Symbolism in the Red Convertible
October 1st, 2012 Symbolism in the Red Convertible In writing, authors use symbolism to relay a deeper meaning to what they actually write. This technique captures important elements and gives the reader an idea of the theme of the story without the author directly telling them. Louise Erdrich uses symbolism to help emphasize and reveal the themes and message of her stories.
“The Red Convertible,” by Erdrich, is a story about brotherly love as the highest value between two brothers, Lyman and Henry, and also about the difficulties veterans of war and their families face at post-war times.
Symbolism plays a big part in this story, revealing the hardships Henry brings home from the battlefields of Vietnam, and to show Lyman’s difficulties with handling separation and distance from his brother. The story is told from Lyman Lamartine’s point of view as he recounts the relationship he had with his older brother, Henry. He says how they both bought a red Oldsmobile convertible on impulse and traveled the country with it. He recalled it as a very happy and carefree time between the brothers. Then Henry went off to fight in the Vietnam War and when he returned he was a very changed man.
He was depressed and lost interest in everything, including the car and his brother. When Lyman realizes the relationship between him and his brother will never be the same, he takes a hammer and beats the car up so it is in horrible condition. Henry sees the broken car and fixes it up. Once finished, the boys drive the car to a lake and Henry tries to give Lyman complete ownership of the car but Lyman constantly refuses. The brothers enjoy a tiny moment of laughter and hopefulness and after spending a couple good minutes together, Henry tells Lyman that he needs to cool off, and he jumps into the river.
Apathetically, Henry says that his boots have filled with water and he goes under in the current. Lyman tries to save his brother but can’t. Then he turns the car on and sends it into the river, watching it sink to its demise just like Henry. The red convertible could be seen as a symbol of attachment. The two brothers by the car on impulse, using all the money they had with them, and soon it becomes their source of fun, adventure, and relaxation. This car creates a strong bond between them. Both brothers owned the car and left a part of them attached to the car.
Henry then goes off to war, and hands his keys to Lyman, but the car is abandoned just like the brothers relationship. The war has broken the attachment between the brothers. From this point, the boys try to give full ownership of the car to the other brother, realizing that neither of the brothers can own the entire red convertible for himself, because they both have part of themselves sentimentally attached to it. When Henry drowns, Lyman is compelled to drive the car in the river, destroying the part of the car that was Henrys.
Without Henry, half of the car is symbolically missing and Lyman knows he cannot ever drive the car again because car was only driven when the boys were attached. The Oldsmobile could also be seen as a symbol of brotherhood and the war-torn relationships of soldiers when they return home. When they bought the car, they did not need to discuss it because they understood each other without saying a word. They travel together, and this represents a normal, healthy brotherly relationship. When Henry returned a changed man, he was not interested in anything, including Lyman and the car.
Lyman understood and caught on that his brother did not care for life anymore because the car was life to him before the war and now Henry doesn’t care for it. When Lyman destroys the car in an attempt to get Henry interested, it is his gesture of brotherly love and also a demonstration of the separation between them. The car portrays the destroyed relationship between Henry and Lyman. And in response, Henry repairs the car, putting the last of his soul into the car. He remembers the condition the car and himself was in before the war and is concerned. Eventually Henry realizes he could not fix himself.
This reflects the concerns that many soldiers had coming home regarding the futures of their relationships and how they feared it would just be another casualty of the war, which many were, including Henry and Lyman’s. He uses the fixed convertible to save his love for his brother. Later when Henry tells Lyman to take care of the car, both brothers understood that Henry was preparing for death. He could not leave the world with the car and his relationship with his brother broken, and fixes the car as his last shot to save both. When the car was finished and He and Lyman went on one more trip, he was ready to die.
Lyman saw the car more as an instrument to try and return his brother to the way he used to be before the war. But once Henry drowns and dies, the car is useless to him. There is symbolism in the short story that reflects Native American culture in the modern world. Lyman and Henry go on trips for months, travelling the country. These trips could represent the nomadic lifestyle of early Native Americans. At the end of the story, before Henry drowns himself, he and Lyman share a moment of fun and laughter. Henry does a wild and crazy dance, and this could be reflected as a ritual or traditional dance of Native Americans.
The color red is a big symbol in the story. The convertible is red and was specifically put in the title and story by Louise Erdrich. Red has a positive and negative meaning. Positively, red means strength and love. This reflects Henry and Lyman because their brotherhood bond was strong and powerful, and they loved each other. Red could also mean aggression and war. This obviously reflects the war that damaged the relationship between the brothers and ruined Henry, and also the anger the brothers had that the relationship and their lives were not the same and would never be the same again.
The color red shows up more in the story, like in the beginning when the two travels to the Blood Reservation and meet a girl named Susy. Blood is obviously red, and Susy represents a part of their lives that was happy and carefree, and would never be the same. She impacted the boy’s lives and the free-spirit they once had. The color red appears once more on the boy’s very last trip when they head east to Red Rock. This is where Henry accepts death and that his life will never be the same again and commits suicide. In literature, symbolism is used to give meaning to the writing beyond what is actually written on the page.
The plot and actions that take place can be thought of as one level, while the symbolism is on another, deeper level to enhance the story. In her short story, “The Red Convertible,” Louise Erdrich uses symbolism to help the reader see the message and theme of the story. She takes the color red, the convertible, and other moments in the story and has hidden symbols and meanings in them that emphasize the theme of strong brotherhood between Lyman and Henry and the negative aftermath that war has on its soldiers relationships back home.