Ellis Boyd "Red" Redding is the wise old man of Shawshank Prison. He's Andy's closest friend and shows him the ropes of prison life. He's the narrator of our story, and unrolls it gradually for us. Despite being a convicted murderer, he has our sympathy from the get-go.
"A Man Who Knows How to Get Things"
Andy approaches Red about procuring a rock hammer because he's heard that Red is "a man who knows how to get things." On the outside, that's not an impressive description. Heck, if we've got a fiver on us we can walk out the door right now, walk down to the 7-Eleven and buy ourselves a Slurpee. Inside a prison, though, there's a fine art to gathering items.
Why is Red so darn good at getting stuff—a regular "Sears and Roebuck" as he describes himself? Two reasons, really, and they both tell us quite a bit about his character. First, he's a smart man. He's not just some brainless goon who got locked away for hacking up a bunch of innocent people with a machete. He's a bright, resourceful fellow who made some mistakes—okay, they were some pretty bad mistakes (he admits he's in Shawshank for murder, although he never divulges any of the juicy details)—when he was young and stupid, and now totally regrets them.
Second, he's well-liked, well-known, and well-trusted. In order to make the whole "getting things" racket run smoothly, he has to coordinate operations with a half dozen different people inside the prison, and that necessitates a good deal of confidence in his ability to keep mum about their involvement.
What we have here is an intelligent, kind-hearted, and trustworthy guy who's sort of the Shawshank office manager, for lack of a better description. In just a few words, we already have the sense that we like this Red guy. Why not? Everybody else seems to. Who are we to go against popular opinion?
Red's a nice enough guy and everything, but gee whiz—don't go mentioning "hope" around him. The one time Andy slips up and starts talking about holding onto hope, Red throws a minor fit, gets up from the cafeteria table, and leaves in a huff. He doesn't even finish his tater tots.
Why does the subject get Red so hot under the collar? If he just plain didn't have hope, wouldn't he be sorta indifferent to the suggestion?
We think so. In fact, we think that scene is pretty clear evidence that Red—a much younger, less hardened version of himself—used to be full to the brim with hope. He probably came into Shawshank with the idea that he'd get out of there with some good behavior, or find some way to escape, or maybe get air-lifted out of there by a group of kindly extraterrestrials. Whatever the manner of his egress, he was probably full of life and could hardly believe that he'd live out the remainder of his days in that God-forsaken place.
However, as the years went by, Red changed:
RED: Hope? Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. It's got no use on the inside. You'd better get used to that idea.
As he gradually accepted that this was going to be his existence, he started to resent the idea that anyone else could be hopeful. It's like when the skies are gray and cloudy, and you're in a foul mood, and you just know it's going to rain, but some happy-dappy doofus starts prattling on about how the sun's going to come out. Bah humbug, doofus. Bah humbug.
He may never change his mind until Andy's escape, but you'd better believe that event is enough to turn him around. Suddenly, the tiniest little glimmer of hope starts to sow its seeds in Red's subconscious. His attitude changes so much that he eventually gets released from Shawshank and winds up joining Andy on that sandy beach in Mexico. We don't get to hear their first conversation after being reunited, but we like to think it includes Andy giving him a hard time about dissing the whole "hope" thing.
One Last Thing
Just because we think this is hilarious: Red was described as Irish in the story, but casting Morgan Freeman was too good to pass up. Hence the line "maybe it's because I'm Irish": a nod to the discrepancy.