The Red Convertible

by Louise Erdrich

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The Complex Symbolism in The Red Convertible

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In ‘‘The Red Convertible’’, Erdrich uses symbolism in a variety of ways. The most important symbol is the title car, the significance of which changes as the story unfolds. Erdrich's use of symbolism in this way gives her story depth and complexity and enables her to communicate ideas and character developments without lengthy explanations. As a result, the red convertible embodies, at various points in the story, everything the story is meant to express.

Perhaps the convertible's greatest contribution to the story is as a symbol of the relationship between Lyman and Henry. Initially, it represents their close companionship. They bought it together on a whim, which demonstrates their willingness to share amajor responsibility and to do so on impulse. After buying it, they took a summer-long road trip together. The decision to take the trip was mutual, and their unplanned approach to the trip also was mutual. That they enjoyed the extended trip shows that they were close and genuinely enjoyed each other's company.

The convertible symbolizes the brothers' reaching out to each other. Before leaving for Vietnam, Henry used the car to reach out to Lyman. He told Lyman to take the car, and he handed over his key. After returning from the war, Henry was emotionally distant, but again he tried to give Lyman full ownership of the car. These are significant episodes in the story because they reveal Henry's love for Lyman. As a Chippewa, Henry learned to be reserved in expressing his feelings; his culture expected men to refrain from emotional displays. Because of this, he would not tell his brother outright that he loved him, wanted him to be independent, or feared that he (Henry) might not return from the war. Instead, he expressed these feelings by offering the car to his brother.

Lyman used the car as a means to reach out to Henry. When Henry returned from the war moody, detached, and silent, Lyman intentionally damaged the car to get Henry involved in something. When Henry saw the condition of the car, he said to Lyman, ' 'When I left, that car was running like a watch. Now I don't know if I can get it to start again, let alone get it anywhere near its old condition.’’ Henry's statement is deeply significant when read in light of the car's dual meaning. Lyman's decision to damage the convertible was important because he saw the car as his brother's only chance of regaining his sense of self. When Lyman damaged the car, cosmetically and mechanically, he demonstrated his willingness to risk not only a prized possession but also his relationship with his brother (symbolized by the car) for his brother's happiness. The changing physical condition of the car is also symbolic of the relationship of the brothers because it reflects the status of their brotherly closeness.

Besides symbolizing the complex relationship between Lyman and Henry, the convertible represents other aspects of the characters' inner worlds. During the summer road trip, it represented freedom. At the time, Lyman was only sixteen, an age at which most young people long to explore the world and to make their own decisions. Together, Lyman and Henry used the car to leave the reservation where they lived and to see what was beyond its borders.

The convertible also symbolizes the carefree, innocent life that precedes Henry's three years in Vietnam. Lyman and Henry traveled without care or worry, enjoying whatever experiences came their way. When Henry prepared to leave for Vietnam, he gave Lyman his key to the car. Henry likely realized that by going to Vietnam, he...

(This entire section contains 929 words.)

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was sacrificing his innocence. Lyman, however, could still enjoy being carefree, so, by giving Lyman his key, Henry was encouraging him to embrace his last innocent years. At the end of the story, Henry dies in the river, and Lyman runs the car in after him. This is a highly symbolic moment because it represents the end of Lyman's innocence as well as the end of the brothers' relationship. The car had no meaning for him after his brother was gone, and he had learned too much about the world to feel carefree again.

The car represents as well a much-needed outlet for Henry after the war. When he came home, he was unable to function as he had in the past. After Lyman damaged the car, Henry had the opportunity to work toward a goal, instead of watching television all day. In this way, the car symbolizes Henry's need for a sense of purpose and mastery. He did not know how to be a member of his family or community, but he did know how to fix the car. Fixing the car seems to have lifted his spirits because it was familiar and something that allowed him to feel useful and competent for a while.

' 'The Red Convertible'' is a seemingly simple story, but the changing symbolism of the car gives it richness and depth. In describing metaphors, scholars often use the terms vehicle and tenor. The vehicle is the image used to communicate meaning (the tenor) to the reader. Applying this terminology to the convertible in Erdrich' s story, the reader finds numerous tenors revealed through one literal vehicle. Fraternal bonds, freedom, innocence, control, and wisdom—all of these themes are carried by one red convertible.

Source: Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on ‘‘The Red Convertible,’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Bussey holds a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies and a bachelor's degree in English literature. She is an independent writer specializing in literature.

Henry Lamartine's Journeys

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In Erdrich's story ‘‘The Red Convertible,’’ Henry Lamartine makes three memorable journeys off the Chippewa reservation. The first journey, which he takes with his brother Lyman, is a pleasure-filled jaunt around the western part of the United States. The next time he leaves the reservation he is sent to fight in the Vietnam War. His third journey is his last; he travels with Lyman to the Red River to commit suicide. These trips all differ greatly, but the presence of the Lamartine brothers' red convertible ties these journeys together.

In the opening paragraphs of the narrative, Lyman sets up the sense of freedom and luxury that the red convertible brings to Henry and him by suggesting the impoverishment and disaster that befall the Chippewa on the reservation. Ironically, the only reason Henry is able to afford his share of the convertible is through misfortune; he had two checks in his pocket when they saw the car—his weekly paycheck and "a week's extra pay for being laid off.’’ Lyman is the sole person on the reservation with the talent for making money. In this aspect, he differs from the rest of the Chippewa, a truth that ‘‘everyone recognized.’’ Allowed special privileges, such as keeping a percentage of the money he raises for the church selling spiritual bouquets, Lyman soon discovers that the ‘‘more money I made the easier the money came.’’ In Lyman's successes, the failures of the rest of the people on the reservation are revealed by implicit comparison. Yet, despite his talent, even Lyman experiences his share of difficulties. After only one year of owning the Joliet Café, "the worst tornado ever seen around here’’ blew in, and the ‘‘whole operation was smashed to bits. A total loss. The fryalator was up in a tree, the grill torn in half like it was paper.’’ This incident, which touches Lyman, the one person with good luck, further emphasizes the nature of the depravation on the reservation and why the brothers—particularly the unlucky Henry—feel the need to escape by means of the red convertible.

It is no coincidence that Henry and Lyman come across the car in Winnepeg, on a trip off the reservation. They had been walking around, "seeing the sights.’’ The narration implies that such a marvelous object—a car that "reposed"—was not available on the reservation. The brothers purchase the car, as they say, "before we had thought it over at all,’’ and it turns out to be their ticket to a new world. ‘‘We took off driving all one summer,’’ writes Lyman, visiting many places around the West and Northwest. In Montana, the brothers find a spot that was ‘‘So comfortable.’’ There, Lyman ‘‘feel[s] good,’’ and Henry seems at peace with the world, "asleep with his arms thrown wide.'' Lyman is not sure of their exact location, for "it could have been anywhere.’’ With the red convertible in their grasp, joy is everywhere because the car provides the key to life off the reservation and away from the constraints and troubles the reservation bears.

The red convertible brings the brothers to travel as far away as Alaska, a place they "never wanted to leave.’’ Lyman describes their time in Alaska as idyllic. It is a nether world, neither light nor dark; the ‘‘sun doesn't truly set there in summer, and the night is more a soft dusk.’’ Alaska makes Lyman feel as if he is in a pleasant dream world, where responsibilities or difficult tasks or choices fall away. "You might doze off, sometimes, but before you know it you're up again, like an animal in nature,’’ he says. ‘‘You never feel like you have to sleep hard or put away the world.’’ Alaska also brims with the promise of possibility, for "things would grow there. One day just dirt or moss, the next day flowers and long grass.’’

As the season changes, the sky begins to get darker and the ‘‘cold was even getting just a little mean.’’ The brothers need to escape the upcoming winter and its metaphoric chill, so they head back south, looking for ‘‘greener pastures.’’ However, although they speed through the northwestern states, they are hopelessly ‘‘racing the weather,’’ and the winter eventually catches up with them back on the reservation. This is a place too beaten down to support the red convertible, so it is not surprising that the brothers "got home just in time ... for the army to remember that Henry had signed up to join it.’’ Henry thus sets off on his second journey, but it bears no resemblance to the one from which he has just returned. This journey is not a pleasurable one; Henry must go without the company of his brother and the potent force of the red convertible.

The Henry that departs the reservation, the Henry of the summer trip in the red convertible, is full of life, vitality, and strength. ‘‘I don't wonder that the army was so glad to get my brother that they turned him into a Marine,'' Lyman muses. ‘‘He was built like a brick outhouse anyway.'' Henry's nose, "big and sharp as a hatchet, like the nose of on Red Tomahawk, the Indian who killed Sitting Bull, whose profile is on signs all along the North Dakota highways,’’ is a further representation of Henry's power and vigor. Despite possessing the physical qualities of a fighter, Henry is captured by the enemy. Although the family only receives two letters from Henry while he is gone, Lyman understands that the red convertible offers the best chance of helping Henry through this hard time. As Lyman states, ‘‘[I] wrote him back several times, even though I didn't know if those letters would get through. I kept him informed all about the car.''

After three years, Henry returns home, but according to Lyman, he ‘‘was very different, and ... the change was no good.’’ This new, reduced Henry has been sculpted by the Marines and the experience in Vietnam. He spends his time watching TV, sitting in a chair and "gripping the armrests with all his might.'' Even the red convertible brings no life to Henry. In desperation, Lyman destroys the car, rendering it ‘‘worse than any typical Indian car that had been all its life on reservation roads,’’ in hopes that Henry will restore it. This ploy eventually works, and Henry spends all of his time, day and night, fixing the car. That spring, when Henry suggests they go for a ride in the convertible, Lyman believes that Henry ‘‘could be coming around.’’ Lyman feels all the hope that the melting snow and the ‘‘very bright’’ sun bring. Their younger sister takes a picture of Lyman and Henry, who significantly is still wearing his soldier's field jacket and the other ‘‘worn-in clothes he'd come back in.’’ Lyman takes it as a good sign that Henry smiled when Bonita asked him to, but it is only much later that Lyman sees in the photograph what he overlooked at the time: that "the shadows on his face are deep as holes ... [and] curved like little hooks around the ends of his smile.’’

Lyman believes that the ride to the Red River in the convertible represents a new beginning. ‘‘The trip over there was beautiful,’’ he recalls. ‘‘When everything starts changing, drying up, clearing off, you feel like your whole life is starting.'' They park at the river, a place where they can revel in "all this green growing earth.’’ While at first Lyman thinks that Henry was ‘‘clear, more peaceful,’’ he is wrong. Lyman comes to understand Henry's pain, for ‘‘I felt something squeezing inside me and tightening and trying to let it go all at the same time ... I knew I was feeling what Henry was going through at that moment.’’ Despite the comforting presence of the car and his brother and the memory of the summer of the red convertible, Henry is haunted.

Henry has lost the will to live, which Lyman comes to understand when his brother says that "he wanted to give the car to me for good now.'' To lose the red convertible is to lose the ability to experience joy and freedom, but Lyman tries to reject this truth by refusing to take the car. He even tries to beat feelings of hope back into his brother, and the two men fight ‘‘for all we're worth.’’ Lyman allows himself to be fooled by this altercation, which ends in mutual laughter. He and Henry carry on as they used to, pulling the beers out of the cooler in the cars trunk and throwing the empty cans into the river. "I think it's the old Henry again,’’ says Lyman. ‘‘He throws off his jacket and starts springing his legs up from the knees.’’ Trying to bring back the spirit of their previous summer, Lyman likens Henry to the natural world. ‘‘He's down doing something between a grass dance and a bunny hop.''

When Henry commits suicide, he does so through the forces of nature—by jumping into the river. However, Henry's trajectory replicates that of the beer cans the brothers had thrown into the river to ‘‘see how far, how fast the current takes them before they fill up and sink.’’ As Henry is carried halfway across the river and his boots fill with water, he becomes yet another piece of useless debris. Lyman wants to prevent this from happening. He jumps into the river, in vain hopes of saving Henry. Unable to do so, he nevertheless refuses to give up and get out of the river until "the sun is down,’’ signifying that the day has closed in on Henry. Lyman is embittered by the false hope the red convertible held out for him and his brother. He believed it represented good times, but the past no longer lives in the present, and the convertible cannot bring good times ever again. In his despair, Henry pushes the car into the river that took Henry. The car undergoes a sort of death, too. Lyman watches as it sinks in the water. ‘‘The headlights reach in as they go down, searching, still lighted even after the water swirls over the back end. I wait. The wires short out. It is all finally dark.'' Yet, even then, the red convertible manifests a greater will for life than its owner, and, at the same time, marks its presence on Lyman forever; for he is left with "only the water, [and] the sound of it going and running and going and running and running.’’

Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on ‘‘The Red Convertible,’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Erdrich's Work in Relation to her Heritage

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On the surface, Louise Erdrich's ‘‘The Red Convertible" is definably tragic. A closer examination of the story, however, reveals a work mirroring Erdrich' s background. Influences of a Catholic upbringing abound, yet the body of the work is steeped in Anishinaabe tradition. These influences, in tandem, paint a different picture for the reader. With a little research into Erdrich's past, the reader uncovers a work with a spiritual, vibrant quality in the guise of what is really not a tragedy at all.

Fundamentally, the structure of "The Red Convertible’’ is in keeping with an oral tradition. Although the narrator (Lyman) clearly identifies himself in the first paragraph of the work, his account maintains an oral quality. Lyman's narrative follows a pattern Nancy Peterson, in her work ‘‘History, Postmodernism and Louise Erdrich's Tracks,’’ identifies as repetition with variations, rhetorical patterns associated with orality (‘‘I was,’’ ‘‘I owned," "I had’’), in Erdrich's writing. The work is also out of synch or sequence, as if it was being recalled and then told by the narrator. This quality of a tale being recalled, rather than carefully recorded, is evident when Lyman mentions his purchase of the red convertible in the beginning of the narrative and makes a shift backward to recount the specific details of the purchase. In addition, the entire account is related as a series of memories. Lyman does not give readers a linear picture of the events surrounding his brother's life; rather, he provides the reader with snapshots, or moments, from the past. Specific breaks in time accentuate this quality. For example, Lyman takes a moment to digress from his narrative to recall a picture of his brother he is forced to put away due to the painful memories it evokes. Lyman also has a tendency to shift, or drift, from recalling the main events of the story to engaging in more personalized, involved descriptions of minutiae, or minor detail. It is these qualities of orality that conjure up the image of a storyteller in the mind of the reader.

The Anishinaabe culture, like many indigenous cultures, relies on stories and storytellers to communicate and therefore preserve cultural values. Erdrich claims her creative inspiration stems in part from her Native past. Members of her family historically have engaged in storytelling from time to time, and repeated exposure to this family tradition, Erdrich says, influences her writing style. It is not surprising, then, to discover an Anishinaabe oral tradition serving as the supporting framework for the story.

An important component of this framework is the interrelationship the narrator has, or the connection he feels, with the natural world. Native Americans have a deeply spiritual connection with Mother Earth. Implicit within the context of this relationship is a deep respect for creation, for nature, and a feeling of interconnectedness with Mother Earth. The individual does not exist, rather, the individual is within an interconnectedness, the Anishinaabe's place in Creation that brings balance and belonging to the world, according to D'Arcy Rheault, Anishinaabe scholar, in his work The Circle of Life: Thoughts on Contemporary Native Life. This sense of universality, of participation, implies belief in a world consciousness, a responsibility to this planet as part of a universal collective. Simply put, Lyman is part of something bigger, namely Mother Earth. For instance, rather than taking personal credit for his accomplishments, Lyman attributes his material success with the restaurant along spiritual lines, claiming, "I had it all in my mother's name.'' And, Lyman gives a matter-of-fact response to a sensitive inquiry into the legitimacy of his relation to Henry, with a decided lack of concern, claiming "we had the same mother, anyway.’’ A fraternity exists between the brothers that transcends traditional notions of relation; this fraternity is linked to Lyman's Anishinaabe beliefs.

One of the most powerful elements present within the work is the author's use of the color red. In the beginning of the story, the object of the narrator's affections is a bright red convertible. Juxtapose, or compare, this image, one of excitement and vitality, to the image of Henry, blood dripping down his chin as he chews on a piece of blood-soaked bread. The contrast is quite a powerful one. The color red is symbolically associated with love, passion, health, and vitality; however, red is also connected with the sun and all gods of war, anger, bloodlust, and vengeance. The author uses these images to create an interesting dichotomy.

For Lyman, images of a healthy, happy Henry are embodied in the spirit of the red convertible. He describes the vehicle in human terms, claiming, "There it was, parked large as life. Really as if it was alive.’’ All of the memories related in the first half of the narrative are related to the convertible, to a Henry full of vitality, playfulness and life. To solidify this relationship, Lyman consistently mentions the vehicle belongs to Henry; from the outset of the story, when he states, ‘‘now Henry owns the whole car,'' until the story's end, when the question of ownership inspires a fight between the brothers. The car becomes a source of comfort and a connection for Lyman to his brother. A marked shift in tone occurs in the second half of the work, as Lyman's account moves from pleasant memories of a road trip to the dark days spent with a brother changed by the Vietnam War. Lyman recalls, "Henry had not even looked at the car since he'd gotten home, though it was in tip-top condition and ready to drive.'' All of Lyman's hopes for his brother subsequently become symbolically invested in the bright red convertible.

This parallel between the convertible and Henry is made clear with an act of desperation on the part of the narrator. In his efforts to reach his brother, Lyman invests in a belief in a happier past, stating, "I thought the car might bring the old Henry back somehow.’’ The car is then violated, just as Henry has been violated, as Lyman smashes it with a sledgehammer. Erdrich uses this symbolic act as a vehicle for social commentary. A perfectly good car, a perfectly good life, both needlessly destroyed. But unlike the car, Henry cannot be repaired, and he realizes this: ‘‘I know it. I can't help it. It's no use.’’ Lyman's attempts to revitalize and revive a glorious past for Henry fail. The final moments of the story support this connection when the narrator sees fit to send the car to a watery grave to join his brother. Again, Erdrich is commenting on the devastation and travesty of war and the hopeless artifice of Henry's attempt to evoke a more innocent, carefree past, as demonstrated by his efforts to repair the red convertible.

Juxtapose the image of the convertible and what it symbolizes in the story to the violent image of Henry chewing on blood-soaked bread. He is a shadow of his former carefree self and appears to be in a dream state. Lyman recalls the incident as he describes ‘‘blood going down Henry's chin, but he didn't notice it'' despite the fact that "every time he took a bite of his bread his blood fell onto it until he was eating his own blood mixed in with the food.'' This view of Henry, so dramatically transformed, alludes to Erdrich's Catholic upbringing. To Christians, blood represents not only human life, but also human frailty and mortality. Having blood upon one's hands relates directly to murder. The image of the Eucharist, the symbolic final meal amongst Christ and his disciples, also comes to mind. The bread and cup as symbols of Christ's body and blood are symbols starkly contrasted with the image of Henry. He has become the sacrificial lamb. His actions, however, have taken a queer turn, as he ingests his own blood. Erdrich purposely gives the reader this distorted view of Henry, and the conclusion to be drawn from this rather bizarre scene, this strange twist to a traditional story, is that Henry has been sacrificed for no good reason. Henry, as a result of his war experience, remains out of synch with the world until his death.

The author amplifies the notion of an exploited Henry on several levels. Henry is referred to within the course of the story as having a nose resembling that of ‘‘Red Tomahawk, the Indian who killed Sitting Bull, whose profile is on signs all along the North Dakota highways.'' Most historical accounts surrounding Sitting Bull's death recall the unjustness of the event, the brutality of his murder along with eight of his warriors, and the bloody carnage left behind that was formerly his band of people. This band was brutally massacred during their migration through the Badlands to the Pine Ridge Agency. In consideration of the Sitting Bull reference, the warrior image of Henry creates a strange irony implicit in the idea of the Native American serving or fighting for an enemy who has formerly defeated him. The author's use of this reference to Sitting Bull exacerbates the injury to Henry, a consequence of his experiences in Vietnam.

Erdrich's Christian as well as her Native-American background, however, put into perspective what would otherwise have been a terrible incident in Lyman's view. At the conclusion of the story, Henry wades out into and is caught by the current of the river, his voice calmly reaching Lyman with the message ‘‘My boots are filling.’’ Although Lyman's initial response to his brother's suicide attempt is to try to swim out to save him, he does not recall for the reader any desperate attempts made in the process of finding his brother, nor any frustration on the part of the narrator. Instead, there is a lapse of time in the narrative until the moment when Lyman "gets out of the river'' and proceeds to calmly submerge the car in its murky depths.

The water imagery is a clever creative device hinting at an endless number of cultural and religious images. In the Catholic (Christian) faith, water symbolizes life. Christ's acts of transcendence involve turning water into wine, and walking on water, acts that transcend the earthly condition. Christians are also baptized in water in an admission of faith and to purify their souls. Recalling the blood image appearing earlier in the text, St. Paul identifies the ritual of baptism as being one of death and rebirth, simulating the death and resurrection of Christ. Flowing water in Western philosophy also represents change and the passage of time. Finally, for many cultures, the river symbolizes life, the mouth of the river sharing meanings with a gate or a door, a passage to another world. Mythologist Mircea Eliade, as quoted in ‘‘Sacred Springs and Other Water Lore,’’ expounds on water and its regenerative powers, stating,

Immersion in water symbolizes a return to the pre-formal, a total regeneration, a new birth, for immersion means dissolution of forms, a reintegration into the formlessness of pre-existence, and emerging from the water is a repetition of the act of creation in which form was first expressed.

The act of suicide, in these terms, is an act of transcendence for Henry. Lyman is able to calmly process Henry's suicide precisely because he is responding to a notion of a watery afterlife, his attitude exemplified in the act of submerging the car and betrayed in his statement at the outset of his narrative when he declares ‘‘now Henry owns the whole car.’’

It is difficult to read "The Red Convertible'' as strictly a tragedy. Louise Erdrich not only uses the narrative to expose Henry's misfortune but to celebrate the promise of a spiritual life beyond the sound of the swirling water, "the sound of it going and running and going and running and running.’’

Source: Laura Kryhoski, Critical Essay on ‘‘The Red Convertible,’’ in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Kryhoski is currently working as a freelance writer.


Critical Overview