Why does Lyman fiddle with the television in Louise Erdrich's short story "The Red Convertible"?

Lyman fiddles with the television in Louis Erdrich's short story "The Red Convertible" because he wants to stop his traumatized brother Henry from watching it all day. Ever since he got back from Vietnam, Henry's done nothing but zone out in front of the TV. By deliberately messing around with the television, Lyman hopes to give him something with which to occupy his troubled mind.

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Lyman says that when Henry comes home from his three years in Vietnam, he is "very different, and ... the change was no good." Henry is always "so quiet," but he never seems to be comfortable "sitting still" and always gets up to move around. He does not laugh often anymore, and, when he does, it sounds more like choking and disturbs everyone around him.

Lyman tells us that he had bought a color television set for him and his mom to watch while Henry was away, and he notices that Henry only sits "completely still" when he sits in front of the television. He compares Henry's stillness to a "rabbit when it freezes ... before it will bold." Henry grips the armrests of his chair "with all his might," as though he would shoot off of it and crash into the television if he were to let go.

One day, Lyman sees Henry bite right through his lip as he watches the television, and Lyman approaches the set, "want[ing] to smash that tube to pieces." Henry gets physically rough with Lyman when Henry senses what Lyman is about to do. He doesn't even seem to notice the blood running down his chin and into his dinner. After this, Lyman purposely smashes up the car so that Henry will have something to occupy himself with other than the television, and Lyman messes with the television, making it "impossible ... to get a clear picture" so that Henry will not return to it once the car is fixed. Lyman doesn't like what it does to Henry at all.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on October 5, 2020
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As Lyman watches his brother Henry staring vacantly at the TV set for hours at a time each day, he realizes that there's something seriously wrong with his brother. It's tragically obvious that Henry, recently returned home from his tour of duty in Vietnam, has been severely traumatized by his war service and is reduced to spending his days zoned out in front of the TV.

Lyman's no psychologist or medical expert, but even he knows there's something wrong with his brother. He also realizes that sitting in front of the TV all day is certainly not doing Henry any favors. In fact, it's making his condition a whole lot worse.

So Lyman comes up with the idea of deliberately messing around with the inner workings of the TV set so that it doesn't work properly. This way, Henry won't be able to sit in front of the TV all day and further damage his already parlous mental state. Lyman wants to drag his brother away from the TV and give him something else to occupy his mind, something a good deal more constructive. That's why he deliberately damages the red convertible, so that Henry will have to devote his time to fixing it.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on October 5, 2020
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When Henry returns from his tour of duty in Vietnam in the early 1970s, he is not the same person his brother Lyman knew before he left. Henry cannot concentrate and finds no joy in life. Lyman had bought a new color television while he was away. Henry sits in front of it without really seeing what is aired. Lyman describes him as “not easy” and being “completely still,” like a rabbit when it is about to bolt. One day, while ostensibly watching, he gets so tense that he bites his lip hard enough to draw blood, then sits at the dinner table dripping blood into his food. After considering numerous options, Lyman decides to trick Henry into restoring their classic red Oldsmobile convertible. He hopes that working on it will “bring the old Henry back somehow.” To deter him from watching the TV, Lyman reaches inside the set and “fiddled around with it good” so that the picture will not be clear. His strategy is only partially successful.

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In Louise Erdrich's short story "The Red Convertible," Henry's brother Lyman comes back from the Vietnam War with very severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from having been a prisoner of war and witnessing atrocities. As a result of his PTSD, Henry only takes comfort in watching television all day long. One can presume it is because the images and the story lines of the shows help distract him from the horrible war-related images in his own mind. One can also presume he watches TV all day long because he feels too emotionally exhausted to do anything else.

Yet, Henry's television watching greatly disturbs Lyman because Lyman can sense Henry is not completely at ease. He is still troubled and anxious and hiding his troubled state of mind through keeping still and watching television. Lyman relates Henry's stillness to that of a rabbit "when it freezes and before it will bolt." Since Lyman knows that television viewing isn't really helping Lyman, just masking his symptoms, Lyman very much wants to destroy the TV set.

Lyman then gets the very brilliant idea of distracting Henry from the symptoms of his PTSD by encouraging him to repair their red convertible. While Henry is busy repairing the car, Lyman slips into the house and "fiddles around" with the innards of the TV set until he knew it is "almost impossible now to get a clear picture." The reason why is because Lyman wants to prevent his brother from slipping back into this unhealthy method of distracting himself from his unhealthy memories; instead, Lyman knows it will be far healthier for Henry to once again become engaged in the world.

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