Use "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien to fill in the gaps in understanding Henry in "The Red Convertible." 

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

“The Red Convertible” by Louise Erdrich and “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien show the difficulties of the Vietnam soldiers.  In “The Red Convertible,” the soldier comes home to find life intolerable. “The Things They Carried” illustrates the life of the soldier as he fights in the war. 

“The Red Convertible” uses a first person point of view with Lyman, the brother of Henry, recounting the story of his brother who returns from Vietnam a lost and haunted soul.  At the center of "The Red Convertible" is the relationship between Lyman and Henry. Because the story is told from Lyman's point of view, the reader has no direct insight into Henry's thoughts and feelings. After he came home from the war, Henry was a different man

When he came home though, Henry was very different, and I’ll say this the change was no good.  You could hardly expect him to change for the better, I know. But he was quiet, so quiet, and never comfortable sitting still anywhere but always up and moving around.

Lyman buys a television to help Henry.  He notices that Henry grips the arms of the chair and finally bites through his lip as he watches it.  Obviously, Henry has post-traumatic stress syndrome which the military did not recognize during the Vietnam War.

Henry spends his time working on the convertible.  Henry seems to respond to the work, but he still is not the same person.  When spring comes, Henry is ready to take Lyman for a ride in the convertible. They go to Red River.

When they arrive, the water is high and moving fast.  The spring rains have made the river dangerous. The brothers talk for a little while.  Suddenly, Henry jumps up and runs into the water. He is lost and drowns in the river.

In “The Things They Carried,” the soldiers are trying to survive the war.  The story brings to light the physical and psychological horrors of the war. Each of the soldiers carries prized possessions which connect him to home or to some memory that helps him to survive emotionally. For example, Kiowa carries a Bible and his grandfather’s hunting hatchet. The items help the men keep their individuality as well.

All of the men carry ghosts with them---the emotions of fear, dread, and death. They learn survival techniques.  They joke and tell stories to fill in the gap where the mind could wander to events that had a devastating impact.

The death of Ted Lavender hurt everyone.  He was coming back from the bathroom and was shot by a sniper in the head and killed instantly. The incongruity of losing a life because he had gone to the toilet summarizes the shameful lack of purpose in this particular war.

Lt. Cross blames himself for the death of Lavender.  If he had not been so distracted by his girlfriend, he might have done a better job of supervising his men. Of course, this did not help the men who had to face an enemy who was fighting on his own soil with a strong motivation to win. 

The Vietnam War was filled with uncertainty and ambiguities.  Many times, the soldiers are asked to do things that seem to have no purpose.  They dare not ask for an explanation.  The men were afraid of dying but would never tell anyone. 

When men are not sure why they are fighting, much of the motivation to be a good soldier is lost.  In the Vietnam War this is what happened in many situations.

Read the study guide:
The Things They Carried

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