Louise Erdrich is an American novelist and native America who uses her fiction to relate stories, which speak to the human condition. In her story “The Red Convertible” tells the tale of a bond between two brothers that is torn about do to extenuating circumstances happening in the world that reach out and affect both brothers lives. Erdrich tells this story through uses the literary devices of symbolism, figurative language, and foreshadowing to relate this tale on a much deeper level.
Stories can be told in a variety of way and through a variety of means. The story of the two brothers in the “The Red Convertible” is told through the car. The most potent symbol in “The Red Convertible” is the car itself. The story begins by the narrator, Lyman, telling of his his joint ownership of a car with his brother Henry.
The car becomes another character to the story. As a literary device, this is known as personification. The dictionary defines personification as “the attribution of human nature or character to animals and inanimate objects” (Dictionary.com, 1). In this sense, the car goes through a life span of birth, decay, renewal and death.
Like the various stages of the each brother’s relationship to the other, the car goes through different stages—from good times to troubled times.
When it is first described, it is described with energy and exclamation points. They narrator writes, “The first time we saw it! I’ll tell you when we first saw it.” The car represents Lyman’s savings from working his whole life up till that point. It cost both brothers everything they own, but it became their means to living the life they chose. The narrator says, “We went places in that care, me and Henry” (Erdrich, 2). There is in invocation that together the two brothers went further than just geographic places. The car represented their freedom from the reservation where they grew up. It also represented their coming of age, since both of them took of on a summer long road trip all over the United States in that car. The car became an extension of their selves, carrying them further than they could ever have gone without it.
Then the luck for Henry the older brother changes when he is drafted in the Vietnam War and has to leave. At this time both brothers try to give the car, the symbol of their relationship, to the other. The narrator says “I always thought of it as his car while he was gone” (Erdrich, 4). This even despite the fact that his brother Henry had given Lyman the key and told him “Now it’s yours.”
Instead of driving it Lyman keeps the car on blocks. There is sparse letter writing between them and for almost three years their relationship is at a standstill because of a lack of communication. There is profound imagery in the picture of a car up on blocks. A car on blocks is lacking in the purpose of a car, motion. Just as their relationship was in a stasis while Henry was off to war, so the car remains silent.
The unmentioned horrors of war that Henry experienced in his three-year absence broke something inside of him. It was the same body, but the same spirit he had had that had driven with his brother cross-country is dead. The relationship between the brothers is damaged as a result of this. The narrator says that “now you couldn’t get him to laugh, or when he did it was more the sound of a man choking.” Erdrich uses the figurative language of a simile to describe the change that has come over Henry. Even when a person did get him to sit still is was “the kind of stillness that you see in a rabbit when it freezes and before it will bolt.” This conjures up an image that is readily relatable to readers. It lets the reader know that Henry is suffering from an anxiety disorder, most likely posttraumatic stress. Since Henry is unable to sit still, and only ever paused in front of the TV, Lyman tries to coax his brother into being his old self by destroying the car, hoping that he will work to fix it and be able to take his mind off whatever is bothering him.
Like the war broke something inside of Henry, which hurt his relationship to Lyman, Lyman wrecks the car. This seems to work, but only a surface level. Another powerful symbol in the story is the photograph taken by the brother’s sister. It is taken after Henry has fixed the car. They have decided to take it for a drive.
The photo in the story foreshadows end that Henry would meet in the river. Right when it seems that things might be looking up for the car, Henry and the brother’s relationship, the narrator explains that he never looks at that picture anymore. This indicates that something bad must have happened to Henry. If Henry was still alive and things turned out well, there would be no reason for him not to look at the picture. One night while looking at the photo, it seemed that his smile had changed. Obviously, pictures do not change. It was likely, knowing as readers how the story ends, that it was never there to begin with.
While Lyman thought his brother fixing the card symbolized working through his problems, he was only fixing it to give to his brother before he took his own life. After their drive in it Henry drowns himself in the river. Lyman then carries out the same conclusion for the car, the symbol of the brother’s relationship, which has been destroyed through the demise of one of the parties.
The car is a symbol, but also functions as a foreshadowing device. Through telling at the beginning where the car ended up, the reader has a hunch as to what is going to happen to the brothers. This combined with figurative language, works to create a powerful tale about tow brothers.
Erdrich, Louise. “The Red Convertible” 1984 Print.
"Personification." Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, n.d. Web. 19 Feb. 2014. <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/per