“The Red Convertible” by Louise Erdrich is a traumatic short story about the relationship between two American Indian brothers, Henry and Lyman Lamartine. Henry is the older brother to Lyman. They’ve spent their whole lives living on an Indian reservation, up until they purchase a red Olds Convertible. The convertible throughout the story becomes a sustained metaphor for Henry and Lyman’s relationship, resembling luxury and freedom pertaining to the American dream, as well as blood and suffering due to the catatonic distress Henry feels. Henry has been off the reservation only three times since they purchased the red Olds, twice with Lyman and once to join the Vietnam War. All three journeys are different, yet tie together the memories Lyman wants to reserve of his deceased brother.
The first time Henry and Lyman leave the reservation they take the red convertible for a joy ride around the western hemisphere of the United States for an entire summer. Since the car is a convertible, it has a top, or roof, that lowers down and can be raised up depending on preferences and weather. It was a hot summer for the brothers that they “made most of the trip, that summer, without putting up the car hood at all” (106). The symbolism of the convertibles’ top represents the luxury, lavishness, and comfort the car bestows for Henry and Lyman. The top also denotes freedom. Freedom can be noted as the wind they feel on their skin when they’re driving or that they have never ending space above them, since the top was down, leaving them unrestricted. This first journey for Henry left Lyman with happy memories of his brother.
The next journey Henry has off the reservation is when he leaves to join the Vietnam War. During his time gone, Lyman fixes up the red convertible since their trip around the western United States damaged the car. Lyman continues to feel pride and indulgence from the car and how it bonded him and Henry together. However, Henry has been gone for three years, and when he returns, nothing is the same with Henry or the brothers’ relationship. The Vietnam War had ended, “but for Henry it would keep on going” (107). Unfortunately, Henry now endures Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This is when the car transforms to a symbol of suffering, because not only does Henry not even notice the car, but Lyman purposely ruins it after refurbishing the interior and exterior from their trip. Furthermore, Lyman’s dismantling of the car represents Henry’s character not being his normal self due from PTSD. He is the red convertible and the red convertible is Henry. They’re one, both suffering from their experiences, though Henry is human and the convertible is an object. Lyman witnesses the change in his brother, altering his memories of Henry for the worse.
Finally, the last adventure Henry takes is with Lyman to the Red River in their convertible. Here, the word “red” not only describes the convertible, but can be interpreted to define the instance in which Henry commits suicide in the Red River. Henry appears to walk down to the river to take a swim to cool off from the heat, but Lyman notices that he’s not swimming but the current is taking him. Henry yells to Lyman, “My boots are filling,” which leads us to believe that Henry is dead (114). Moreover, the adjective “red” further suggests that the Red River is death for Henry but in a bloodless way. Lyman knows that Henry will never be his normal self pre-war, so he drives the red Olds down to the river and “watches it plow softly into the water…the sound of it going and running and going and running and running” (114). Lyman’s actions also make the red convertible a symbol of death in a bloodless way. The convertible can be recognized as Henry’s grave or coffin from the failure of the American dream. Also, the final quote in the story relates back to the opening paragraph when Henry and Lyman are first introduced. Lyman explains that he “walks everywhere he goes” (103). This infers now that Henry’s dead and the car is gone, Lyman walks not because he doesn’t have a car, but because luxury isn’t going to buy one’s happiness, especially now that Henry has died. Lyman will never have the American dream without his brother, so why have the car at all? Additionally, the final quote also relates to the Vietnam War never ending for Henry. The war was disturbing for Henry and he would always carry that weight around with him, making the war a never ending battle in his mind and would keep “going” like the red convertible keeps “going” when Lyman watches it sink in the water. Both the car and Henry will never be well. Also, even though Henry had the “American dream” by owning a red Olds, the true American dream would never be achieved due to his PTSD.
In conclusion, “The Red Convertible” is a sustained metaphor for Henry and Lyman’s brotherhood and the American dream in which they cannot achieve. Lyman simply retells the memories of his brother, Henry, when times were happy and when times were not due to Henry’s change in character after the war. Lyman questions the aspects and beliefs of what is the American dream. Is the American dream a luxury vehicle with the top down driving across country? Or is the American dream healthy and happy families that share jovial memories? At first, the American dream for Lyman was a luxury convertible that could give him and Henry joy to share, but after realizing the effects of the war on Henry, the red convertible becomes less important, which is why he let the car sink with Henry’s suicide.
Erdrich, Louise. “The Red Convertible.” The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories, 1978-
2008. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. Print.