What is the major organizing principle of "The Red Convertible"? How is its structure unified?

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Louise Erdrich's "The Red Convertible" is organized around the red convertible mentioned in the title. On the surface, it's just the story of the convertible. Yet the narrator, Lyman, also uses his descriptions of the convertible's adventures to tell the story of his relationship with his brother, Henry.

"I was the first one to drive a convertible on my reservation," Lyman begins. In the next sentence, he introduces Henry: "I owned that car along with my brother, Henry Junior." The remainder of the first paragraph functions as a summary of the climax and resolution of the story, although it's not clear until the reader reaches the end.

Lyman continues to tell the story of the red convertible. First, he explains how he and Henry acquired it, including details like where Lyman got his half of the money to purchase the car. He also talks about what it felt like the first time he saw it:

We were walking down Portage anyway, seeing the sights, when we saw it. There it was, parked, large as life. Really as if it was alive.

He describes a few adventures he and Henry had in the car before Henry joined the army.

Here, the story starts to bring the convertible and Lyman's relationship with Henry closer together. When Henry returns from the army, he's changed: He doesn't talk, he's constantly on edge, he injures himself. To reach out to Henry, Lyman breaks the car, so that Henry will engage in fixing it.

Henry does fix the car, but fixing the car doesn't fix Henry. At times, it seems to Lyman as if it does. For instance, the first time they take the repaired convertible for a drive, Lyman says, "It's not that he smiled again or even joked, but his face looked to me as if it was clear, more peaceful."

Henry's newfound peacefulness doesn't last, however. When they stop beside a river, Henry has another episode of closing down. The brothers fight after Henry tries to gift his half of the car to Lyman. Eventually, Henry goes for a swim in the river, from which he does not return:

I see he's halfway across the water already, and I know he didn't swim there but the current took him. It's far. I hear his voice, though, very clearly across it.

"My boots are filling," he says.

He says this in a normal voice, like he just noticed and he doesn't know what to think of it. Then he's gone.

Lyman never states whether he thinks Henry let himself drown on purpose or whether it was an accident. Once Henry is gone, however, Lyman drowns the red convertible as well, pushing it into the river until it sinks.

Throughout the story, the red convertible serves as a link between Lyman and Henry. At first, they're as inseparable as the two halves of the money they each contributed to buy one car. After Henry's experience in the war, Lyman attempts to rebuild that connection through the car. When Henry disappears in the river, Lyman sends the red convertible with him. That moment is the end of his relationship with them both.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
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