The Red Convertible

by Louise Erdrich

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Did Henry drown or commit suicide in "The Red Convertible"?

Quick answer:

Henry likely chose to end his own life in "The Red Convertible" to escape the mental anguish he suffered after returning from the war.

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The ending is quite ambiguous, so you have to make some deep inferences throughout the story to arrive at one position at the other. Although I think you could defend either position, I tend to believe that Henry intentionally jumped into the river to end his life.

Before the war,...

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Henry had a great sense of adventure. He seemed to embrace life and had a great sense of humor, even if the jokes were at his expense. He was thriving, enjoying time with his brother, and joking around with the girl in Alaska. This is not the same Henry who returns from the war. Upon his return, Henry is jumpy and skittish. He never regains a sense of normalcy and struggles to even connect with his brother. Henry likely has PTSD, and his days are filled with a pervasive sense of hopelessness.

This hopelessness is also evident after he jumps into the river. He doesn't panic and doesn't scream. In the reality of a river which is at capacity and full of boards and debris, he doesn't ask for help. Instead, he calmly notes that his boots are filling with water before going under.

Lyman notes earlier in the plot that his brother has a strong physique, so it's possible that he could have grabbed on to one of those boards in an attempt to save himself; unfortunately, he doesn't make that effort. It was Henry's idea to go to the river on this night, and his mood is uncharacteristically upbeat just before he jumps in. In fact, Lyman recalls that he thought it was "the old Henry again." But the mood seems to be a facade, Henry's one final gift to his brother whom he plans to leave behind a few moments later.

Henry's war experience forever changed him, and it seems that he came up with this plan as a means of escaping the emotional torture that plagued his days.

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A perfectly valid argument could be made for either side of this debate. Henry's death could just as easily have been a tragic accident as a tragic suicide. Erdrich deliberately leaves the precise nature of Henry's demise ambiguous so one can only speculate.

On balance, however, the evidence for Henry's committing suicide would appear to be stronger. Just before he's carried away by the Red River's powerful current, he appears remarkably calm and placid. On the face of it, it would seem that Henry is experiencing a moment of clarity, a phenomenon that's quite common among those about to take their own lives.

It's notable too that Henry doesn't make a sound after he jumps in the river. There's no screaming, shouting, or hollering and no calls for help. What this suggests is that Henry is calmly accepting his fate. His behavior greatly strengthens the argument that he is intent on committing suicide.

One should also bear in mind that prior to his jumping in the river, Henry gave the impression that he'd pretty much given up the ghost, that he'd lost the will to live. With the life-force having been drained from him, it's not surprising that he should choose this moment to commit suicide.

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