The Red Convertible Summary, Characters and Themes

“The Red Convertible” by Louise Erdrich is a short story that explores themes of family, brotherhood, change, and loss through the lives of two Native American brothers, Lyman and Henry Lamartine. 

Set on the Chippewa reservation in North Dakota, the narrative unfolds the deep bond between the brothers, symbolized by a red Oldsmobile convertible they purchase together during the summer of 1974.

Summary

The story is narrated by Lyman, the younger of the two brothers, who recounts the tale with a mixture of fondness and sorrow. 

Initially, Lyman describes the carefree days spent with Henry traveling across the United States in their convertible. This period represents a time of innocence and freedom, with the car serving as a symbol of their strong connection and shared adventures.

However, the narrative takes a darker turn when Henry is drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. 

Upon his return, Henry is profoundly changed; the once easygoing and cheerful brother becomes withdrawn, silent, and haunted by his experiences. Lyman observes these changes with distress and attempts to bridge the gap between them by damaging the convertible, hoping that fixing the car together will help Henry recover from his trauma.

Despite Lyman’s efforts, the brothers’ relationship cannot return to what it once was. The story reaches its climax when Henry fixes the car and suggests a final trip to the Red River. 

At the river, Henry’s behavior momentarily returns to his pre-war self, but this brief resurgence is quickly overshadowed by his decision to jump into the river, where he is swept away by the current and presumably drowns.

Lyman, in a state of shock and grief, pushes the red convertible into the river, symbolically laying to rest the bond that the car represented.

The story concludes with Lyman reflecting on the loss of his brother and the irreversible change in their lives.

Characters

Lyman Lamartine

Lyman is the younger of the two Lamartine brothers and serves as the narrator of the story. 

He is industrious and has a knack for making money, which he showcases through his ownership of a restaurant and later through various jobs. Lyman is deeply attached to his brother, Henry, and the red convertible that they share symbolizes their bond. 

His character represents resilience and the struggle to maintain hope and connection in the face of adversity. 

Despite his efforts to reconnect with Henry after the war, Lyman is ultimately confronted with the painful realization that some changes are irreversible, highlighting his journey from innocence to a somber understanding of loss and change.

Henry Lamartine

Henry is Lyman’s older brother, whose life takes a tragic turn after he is drafted to fight in the Vietnam War. Before his deployment, Henry is lively, carefree, and has a strong bond with Lyman. 

However, the war profoundly changes him, leaving him silent, withdrawn, and haunted by what he has experienced. 

Henry’s character explores the devastating impact of war on individuals, showcasing how traumatic experiences can alienate those affected from their loved ones and from their former selves. 

His tragic end in the river symbolizes the ultimate escape from his torment but also represents the loss of potential and the irreversible impact of war on personal relationships.

Themes

1. Impact of War on Individuals and Relationships

Firstly, the impact of war on individuals and their relationships is a central theme that Erdrich masterfully explores. 

The transformation of Henry after his return from the Vietnam War serves as a poignant commentary on how war changes people in profound and often irreversible ways. 

Henry’s struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) showcases the internal battles that continue long after the external fighting has ceased. 

This theme is not only a reflection on the personal level but also speaks to the broader societal impact, highlighting the challenges faced by veterans as they reintegrate into civilian life and the ripple effects this has on their families and communities.

2. Complicated Familial Bonds

Secondly, the theme of familial bonds and their complexities is vividly portrayed through the relationship between Lyman and Henry. 

The narrative beautifully captures the unspoken depth of brotherhood, illustrating how these bonds can provide strength, solace, and understanding. 

However, Erdrich does not shy away from showing the strain that external factors, such as war, can place on these relationships. 

The brothers’ attempts to reconnect through the red convertible symbolize their efforts to recapture the closeness they once shared, underscoring the resilience of familial love in the face of adversity. 

Yet, the story also acknowledges the painful reality that some distances cannot be bridged, even by the strongest of bonds.

3. The Impermeability of Change

Finally, the symbolism of change and loss permeates the story, with the red convertible standing as a potent symbol of both. 

Initially, the car represents freedom, hope, and the indomitable spirit of youth. However, as the narrative unfolds, it transforms into a symbol of the changes wrought by time and circumstance. 

The eventual submergence of the convertible in the river marks not only the physical loss of the car but also the metaphorical loss of innocence, the end of an era in the brothers’ lives, and the ultimate surrender to the currents of change. 

This theme speaks to the universal experience of dealing with loss and the often futile human endeavor to hold onto the past or what once was.

Final Thoughts

Through “The Red Convertible,” Erdrich addresses the impact of war on individuals and their families, illustrating how experiences like Henry’s can alter a person’s identity and relationships irreparably. 

The story is a powerful testament to the complexities of love, memory, and the struggle to find healing after profound loss. The convertible, vibrant and full of life at the beginning, becomes an emblem of the devastating effects of change, serving as a perfect reminder of what was and what can never be again.

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