The Red Convertible


Louise Erdrich

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The Photograph Symbol Analysis

The Photograph Symbol Icon

The photograph that Bonita takes of Henry and Lyman symbolizes the unknowable nature of reality. While photographs often appear to represent the past exactly as it was, the significance of this photograph shifts over the course of the story as Lyman realizes that he can never know what was going on with Henry in that moment, even though he himself was right there with his brother when it was taken. At first, Lyman cherishes this photograph and hangs it on his wall, thinking that it reminds him of “good” times with Henry when they were close—after all, the picture was taken just before they took a joyride in the newly-repaired car, which, at the time, Lyman hoped marked Henry’s return to their youthful innocence. However, just after the photograph was taken, Henry drowned in ambiguous circumstances—it is never clear whether it was an accident or he had planned to kill himself all along. The photograph mirrors this ambiguity, as Lyman’s good feelings about the image erode one night and he sees it anew. Instead of seeing good times reflected in the picture, Lyman suddenly sees anguish in Henry’s face, almost as if Henry’s physical features in the photograph have changed. They haven’t changed, of course—Lyman is just seeing for the first time the parts of the photograph that reflect his brother’s torment, an aspect of the image he had never seen before, perhaps because he hadn’t wanted to. The “truth” of the photograph—whatever it reflects about Henry’s emotional state—is unstable and unknowable to Lyman, just as the reality of Henry’s death is unknowable, and just as Henry himself was unknowable to Lyman after returning from the war and retreating into silence. Lyman is unable to truly understand Henry because they have had such different experiences, and it is only through the photograph that he realizes this, which is why the photograph itself becomes disturbing to him.

The Photograph Quotes in The Red Convertible

The The Red Convertible quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Photograph. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Harper Perennial edition of The Red Convertible published in 1984.
The Red Convertible Quotes

It was so sunny that day Henry had to squint against the glare. Or maybe the camera Bonita held flashed like a mirror, blinding him, before she snapped the picture. My face is right out in the sun, big and round. But he might have drawn back, because the shadows on his face are deep as holes. There are two shadows curved like little hooks around the ends of his smile, as if to frame it and try to keep it there—that one, first smile that looked like it might have hurt his face.

Page Number: 186
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Red Convertible PDF

The Photograph Symbol Timeline in The Red Convertible

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Photograph appears in The Red Convertible. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
The Red Convertible
Loss of Innocence Theme Icon
The Trauma of War Theme Icon
Their sister Bonita makes them pose for a photograph with the car before they go. Lyman recalls the picture, which he kept on the... (full context)