The Red Convertible Themes
The main themes in “The Red Convertible” are brotherhood and wartime trauma.
- Brotherhood: The relationship between Lyman and Henry is the centerpiece of the story. Their bond is tested by Henry’s experience in the Vietnam War.
- Wartime trauma: Henry is changed by his time in the war and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. His family is unable to help him.
Last Updated August 12, 2022.
At the center of "The Red Convertible'' is the relationship between Lyman and Henry. Lyman's motivation for telling the story is to embrace and preserve his brother's memory.
Because the story is told from Lyman's point of view, the reader has no direct insight into Henry's thoughts and feelings. His words and actions, however, indicate that he loved his brother very much and valued their relationship. When he prepared to leave to serve in the Vietnam War he wanted to give his younger brother the car that had brought them so much happiness. Presumably, he did not know whether he would survive, and he wanted his brother to become more independent. This may also explain the infrequency of his letters home. After he came home from the war, he was a different man. When Lyman intentionally damaged the car so that Henry would have to fix it, Henry understood what Lyman was trying to do for him. Rather than respond with anger or resentment, he fixed the car so that Lyman would have it. That Henry apparently committed suicide when he was alone with Lyman suggests that Lyman was the only person Henry truly trusted and the only person with whom he was willing to share this tragic moment.
Initially, Henry is seen as an easy-going, funny, carefree young man. After spending three years fighting in Vietnam, however, he was a very different person. Describing Henry after the war, Lyman remarks:
When he came home ... Henry was very different, and I'll say this: the change was no good. You could hardly expect him to change for the better, I know. But he was quiet, so quiet, and never comfortable sitting still anywhere but always up and moving around ... He'd always had a joke ... and now you couldn't get him to laugh, or when he did it was more the sound of a man choking, a sound that stopped up the throats of other people around him. They got to leaving him alone most of the time, and I didn't blame them. It was a fact: Henry was jumpy and mean.
Henry was like many veterans in that he was emotionally detached, unwilling to talk about his experiences and uncertain about how to function at home. What is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder was not fully understood at the time. Lyman comments that his brother spent three years fighting in the war, adding, ‘‘By then I guess the whole war was solved in the government's mind, but for him it would keep on going.’’ Rather than seek ways to start a new life for himself, Henry chose to stagnate, watching television and keeping to himself. While his family loved him very much, they were unequipped to cope with Henry's problems. Although he seemed to be improving when he finished fixing the car, this lighter mood was temporary—or perhaps even feigned. The anguish bottled up inside him eventually destroyed him.
Louise Erdrich’s story can be viewed through the lenses of both modern history and American Indian cultural mores. From the mid-1960’s to the mid-1970’s, the United States drafted thousands of men to fight in the Vietnam War. Because the warrior tradition is a key concept in Native American culture, the number of American Indian men serving in the military is among the highest of any ethnic group. As warriors, Native American men uphold the honor of their tribe and prove themselves as men. A warrior puts his life on the line as the ultimate sacrifice to ensure his people’s survival. Facing death in battle is a spiritual...
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rite of passage and an important step in gaining respect and status in the Native American community.
When Henry volunteers for active duty, he is maintaining these distinctive cultural values. However, serving in the white man’s war leaves Henry psychologically fragile and emotionally lost. One of the more grotesque images Erdrich uses to illustrate the extreme damage to Henry’s psyche is the blood dripping down his chin after he has bitten through his lip while watching television. He does not notice that he is bleeding when he sits down at the dinner table and begins to eat. Lyman notes that Henry is swallowing his own blood as it mixes with the bread in his mouth. Vietnam veterans from many different backgrounds suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after they returned home from the war, but Henry’s case is made worse by the fact that his cultural expectations as a Native American warrior have not been fulfilled. For him, there is no glory or honor, only anger, despair, and hopelessness.
“The Red Convertible” is also a bitter coming-of-age story. At the beginning of the narrative, the brothers enjoy a carefree camaraderie as they take off in their new car and travel from state to state, visiting other reservations. Their visit to Alaska takes on an otherworldly quality in that their stay with Susy’s family harkens back to the distant past when Native American traditions remained intact and unsullied by European influence. During the summer they spend in Chicken, they live in mythic time in a place in which the sun never sets and each day flows seamlessly into the next. Just before they leave for home, Henry dances with Susy perched on his shoulders, her long hair swinging around him. He comments that he always wondered what it would be like to have long hair. Ironically, his “borrowing” of a woman’s tresses is the closest he comes to resembling his warrior ancestors. As a contemporary United States Marine, his hair is shorn, and he is sent to fight in a controversial war against a nation that is no direct threat to his own country. His disillusionment coupled with the humiliation of his imprisonment as a prisoner of war cause him to lose his innocent idealism as well as his cultural bearings. Henry’s mental state has a direct impact on his family, especially his brother. Henry’s postwar illness and subsequent suicide initiate Lyman into the adult world.