In “The Red Convertible”, Erdrich uses symbolism in a variety of ways. The most important symbol is the title car, the significance of which changes as the story unfolds. Erdrich’s use of symbolism in this way gives her story depth and complexity and enables her to communicate ideas and character developments without lengthy explanations. As a result, the red convertible embodies, at various points in the story, everything the story is meant to express.
Perhaps the convertible’s greatest contribution to the story is as a symbol of the relationship between Lyman and Henry. Initially, it represents their close companionship. They bought it together on a whim, which demonstrates their willingness to share a major responsibility and to do so on impulse. After buying it, they took a summer-long road trip together. The decision to take the trip was mutual, and their unplanned approach to the trip also was mutual. That they enjoyed the extended trip shows that they were close and genuinely enjoyed each other’s company.
The convertible symbolizes the brothers’ reaching out to each other. Before leaving for Vietnam, Henry used the car to reach out to Lyman. He told Lyman to take the car, and he handed over his key. After returning from the war, Henry was emotionally distant, but again he tried to give Lyman full ownership of the car. These are significant episodes in the story because they reveal Henry’s love for Lyman. As a Chippewa, Henry learned to be reserved in expressing his feelings; his culture expected men to refrain from emotional displays. Because of this, he would not tell his brother outright that he loved him, wanted him to be independent, or feared that he (Henry) might not return from the war. Instead, he expressed these feelings by offering the car to his brother.
Lyman used the car as a means to reach out to Henry. When Henry returned from the war moody, detached, and silent, Lyman intentionally damaged the car to get Henry involved in something. When Henry saw the condition of the car, he said to Lyman, “When I left, that car was running like a watch. Now I don’t know if I can get it to start again, let alone get it anywhere near its old condition.” Henry’s statement is deeply significant when read in light of the car’s dual meaning. Lyman’s decision to damage the convertible was important because he saw the car as his brother’s only chance of regaining his sense of self. When Lyman damaged the car, cosmetically and mechanically, he demonstrated his willingness to risk not only a prized possession but also his relationship with his brother (symbolized by the car) for his brother’s happiness. The changing physical condition of the car is also symbolic of the relationship of the brothers because it reflects the status of their brotherly closeness.
Besides symbolizing the complex relationship between Lyman and Henry, the convertible represents other aspects of the characters’ inner worlds. During the summer road trip, it represented freedom. At the time, Lyman was only sixteen, an age at which most young people long to explore the world and to make their own decisions. Together, Lyman and Henry used the car to leave the reservation where they lived and to see what was beyond its borders.
The convertible also symbolizes the carefree, innocent life that precedes Henry’s three years in Vietnam. Lyman and Henry traveled without care or worry, enjoying whatever experiences came their way. When Henry prepared to leave for Vietnam, he gave Lyman his key to the car. Henry likely realized that by going to Vietnam, he was sacrificing his innocence. Lyman, however, could still enjoy being carefree, so, by giving Lyman his key, Henry was encouraging him to embrace his last innocent years. At the end of the story, Henry dies in the river, and Lyman runs the car in after him. This is a highly symbolic moment because it represents the end of Lyman’s innocence as well as the end of the brothers’ relationship. The car had no meaning for him after his brother was gone, and he had learned too much about the world to feel carefree again.
The car represents as well a much-needed outlet for Henry after the war. When he came home, he was unable to function as he had in the past. After Lyman damaged the car, Henry had the opportunity to work toward a goal, instead of watching television all day. In this way, the car symbolizes Henry’s need for a sense of purpose and mastery. He did not know how to be a member of his family or community, but he did know how to fix the car. Fixing the car seems to have lifted his spirits because it was familiar and something that allowed him to feel useful and competent for a while.
“The Red Convertible” is a seemingly simple story, but the changing symbolism of the car gives it richness and depth. In describing metaphors, scholars often use the terms vehicle and tenor. The vehicle is the image used to communicate meaning (the tenor) to the reader. Applying this terminology to the convertible in Erdrich’ s story, the reader finds numerous tenors revealed through one literal vehicle. Fraternal bonds, freedom, innocence, control, and wisdom—all of these themes are carried by one red convertible.
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.
Jennifer Bussey, Critical Essay on “The Red Convertible,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.