--Henry's death is foreshadowed in the opening...
"The Red Convertible" is a poignant story about lost youth, lost hope, and lost love. In the narrative of this short story, Louise Erdrich employs the plot elements of foreshadowing, symbolism, tone, conflict, and effect.
- There is rather extensive foreshadowing:
--Henry's death is foreshadowed in the opening paragraph as the narrator/brother named Lyman states that he and his brother were co-owners of the red convertible
...until his boots filled with water on a windy night and he bought out my share.
--There is the prefiguring of disaster in the way in which the brothers pay for the red convertible: Lyman has procured his money with the insurance settlement from the destruction of his business by a tornado; Henry has received his last paycheck and another check as severance pay from the Jewel Bearing Plant.
--Henry narrates that when he and his brother first see the red convertible, it seems to "repose." This word repose is often used in funeral arrangements or ceremonies (as in "the body will repose in...").
--Later in the story, Lyman narrates that Henry sits absolutely still in front of the television, much like a rabbit "when it freezes before it will bolt."
--The red convertible.
The convertible is a complex symbol because its meaning changes as the narrative progresses.
The color of the convertible is red, the color of passion and love. It represents the feelings of the brothers for one another. The car, jointly owned by the brothers, symbolizes their bond of brotherhood. It also represent hope.
Once Henry dies, the convertible has no meaning for Lyman, so he drives it into the river. Now, it represents the loss of hope.
When Susy's hair is wrapped in buns on each side of her head, they symbolize the qualities of people that are often not recognizable. Later, Susy undoes these buns and her long tresses fall; the brothers are astonished, and they realize how extraordinary her hair is.
When Lyman purchases this item in order to distract Henry, it instead brings reality and the world's problems to the tranquil reservation where people love each other. The television symbolizes the intrusion of the world's problems into the otherwise peaceful home.
The summer in Alaska is a halcyon time in which the brothers engage in innocent enjoyment of the long, sunny days. The end of summer marks the end of their good times. The following winter Henry begins to withdraw, but in the spring he seems renewed somewhat. Unfortunately, it is only temporary.
The river represents life's course, the changes and trials that a person endures. Henry undergoes much trauma until his soul overflows and he is drowned in his agony and mental torture.
With its long summer and placid atmosphere, Alaska is heavenly compared to Vietnam and Henry's experiences there.
- There is a certain tone to the narrative
In "The Red Convertible," tone, or the author's attitudes about characters and the plot, suggests the author's admiration for the resiliency and endurance of Lyman, who persists in his attempts to return his troubled brother to some sense of normalcy.
Throughout the narrative, the brother is solicitous of Henry, trying to engage Henry in fixing the convertible. He closely observes his brother as he "grips the armrests of the chair" and he hears Henry's
"...teeth click at something bitten through his lip. Blood flows down his chin."
- The conflicts are both internal and external
Henry is content until he enters the army. When he returns with his postwar illness, no amount of solicitation from the brother can prevent Henry from his act of suicide; the experience of war has altered him. The mother consoles Lyman,
"They don't fix them in those places," Mom said, "they just give them drugs."
Lyman tries many things to help his brother: He purchases the car with him, he goes on a trip with him, and he buys him a television. He even releases the red convertible into the same water where his brother died.
The ending of Erdrich's story is rather disturbing as Henry finally despairs of adjusting to life again. Henry walks out into the water and lets himself drown. Witnessing this, Lyman turns on the ignition of the red convertible and sends the car into the same water:
The headlights reach in... searching, still lighted. The wires short out. It is all finally dark. And then, there is only the water, the sound of it going and running and going and running and going.
The utter futility of Lyman's attempts to help his beloved brother leaves him in despair, and the effect of the ending is chilling.