”The Red Convertible” is told entirely in the first person from Lyman’s point of view. He tells the reader about his brother, expressing the love and admiration he felt and his pain at being powerless to help him in the end. His voice is seemingly trustworthy and reliable, and he is unashamed of his sensitive and emotional nature. Not only does he remember exactly how he felt during each episode he relates, but he also describes his emotions openly to the reader. He recalls the excitement he felt at first seeing the red convertible: “The first time we saw it!… There it was, parked, large as life. Really as if it was alive.” He remembers a moment of complete relaxation during his road trip with Henry: “I remember I laid under those trees and it was comfortable. So comfortable. The branches bent down all around me like a tent or a stable. And quiet, it was quiet.” Lyman also recalls the optimism he felt when he and Henry took the car for a drive after Henry fixed it. It was springtime after a snowy winter, and Lyman comments, ”When everything starts changing, drying up, clearing off, you feel like your whole life is starting.”
The only incident in which Lyman holds back from the reader is the one in which he lost his brother. He tells the reader that he saw his brother in the river and that he tried to rescue him, but he does not say how he felt. He describes running the car into the river after his brother, but he does not tell the reader how doing it made him feel. This sudden privacy makes Lyman seem realistic to the reader. As a first-person narrator, he retains the right to choose what to divulge and what not to. Because he is so forthcoming throughout the rest of the story, this emotional silence tells the reader that his feelings are too painful to share.
Erdrich uses numerous symbols in “The Red Convertible” to convey meaning and to communicate complex ideas. The title of the story points to the most fully developed symbol in the story, the car. The car is a complex symbol because its meaning changes as the story progresses. It represents the connection between Lyman and Henry. They buy it together on a mutual impulse, and then they take it on a summer-long road trip together. Twice Henry tries to give Lyman full ownership of the car, but Lyman refuses because the car symbolizes their union. In the end, the car is the literal vehicle that takes the brothers to the site of their tragic last meeting. Once Henry is dead, Lyman knows that he has lost his innocence and his connection to his brother, and, therefore, he has no use for the car.
Erdrich uses symbolism in other ways in the story. Susy has very long hair that she wears in buns. Until she lets her hair down, Lyman and Henry have no idea how extraordinary her hair is. Susy’s hair symbolizes qualities people have that are visible but are not what they seem to be. This is important later when Henry returns from the war and is obviously disturbed, yet nobody is capable of understanding him because Henry refuses to make himself fully visible. The television Lyman buys for the family symbolizes the intrusion of the events of the world into their otherwise peaceful home on the reservation. Erdrich also uses the seasons to symbolize the characters’ inner worlds. The brothers take a carefree road trip that lasts an entire summer. When the summer comes to an end, so do their innocent good times. Henry continues to be withdrawn as he fixes the car in the winter, but when spring comes, he seems renewed (if only temporarily).
Toward the end of the story, Lyman and Henry watch their beer cans as they throw them into the river. They watch to see how far the cans will float until they fill with water and sink. The river symbolizes the trials everyone endures in life, especially Henry. The story shows how much he was able to take from life before it dragged him under its current. This image also serves a dual purpose as symbolism and foreshadowing because it prefigures Henry’s drowning.
Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 14, Louise Erdrich, Published by Gale Cengage Learning.