The Red Convertible:
A Failure to the American Dream
“I was the first one to drive a convertible on my reservation. And of course it was a red, a red
Olds. I owned that car along with brother Henry Junior. We owned it together until his boots
filled with water on a windy night and he bought out my share. Now Henry owns the whole car,
and his younger brother Lyman (that’s myself), Lyman walked everywhere he goes.”
—Louise Erdrich, “A Red Convertible” (103).
Courtney Sharpe
Professor Harzewski
English 520.1BB
4 January 2013
“The Red Convertible” by Louise Erdrich is a traumatic short story about the relationship
between two American Indian brothers, Henry and Lyman Lamartine. Henry is the older brother
to Lyman. They’ve spent their whole lives living on an Indian reservation, up until they purchase
a red Olds Convertible. The convertible throughout the story becomes a sustained metaphor for
Henry and Lyman’s relationship, resembling luxury and freedom pertaining to the American
dream, as well as blood and suffering due to the catatonic distress Henry feels. Henry has been
off the reservation only three times since they purchased the red Olds, twice with Lyman and
once to join the Vietnam War. All three journeys are different, yet tie together the memories
Lyman wants to reserve of his deceased brother.
The first time Henry and Lyman leave the reservation they take the red convertible for a
joy ride around the western hemisphere of the United States for an entire summer. Since the car
is a convertible, it has a top, or roof, that lowers down and can be raised up depending on
preferences and weather. It was a hot summer for the brothers that they “made most of the trip,
that summer, without putting up the car hood at all” (106). The symbolism of the convertibles’
top represents the luxury, lavishness, and comfort the car bestows for Henry and Lyman. The top
also denotes freedom. Freedom can be noted as the wind they feel on their skin when they’re
driving or that they have never ending space above them, since the top was down, leaving them
unrestricted. This first journey for Henry left Lyman with happy memories of his brother.
The next journey Henry has off the reservation is when he leaves to join the Vietnam
War. During his time gone, Lyman fixes up the red convertible since their trip around the
western United States damaged the car. Lyman continues to feel pride and indulgence from the
car and how it bonded him and Henry together. However, Henry has been gone for three years,
and when he returns, nothing is the same with Henry or the brothers’ relationship. The Vietnam
War had ended, “but for [Henry] it would keep on going” (107). Unfortunately, Henry now
endures Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This is when the car transforms to a symbol of
suffering, because not only does Henry not even notice the car, but Lyman purposely ruins it
after refurbishing the interior and exterior from their trip. Furthermore, Lyman’s dismantling of
the car represents Henry’s character not being his normal self due from PTSD. He is the red
convertible and the red convertible is Henry. They’re one, both suffering from their experiences,
though Henry is human and the convertible is an object. Lyman witnesses the change in his
brother, altering his memories of Henry for the worse.
Finally, the last adventure Henry takes is with Lyman to the Red River in their
convertible. Here, the word “red” not only describes the convertible, but can be interpreted to
define the instance in which Henry commits suicide in the Red River. Henry appears to walk
down to the river to take a swim to cool off from the heat, but Lyman notices that he’s not
swimming but the current is taking him. Henry yells to Lyman, “My boots are filling,” which
leads us to believe that Henry is dead (114). Moreover, the adjective “red” further suggests that
the Red River is death for Henry but in a bloodless way. Lyman knows that Henry will never be
his normal self pre-war, so he drives the red Olds down to the river and “watch[es] it plow softly
into the water…the sound of it going and running and going and running and running” (114).
Lyman’s actions also make the red convertible a symbol of death in a bloodless way. The
convertible can be recognized as Henry’s grave or coffin from the failure of the American dream.
Also, the final quote in the story relates back to the opening paragraph when Henry and Lyman
are first introduced. Lyman explains that he “walks everywhere he goes” (103). This infers now
that Henry’s dead and the car is gone, Lyman walks not because he doesn’t have a car, but
because luxury isn’t going to buy one’s happiness, especially now that Henry has died. Lyman
will never have the American dream without his brother, so why have the car at all?
Additionally, the final quote also relates to the Vietnam War never ending for Henry. The war
was disturbing for Henry and he would always carry that weight around with him, making the
war a never ending battle in his mind and would keep “going” like the red convertible keeps
“going” when Lyman watches it sink in the water. Both the car and Henry will never be well.
Also, even though Henry had the “American dream” by owning a red Olds, the true American
dream would never be achieved due to his PTSD.
In conclusion, “The Red Convertible” is a sustained metaphor for Henry and Lyman’s
brotherhood and the American dream in which they cannot achieve. Lyman simply retells the
memories of his brother, Henry, when times were happy and when times were not due to Henry’s
change in character after the war. Lyman questions the aspects and beliefs of what is the
American dream. Is the American dream a luxury vehicle with the top down driving across
country? Or is the American dream healthy and happy families that share jovial memories? At
first, the American dream for Lyman was a luxury convertible that could give him and Henry joy
to share, but after realizing the effects of the war on Henry, the red convertible becomes less
important, which is why he let the car sink with Henry’s suicide.
Works Cited
Erdrich, Louise. “The Red Convertible.” The Red Convertible: Selected and New Stories, 19782008. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. Print.

“The Red Convertible” by Louise Erdrich is a traumatic short story

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