An Analysis of the Themes in Louise Erdrich’s Red Convertible
Louise Erdrich’s Red Convertible is a poignant tale of the Lamartine brothers’ blissful and innocent youth and its loss due to war and adulthood. Lyman is lucky with material wealth and success in his life and yet finds that it all proves useless in the face of his veteran brother Henry’s struggles with readjusting to life after serving in Vietnam. The story’s central theme is that of a loss of innocence and how it affects childhood relationships; it is expertly pulled together through the internal and external conflicts its characters face and the use of setting and symbolism to illustrate their loss of innocence.
The key external conflict of the story is a physical fight between the brothers that symbolizes the clash between one brother still holding on to his youth and the other striped of it in a violent war. The convertible’s fate serves as the impetus for the fight, as both brothers wish for the other to take ownership of the symbol of their youth (Sneider 1). The fight serves more as an explosion of the characters’ repressed worries and anxieties than a separate storyline. Interestingly, it also underlines how lost Henry is to his erstwhile innocence as it is a gentle touch to his shoulder that triggers the violence. Thus, the external conflict is an illustration of Henry’s lost innocence and the brothers’ continued love for each other.
The internal conflict in this work is achieved through small details that illustrate Lyman’s changing priorities. As his brother suffers in the aftermath of a war Lyman’s luck kept him from, Lyman ceases to care as much for the material items he has always obtained so easily. His care and worry for his brother cause him to purposefully damage the car and the image from the color TV (Erdrich 111). The resolution of Lyman’s internal conflict is seen as he sends the shining symbol of his and his brother’s shared youth into the trash-filled water (Sneider 2). The internal conflict is thus a tool that allows the reader to chart how Lyman’s innocence is lost through his brother’s suffering.
Symbolism is masterfully employed through the use of the “large as life” red convertible to illustrate the Lamartine brothers’ loss of innocence (Erdrich 104). While young and innocent, both brothers devote themselves to their car’s upkeep. Afterward, despite fixing it up, Henry doesn’t want any part of it, as the innocence it symbolizes is no longer part of him. Both brothers wish for the other to take possession of the car, as they see it as a link to their erstwhile carefreeness. Lyman sends the car into the river at his brother’s death, thereby symbolizing the end of his own youth and innocence.
The episode wherein Bonita takes her brothers’ photograph is also wonderfully symbolic and proves a sad premonition. While Lyman’s face is “right out in the sun,” pointing to his bright future, his brother has “shadows on his face..as deep as holes,” hinting at his sad end (Erdrich 111). The setting provides another element to the story, as seen on the riverbank where Henry’s life and Lyman’s childhood end, while the river keeps “running and running” (Erdrich 114), showing how life carries on. Thus, literary elements aid the reader in seeing the loss of youth as part of the continuing cycle of life.
Erdrich explores the central theme of loss of innocence through Lyman’s internal conflict as his material luck proves useless in helping his brother. The physical scuffle that serves as the chief external conflict illustrates the significance of the symbol of their easy childhood camaraderie and their continued love for each other and desire for the other’s well-being. The exploration of the core theme of loss of innocence is greatly aided by the use of symbolism and setting in providing a visual element to the story’s progression.
Erdrich, Louise. “The Red Convertible.” Growing Up Ethnic in America: Contemporary Fiction About Learning to be American, edited by Jennifer Gillan and Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Penguin Books, 1999, pp. 103-114.
Sneider, Leah. “Erdrich, Louise.” The Encyclopedia of Postcolonial Studies (2016): 1-2. Web.