What changes does the car go through in Louise Erdrich's short story, "The Red Convertible," and how, then, is the car symbolic in the story?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Louise Erdrich's short story, "The Red Convertible," from her collection Love Medicine, the car represents the bond that exists between the two Lamartine brothers, Lyman and Henry. When the brothers first see the car for sale, Lyman personifies it.

There it was, parked...Really as if it was alive. I though of the word repose, because the car wasn't simply stopped, parked or whatever. That car reposed, calm and gleaming...

This represents the relationship between the brothers. They pool their cash and ultimately take the trip all the way to Alaska one summer, simply to give a girl they find hitchhiking, home. After they arrive, they spend most of the summer there. They relationship between the brothers is stronger than ever...like the car.

After the boys return, Henry is drafted. Henry is gone for three years, and when he returns home, he is not the same. All he does is watch TV. Lyman gets upset and tries to bring his brother "back"— he goes into the garage and trashes the car:

I took myself a hammer. I went out to that car and I did a number on its underside. Whacked it up. Bent the tail pipe double. Ripped the muffler loose. By the time I was done with the car it looked worse than any typical Indian car that has been driven all its life on reservation roads...full of holes.

Now the car is figuratively in the same shape as Henry. Lyman leaves it alone for a month or so, waiting for his brother to notice the condition of the car. When Henry does, Lyman pretends that he thinks the car is a piece of junk, but Henry argues that it is a classic, and so goes about fixing it. He stops watching TV, and pours all his energy into repairing the battered convertible.

By the time [the snow] was really melting outside, he had it fixed.

Spring is symbolic of new life, and it seems that Henry is starting to change: that he is beginning a new life. One day the brothers decide to go for a ride. Henry says he wants to see the high water—one assumes it is from the melting snow. (This is foreshadowing.)

When everything starts changing, drying up, clearing off, you feel like your whole life is starting. Henry felt it, too...The car hummed like a top.

Henry admits that he was aware of what Lyman had done to the car. Fixed up, he insists upon giving the car to Lyman, but Lyman refuses, and they begin to fight. It becomes physical. Soon, they are laughing. Next, Henry is dancing.

Henry says he needs to cool off and jumps into the water, letting the current carry him out. He calls to Lyman, "My boots are filling." Within moments, he goes under, and Henry is gone. Lyman tries to find him, but it's impossible. So he turns on the car and its lights, puts it in gear, and drives it into the water, watching it sink—watching the lights under the water until they short out.

And then there is only the water, the sound of it going and running and going and running and running.

Perhaps this last line also refers to Henry who cannot face the demons of the war that haunt him still. He is out of step with his family and his life. He decides to run, like the car—like the water. In reality, he commits suicide.

Throughout the story, the car has mirrored Henry's experiences. In the end, as he ceased to be, Lyman feels that the car, Henry's pride, should "suffer" the same fate, and he lets it follow Henry to nothingness.

Read the study guide:
The Red Convertible

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