What do the red color and the picture in Louise Erdich's The Red Convertible symbolize?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

We don't know what was in Louise Erdich's mind when she wrote The Red Convertible, but we do know that the color red is frequently associated in literature with certain emotions, mainly anger, danger and aggression, but it can also represent intense passion or love.  It can also, of course, represent Native Americans in the eyes of whites.  In Erdich's story, red can clearly symbolize all of these emotions and figures.  Lyman and his older brother Henry, who will suffer the effects of what we today call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, love each other.  Lyman idealizes his older brother, although his physical description is not entirely flattering:

"He had a big nose, and sharp as a hatchet, like the nose on Red Tomahawk, the Indian who killed Sitting Bull."

Red Tomahawk is a figure of some controversy in Native culture, as his friendship with Sitting Bull did not deter him from shooting his friend dead in the performance of his duties.  That Erdich should choose this particular figure for her short story, a tragedy in which Henry will die by drowning, following which Lyman will submerge the red car in the river to die with his brother, is certainly no accident.  The negativity associated with red is forever linked to this much reviled figure in Native American history. The color red also symbolizes the anger and aggression Henry feels following his military service and time as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese, the love the brothers have for each other, and the passion they share for the convertible.  

The photograph serves as a constant reminder to Lyman of a relationship that was killed in the war that psychologically, if not physically, destroyed his brother.  Referencing the photograph of the brothers posing with the car, Lyman, drunk and stoned, looks up at the image, an image he had hid away because of its reminder of a relationship that no longer existed, and imagines his brother's image staring at him: "I don't know what it was, but his smile had changed."  The image in the photograph represented the changes Henry had experienced.  He had been transformed by his experiences into a moody, brooding figure, increasingly distant from those he had loved.  Lyman observes, for the first time, the image of Henry in the photograph.  Henry's demeanor is forced, the smile seemingly held up by "two shadows curved like little hooks" at the corners of his mouth.  The photograph is a constant reminder to Lyman of the loss of what he had held most dear, his relationship with Henry.