This is a literary essay on the novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption: A Story from Different Seasons, written by Stephen King in 1982. I will discuss the quote “Get busy living or get busy dying.” They repeat this quote multiple times in the book and film, which adds to its importance to the story.
This famous line determines the fate of every inmate in Shawshank prison and whether they will live or die. It’s a quote that can be quite confusing because you can interpret it in different ways. Thus, it needs further analysis. In this essay, I will write all the possible aspects of the quote to the story, but also to some characters, who I think speak more to this quote.
The meaning of the quote and how it adapts in the book
The general meaning of this quote is that in life, you are constantly living and dying. You are living when you are doing something positive and useful in your life, and you are dying when you aren’t attempting to improve your life. Living requires hard work and willpower. It means that you have to make the best out of your life even when everything is working against you. Dying is when you give up.
You don’t make things work and get down in self-pity. Living or dying is the constant battle in one’s life. That’s why it describes prison life perfectly: in Shawshank, you either live or you die. You try to survive or you simply don’t. This is the rule for all the inmates. Those who try to live may become respected amongst the other inmates and may see the day of their release.
Those who don’t try will have an extra horrific time in prison. It’s the choice you make, and it’s the choice that will determine your fate in Shawshank. This line is both delivered by Red and by Andy Dufresne. This is for both of them, a phrase to keep them motivated to survive Shawshank.
The meaning of the quote towards the characters
Andy, who it took nineteen years to escape, was busy living. He had spent all of his free time tunnelling through the walls of his cell with his rock hammer in the hope of some day getting free. It was practically impossible, and yet he had done it. And he had also made an entire plan to get to Zihuatanejo, and he made sure that Red could get there too. This is all something that requires courage and the will to proceed even when the odds are not in your favor.
That also adds to the meaning of “get busy dying”. It meant to him that even if his work could bring death to him, it was still worth the struggle and the hard work. He knows that what he is doing could be his downfall, and yet he does it. The posters he would hang in his cell would also give him the strength to keep going.
He said that those pretty women gave him the feeling of freedom. He had a feeling he could almost step right through and be beside them. And the poster of Raquel Welch gave him the feeling he could be with her in Mexico. That is why the quote is so important to Andy: he kept digging that tunnel without knowing for sure if it
could end up somewhere and kept looking at the posters for support. Even when Bogs and his rapist gang, The Sisters, were attacking him and threatening his life, he still fought back. That courage to keep fighting kept him alive. The other time when he was busy was when he was working for Norton. He made a brilliant plan to deceive the warden.
He could see himself escaping that place and find peace. He was the only one who dared the thought of escape, and he was the only one who didn’t fear warden Norton. Red said that it would take twenty years to get out of Shawshank with that hammer, and Andy had done it. He had done something that no one else would’ve done. This shows well that he had chosen the way of getting busy living instead of getting busy dying.
Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding:
Red, although saying to Andy that he is the only guilty man is Shawshank, is the reason Andy succeeded. He kept him good company and guided him through the difficulties. Him being a smuggler; he provided Andy with the posters, which were of great use to Andy. That he helped Andy proves that even after all those years in prison, he didn’t lose his humanity. Him taking action shows he has taken the path of getting busy living.
A turning point of that line for him was when he had to say the last time to the commission whether or not he was rehabilitated. At that moment he had truly realized that it mattered no more. He had chosen to not waste his time trying to explain that he was indeed rehabilitated . He had gotten busy dying, since he thought he would stay in Shawshank till his death. In return, to his surprise, he got released.
This, however, did not give him back the will to get busy living back. He had realized that he got institutionalized and had trouble living on a pace like everyone else. He again was losing the will to proceed living in society just like Brooks (in the film). And later, when he had finally understood that Andy’s plan to escape to Zihuatanejo was real, he regained that longing of living. It opened his eyes to not to end up like Brooks, but to seek to Andy and go to Zihuatanejo. He got busy living again and in reward for that; he saw his dear friend again.
Even though Brooks is a character that wasn’t in the book, I still find that the quote speaks a lot to him. He has been in prison for so long he became absolutely institutionalized. He couldn’t know any other lifestyle other than living between the walls of Shawshank. In the end, he didn’t even want to leave. Those many years in prison made sure he was busy dying. His suicide only proved more to that statement.
He wasn’t able to adapt to a “free” life. Tragic enough, suicide was for him the only escape from his suffering. But in the beginning, when he was taking care of a bird, he was getting busy living. He had a purpose; he truly cared about that bird, like it was his own child. He had a job in the library, which added to his purpose in prison. And when he had lost it all, he couldn’t cope with it. To him, the quote had two tragic sides.
The meaning of the quote translates well to the story and the characters. The inmates all have a choice: they make an effort to get busy living, or they don’t, thus they get busy dying. It is the tragic reality of life in Shawshank, but it is the rule, so everyone
has to follow it. This means something different for everybody. For Andy, it meant that he was getting busy living because of his input, following by his escape. For Red, it meant that he was finally getting busy living by trusting Andy and going to Zihuatanejo. And for Brooks it meant that he was first getting busy living by taking care of his bird and working in the library, but in the end he was getting busy dying by not being able to adapt and then committing suicide.
This quote is the core of the story; it’s what establishes the actions of characters and their endings. For them it’s more than just a quote; it’s either their way of making it out alive or making a fatal mistake. And this conclusion states my opinion of the quote: make an effort to survive in Shawshank, and you will live, show weakness in Shawshank, and you will die. In this context, living and dying doesn’t have to be taken literally; you have to see it as your own self-worth as an inmate.
Each of the three characters I have written about, embody the phrase well: Andy represents the pure strength of the quote, to keep living no matter what, Red represents the struggle of keeping on living and just submit to dying, but in the end to keep living and Brooks represents the loss of the will to keep living an ending up getting busy dying.
For all of these reasons that I have listed up above, I find this phrase to be one of the most powerful in books and films. It has so many nuances and has a meaningful message.
Prison or not, this is the line we all base our lives on.