost Weekend

      Red mentions The Lost Weekend
      as one of the movies they show in the prison. It's a well-known film from 1945, based on a novel by Charles L. Jackson about an alcoholic writer living in New York. It was an important statement on Alcohol Abuse, and it won a whole bunch of Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. It's also really really preachy: just the sort of thing hard-nosed prison officials would show the inmates in an effort to get them to reform their ways.