Study Guide

Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption Themes

By Stephen King

  • Freedom and Confinement

    It's not surprising that a story that takes place in a prison features quite a bit of talk about freedom—or, more specifically, the lack of freedom.

    King writes about freedom as a dream in Shawshank, something the characters desperately want but can't ever have, at least not until the end of the story. We appreciate freedom the most when we don't have it, and in Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, King wants us to become aware of this fact by repeatedly reminding us that Andy and Red are stuck where they are in Shawshank for a very long time.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. Why don't we know about the jailbreak from the beginning of the story? Would it be more effective if we did?
    2. What does the story say about the value of simple pleasures when you're imprisoned? Find some examples in the text. (Trust us, they're there.)
    3. Does Norton think Andy is innocent? Is that different from thinking that Andy deserves to be in prison? Why or why not?
    4. What does "institutionalization" say about the power of confinement? Can anyone not be institutionalized after being stuck in prison as long as Andy and Red have been?

    Chew on This

    Andy's confinement is an illusion because he doesn't let it bother him.

    Andy's still confined and suffering, even though he keeps his hopes up.

  • Friendship

    Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption centers on a lengthy friendship between Andy and Red, yet it doesn't go into a whole lot of details. This is a strong, silent friendship, with a lot of manly grunts and unspoken assumptions. The emphasis is on the "strong" rather than the "silent," of course. Red doesn't talk a lot about how much Andy means to him, but he does talk about the gestures Andy makes that improve his life: Sending him the polished stones, getting beer for the tarring crew, you know stuff like that. Red even tears up a couple of times at those gestures, especially when he gets Andy's letter. That shows us how important friendship can be, instead of just telling us.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. We know what Andy's friendship does for Red, but what does Red's friendship do for Andy?
    2. Why don't we see or hear about any of Andy's other friendships in prison? Is Red the only one? What does that say about Andy, and what does that say about the other prisoners?
    3. Why does Warden Stammas pretend to be friends with Andy? Is it possible for a friendship to develop between a prisoner and a guard in this story?
    4. How does Andy express friendship in the book? Does that differ from Red's expressions? If so, how?

    Chew on This

    Friendship is vital to maintaining hope in Shawshank.

    Friendship is nice, but Andy could have held out hope even if he didn't become good friends with Red.

  • Secrets

    Pin-up girls always have a secret. You don't know what they're thinking as they smile at you from the other side of that sheet, and we're probably never going to find out. That makes Rita Hayworth and Andy's other pin-up girls a very clever way of keeping a very big secret. They help define a very important aspect of Andy's personality: He's got a lot going on, both good and bad, but he doesn't share it with anybody. This theme helps drive home the importance of having an internal life, a guiding light. If you can tap into that secret inner world, then the bad things on the outside don't seem quite so bad after all. All it takes is a little thoughtfulness, and sometimes a giant pin-up poster.

    Questions About Secrets

    1. What kind of secrets does Red carry with him. How are they similar to Andy's secrets? How do they differ?
    2. Are Norton or any of the other wardens more hypocritical because of the secrets they carry? Why or why not?
    3. Besides the posters, what other symbols are used to signify secrecy in the story?
    4. Could you consider Andy's innocence a secret? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Secrets are invariably a positive thing in the story, helping Andy to escape and maintain hope in his fellow inmates?

    Secrets cut both ways in the story, and some end up hurting Andy more than helping him.

  • Suffering

    Let's face it: Any story set in a prison will inevitably explore the nature of suffering in some way or another. We get plenty of prison brutality in Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption: Guards doing bad things to prisoners, rapists doing bad things to other prisoners, even guys like Elwood Blatch—who we don't even freaking see—doing things to mess up Andy's life.

    We're talking about more than just good old-fashioned, run-of-the-mill suffering—Shawshank stresses mental and emotional suffering too. You know, the kind of suffering you don't see, but still leaves a mark. Institutionalization, for instance, is a good example of mental suffering (Red can't even pee normally when he gets out of prison). In this story, King wants us to understand different kinds of suffering, as well as the ways that Andy and Red overcome them.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. What causes Andy's deepest suffering? How about Red? What kinds of ways do they learn to cope with it?
    2. Does Andy inflict suffering against those who torment him? How, specifically?
    3. In this story, is mental suffering more painful than physical suffering? How, specifically?
    4. Is there any justice behind the suffering that goes on in the story: any case where the person suffering has it coming? Cite specific examples.
  • Hope

    At the end of the day, Shawshank is all about hope (which isn't quite the same thing as freedom.). Hope is what gets the prisoners in Shawshank through each day, many times as a direct result of Andy's warm demeanor and inspirational antics. Hope helps us look forward to the next day; it helps us find happiness. Hope is what drives Andy to try to gain his freedom; for him, freedom is the final product of decades of unwavering hope. It's hard for someone not to feel a little more hopeful in his or her life after reading this book. We're pretty sure that's exactly the effect King was going for.

    Questions About Hope

    1. Why don't we ever learn whether or not Red reaches Andy in Mexico? What does that say about the nature of hope?
    2. What is it about a poster of a pretty girl that can give a prisoner so much hope? (Andy has an answer, but we want to hear you come up with some of your own.)
    3. How does Andy give Red hope throughout the story?
    4. Why does Warden Norton want to destroy Andy's hope? What will that do to Andy that bars and walls can't?

    Chew on This

    Andy escapes when he loses hope.

    Andy's escape is an expression of hope, rather than a reaction to its loss.

  • Injustice

    Red tells us fairly early that Andy didn't commit the crime he's been jailed for, which is confirmed years later when Tommy Williams shows up. Yet, Andy still gets to rot away in his cell for thirty years with nothing but Red and his pin-up posters for company. That ain't right, but it's not the only thing in Shawshank that ain't right. People get rewarded for doing bad things, and sometimes the bad guys walk away scot-free (Okay, not Warden Norton, but still…). Justice in this story only comes when you fight for it, and even then it's still not guaranteed. King seems to want us to understand how arbitrary justice can be and how, even when things are unfair, there's not always a whole lot you can do about it.

    Questions About Injustice

    1. How important is it that Red is guilty of murder and Andy is innocent?
    2. Does Norton receive real justice in the story? Why or why not?
    3. Aside from being in prison, what injustices does Andy suffer during the book? How about Red? Is there any sense of forethought to the injustices in the book? Or is it all just random? Cite examples from the work.

    Chew on This

    Injustice makes hope stronger in the book, and fuels Andy's fire to make things right.

    Injustice crushes all hope and Andy has to escape his or else have his spirit destroyed by it.

  • Transformation

    People change throughout Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. They become institutionalized. They grow more corrupt. They get old and scared, old and brave, or just plain old. Either way, they're not the same at the end of the story as they are at the beginning. Those changes highlight a lot of the book's other themes, like hope (and how it makes people better), injustice (and how it makes people worse), and secrets (and how they do a little of both). Shawshank transforms the people stuck there, though sometimes that transformation can actually be a good thing (or at least make for a really good movie).

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Does Andy really change over the course of the story? In what ways?
    2. How does Andy's presence in Shawshank change the guards and wardens? Are they better or worse for it?
    3. In what ways does Shawshank transform those who are there? How does that differ from the way Andy transforms people?
    4. Change takes place slowly in this book. What does that say about the process of transformation? Would that be any different if the story weren't set in a prison?

    Chew on This

    Ultimately, change plays a positive role in the story, helping our heroes escape their miserable lives.

    Change is both good and bad in Shawshank; it has the power to both hurt and help people.

  • Cunning and Cleverness

    Andy survives and escapes because he outthinks everyone else. He's smarter than his jailers, even though they think they're smarter than him. It's a battle of wills to see who triumphs, but we're betting on the little guy who thinks things through. Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption focuses a lot on the idea that being patient and persistent will help one learn to be cunning and clever. Andy's plans are darn smart, but they take years to realize. He just has to stay the course, and eventually people will see just how smart he's been all along.

    Questions About Cunning and Cleverness

    1. In what way does Warden Norton think he's smarter than Andy? How does he show it to Andy?
    2. What does the book have to say about smart criminals and stupid criminals? Is that the only difference between prisoners and free men?
    3. How does Red display cleverness in the story? How is it different from Andy's? How is it the same?
    4. In what ways is Andy's intelligence helpful to him in the story? In what ways does it hurt him?

    Chew on This

    Andy escapes because he outthinks the guards and wardens.

    Andy escapes because he is patient and quiet. Cleverness isn't involved.