The Red Convertible

by Louise Erdrich

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Student Question

What is the significance of the photograph in "The Red Convertible" and why does Lyman dislike it?

Quick answer:

Lyman sees and remembers something in the picture that makes him lose all enjoyment of it. He does not like the picture because of its imperfections, his own perceptions and experiences, and the pain he saw in Henry's eyes that day.

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Significance of the Photograph

The picture was taken on the last day of Henry's life. It was taken just before Henry lost his life either because of a thoughtless mistake or a need to escape memories and living (the psychology driving Henry is ambiguous). The picture was the last family moment recorded just before Lyman failed to save Henry from the overburdened river.

Henry posing there with Lyman photographically captured the first time Henry voluntarily touched Lyman since returning. Seeing himself posing there with Henry, Lyman remembered the way Henry's arm felt that day, unyielding and unlike in times past when they were relaxed and comfortable with each other, sitting still for "whole afternoons."

[H]e took his other arm and put it on my shoulder, very carefully, as though it was heavy for him to lift, and he didn't want to bring the weight down all at once.

Posing there with Henry was the last time they were together with their little sister Bonita, who took their picture and told them to smile.

Why Lyman Dislikes It So

In the story, Lyman starts out liking the picture. He "felt good about Henry at that time, close to him." Note that this implies that at the time of Lyman's narration, he no longer feels good about Henry, no longer feels close to him. The reason Lyman suddenly takes an immense dislike to the picture is complex. It has to do with the many things Lyman saw, did, and experienced that "one night":

  • the television he saw, which Henry once watched in rigid silence, stiff, like a scared "rabbit when it freezes": "I was looking at television."
  • Lyman being drunk and stoned, with artificially distorted perceptions, which can nonetheless have bewilderingly persistent impact: "I was a little drunk and stoned."
  • the impression that Henry was staring at Lyman from the picture: "I looked up at the wall and Henry was staring at me."
  • the pained posing he saw in the picture because Henry's arm seemed to feel too heavy for him: "[It seemed] heavy for him to lift and he didn't want to bring the weight down all at once."
  • the imperfections he saw in the picture: Henry had to "squint against the glare" or against a "blinding" camera flash; he had "shadows on his face" as "deep as holes," two shadows "hooked around the ends of his smile" as if to "try to keep it there."

The picture Bonita took that day caught Henry's first smile since coming home, and Lyman thought that smile "looked like it might have hurt his face." The picture of Henry, given its circumstances and imperfections, may have caused Lyman to see that he felt some unspoken responsibility for Henry's death. It may certainly have made him see that he had pent-up grief and unanswered questions over the tragedy of Henry's sudden death and the horror of his post-war life.

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