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My Interpretation of “the Red Convertible” by Louise Erdrich


"The Red Convertible" by Louise Erdrich is now one of my Favorite short stories.

What started as an assignment for my composition class has lead me to a new favorite author. I love the symbolism used in her short story, "The Red Convertible." Here is my own interpretation of the symbolism in this great short story. I hope you enjoy.

Symbolism in "The Red Convertible."

What does the red convertible represent?

Riding the Ups and Downs in Two Brothers' Relationship

In the short story, "The Red Convertible" by Louise Erdrich, the author introduces Lyman Lamartine and his brother Henry. The brothers are Chippewa Indians who, after purchasing a car together, drive around the country in one carefree summer. The car they buy, a red Oldsmobile convertible, is more than just a mere mode of transportation, but rather it is a symbol of the brothers' relationship with each other.

Although Henry and Lyman are brothers, they are quite different from one another. Their lack of physical resemblance amazes the family they befriend on their journey (Erdrich 369). Beyond the physical dissimilarities, Lyman describes himself as being unique in his gift for entrepreneurship. He says, "My own talent was I could always make money. I had a touch for it, unusual in a Chippewa" (Erdrich 368). He also describes himself as being lucky with numbers, while his brother in contrast did not share this trait and therefor had been drafted into the service of the army (Erdrich 370). The brothers, finding themselves both with money, pool their resources to purchase the car, "reposed, calm and gleaming" (Erdrich 369). Together, the brothers ride calmly and comfortably, enjoying their freedom. They are so free, in fact that when they pick up a hitchhiker who is on her way back to her home to Alaska, they drive her all the way there, and then the brothers stay with her family for a while. During this time their relationship requires no work, and the convertible carries them around the country without needing much maintenance at all, either (Erdrich 370). The car and the relationship mirror each other's easiness. At last, the summer is drawing to an end and they begin making their way back home; the car is in need of service and Henry is leaving for the service.

During the three years that Henry and Lyman are apart the car spends most of the time torn apart or on blocks (Erdrich 370). Henry and Lyman exchange only a few letters during this time. Communication between the brothers is as broken down as the convertible is. Henry gives Lyman his keys and share of the car before leaving, but Lyman works on the car during the years Henry serves in Vietnam, wanting to give his brother his car back in its original condition upon Henry's return from overseas (Erdrich 370). Lyman hopes that his relationship with his brother would pick up where they had left off three years earlier. For Lyman, not much had changed during those years, but the war would change Henry in a way that Lyman couldn't anticipate. During the years that Lyman was fixing up the car and waiting for his brother's return, Henry was facing horrific images that would haunt him even after he returns home. Instead of the brother he knew, Lyman is now faced with a restless, hyper-vigilant, irritable and mean Henry (Erdrich 370). Lyman, concerned for his brother and missing the relationship they had once had, discusses what they might be able to do for his brother with his mother, but the reservation has no doctors and they are too afraid to take him to a hospital. Finally, Lyman decides that he might be able to use the convertible to reach out to his brother. He thinks, "the car might bring the old Henry back somehow" (Erdrich 371). One night while his brother is out, Lyman takes a hammer to the car and bangs it up. He undoes all the work he put into fixing it up for Henry, and hopes that Henry will find it. The car now is in shambles, mirroring the relationship between the two brothers.

Henry eventually takes notice of the wrecked convertible, and he confronts Lyman. He says, "When I left, that car was running like a watch. Now I don't even know if I can get it to start again, let alone get it anywhere near its old condition" (Erdrich 371). This quote applies equally as well to the relationship between Henry and Lyman as it does to the condition of the convertible. Henry spends day and night working on restoring the beat up vehicle. As he works on improving the car, his attitude towards his family begins to improve, as well (Erdrich 371). The strained relationship between Henry and himself is making Lyman feel depressed. When his brother returned from the war he did not imagine that he would not have that same easy relationship that they had in the past. When Henry asks Lyman if he would go with him for a ride in the convertible, Lyman jumps at the opportunity; he hopes that this is a sign that the old Henry is returning (Erdrich 372). Henry had once again restored the convertible to its former glory, and he also seemed to be more at peace. As the day progresses, Lyman bursts out at Henry, "Wake up, wake up, Wake up" (Erdrich 373). Henry admits to knowing Lyman had intentionally banged up the car, and tells him that he fixed it up to give to Lyman. They go back and forth over who wants the car, but it is obvious that it will no longer be shared between them. Some time later, Henry jumps into the river, but the high water and current sweep him away. "My boots are filling," he shouts to Lyman, before Lyman looses sight of him (Erdrich 374). Henry drives the convertible to the riverbank, and then watches as it goes in after his brother. The hope of the convertible and their relationship wash down the river, both gone forever.

Louise Eldrich uses the red convertible as a metaphor for the brothers' relationship. The ups and downs of the convertibles journey reflect the same bumps in Henry and Lyman's brotherly friendship. Lyman will live on, but he will do so without his unlucky brother, their red convertible or their once easy relationship.

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Works Cited

Erdrich, Louise. "The Red Convertible." 1984. Literature for Composition. Ed. Sylvan Barnet, William E. Cain, and William Burto. 9th ed. Boston: Longman, 2011. 368-74. Print.

This is a collection of Erdrich's Short stories including the title story, "The Red Convertible."

The Red Convertible Poll

Do you want to learn more about this author and her story? - These links may interest you.

  • HarperCollins Author Page
    HarperCollinsPublishers' Page highlighting Louise Erdrich and her works. You can sign up for their Author Tracker to receive news, including announcements about books, promotions, and events.

© 2011 Jackie Block

Have you read "The Red Convertible"? - Tell us what you think.

julieannbrady on May 21, 2012:

Not yet read it, but it sounds like an inspiring read for sure.

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