What is the significance of pushing the car into the river in "The Red Convertible" by Louise Erdrich?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There is nothing more meaningful than a relationship between brothers.  In “The Red Convertible” by Louise Erdrich,  brothers Lyman and Henry do everything together.  They even bought the red Oldsmobile convertible to share. 

The first paragraph of the story symbolically foreshadows the end of the story.  The narrator tells the reader that Henry now owns the car.  Lyman no longer drives but walks everywhere he goes.  This prepares the reader for death of Henry.  “We owned it together until his boots filled with water on a windy night and he bought out my share.”  These statements do not become clear until the end of the story when the older brother commits suicide.

The brothers had one special ride in their new car when they picked up a girl hitchhiking and took her home to Alaska.  When the boys returned, it was time for Henry to go to the marines and serve during the Viet Nam War. 

Lyman, the narrator of the story, was a good brother.  He wrote to Henry, worried about him, and feared for his life when Henry was taken as a prisoner.  He spent three years as a prisoner of war.  When Henry came home, he was a walking time bomb.  Whatever Henry had seen or experienced completely changed him. 

Henry was quiet. He could not sit still.  He no longer laughed.  Everyone left him alone: “Henry was jumpy and mean.”

He sat in his chair gripping the armrests with all his might as if the chair itself was moving at a high speed and if he let go at all he would rocket forward and maybe crash right through the set.

The family discussed how they could help Henry.  They were afraid that the doctors would institutionalize him. In addition, they might just put him on drugs.

Finally, Lyman decides to tear up the car and see if he cannot get Henry interested in the car. Henry began working on it night and day.  When he was done, Henry suggested that they take the car out for a ride.

It was spring and a beautiful day.  The plan was to go to the Red River.  As they were leaving, their sister took a picture of the two brothers.  Lyman mentions that he can no longer look at the picture because it is too painful.  He has it hidden in his closet.

With a cooler of beer, the pair head out toward the river.  When they arrived and were sitting enjoying the scene, it appeared that Henry was more at peace.  Lyman jumped to his feet and began shaking Henry: “Wake up,” I say, “wake up.”

Henry reacted by saying that he could not help himself.  It was no use. Henry tells his brother that he is giving him the car. The brothers begin a fist fight ending with the two of them laughing.  They drink all of the beer.

Henry begins a wild dance. He acts insane. “Got to cool me off,” he shouts and runs and jumps into the high water moving quickly with a current. Lyman sees his brother one more time before Henry is pulled down by the current. 

Lyman jumps in and tries to find him.  But it is no use. 

The car represents everything that Lyman had lost. His brother came back from the war, but he was not the same brother.  Now, he is gone forever.   Without thinking, Lyman returns the car to his brother.  Symbolically, the car belongs to Henry. He fixed it.  It was his.  As the water fills up the car and pulls it under just as it did to his brother, the sound keeps going and going.

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The Red Convertible

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