One of the most widely read short stories by James Hurst, “The Scarlet Ibis” was first published in the July edition of The Atlantic Monthly in 1960. Rich in symbolism, it revolves around the human will and determination that when transformed into unmitigated pride is capable of destroying innocent lives. Every human has a boundary of endurance and overachieving it will lead to nothing but failure. This is a story of two brothers where the younger one named Doodle suffers from an unfavorable condition since birth and his elder brother despises him for his inability to participate in everyday events. A tale of pride and death, it chronicles the elder brother’s will to bestow Doodle an ‘abled’ life by working hard with him to overcome his weaknesses that in truth hide his evil pride obstructing his association with a brother with a disability.
James Hurst was a 20th-century American writer who wrote plays and short stories while employed at a bank in New York City.
The Scarlet Ibis | Summary
The story begins in the present as the narrator looks out of his house and recalls his brother Doodle, originally named William Armstrong, followed by a flashback of his birth and diagnosis of a terminating condition and their parent’s preparation of a coffin for him. But somehow Doodle manages to live. The narrator who is Doodle’s elder brother dislikes the unavailability of his younger brother as a company to all his adrenaline rush activities. Sinister thoughts of smothering his brother to death fail to realize when he observes Doodle smiling back at him one day. He then resolves to put in efforts to enable Doodle to walk, run, jump and swim like all the other kids of his age in the hope to prove to himself the infallibility of his determination and opinion. Though Doodle is able to crawl and move with assistance, straining too much could lead to fatality. The father builds a go-cart for Doodle and asks the narrator to take his brother along and it is during these walks that the narrator trains his younger sibling to walk. Close to his sixth birthday, Doodle is able to walk which drives the narrator to move onto the next level of accomplishment i.e. fast-paced movements such as running. But the progress begins to deteriorate.
One day a rare red bird known as the scarlet ibis marks its territory over the bleeding tree in the backyard of the house and eventually falls to death as a consequence of covering a long distance due to the storm, out of its natural habitat. The pitiful death agonizes Doodle who buries it in the garden. Further, the brothers reach Horsehead Landing to proceed with their training but the sudden change in weather accompanying rain storms frightens Doodle who is already tired and gives up his rowing practice. Annoyed, the narrator hurries back to the house at great speed, abandoning his helpless brother in the rain. After a few moments of Doodle’s disappearance, the narrator runs back only to find his brother smeared in blood and dead. The story ends with the narrator lamenting his brother’s death as a realization of his pride’s overarching goal that involuntarily killing his brother.
The Scarlet Ibis | Analysis
Hurst employs a first-person narrator for his evocative story to retrospectively look at the bygone days when Doodle, the narrator’s younger brother was alive. A series of flashbacks shift the timeline from the present to the past but without any alteration in the mood which stagnates at gloominess and mourning with a melancholic yet occasionally humoristic tone. The story is set in reverse mode as the events move back from the mid-20th century to the ending years of World War I. The setting can also be assumed to be in one of the southern states of America, arguably North Carolina due to the author’s belongingness as well as the narrator’s father’s democratic inclination and allusion to the American President Woodrow Wilson. This puts the story contextually amidst the politically fragmented world occupied by battles. However, it does not influence the plot because the narrator is fighting his own battle— a war with his conscience.
The birth of Doodle introduces a set of challenges for the narrator and his family, towering of all is the acceptance of his disability. Religiously, he is considered a special child but his anatomical limitations cannot be denied—
“He seemed all head, with a tiny body which was red and shriveled like an old man’s. Everybody thought he was going to die everybody except Aunt Nicey, who had delivered him. She said he would live because he was born in a caul, and cauls were made from Jesus’ nightgown.”
This makes him a disappointment to the narrator who desires to have company to participate in various physical sports adventures. Even though Doodle defeats death during his infancy, his life would never allow him to be like the rest of his peers, a fact that the narrator has a hard time swallowing due to his excessive pride. He believes in his own ability to ‘correct’ his brother and make him fit which is a transformation he undergoes after bearing sinister thoughts of killing him.
The time the brothers spend together at the Old Woman Swamps contributes to Doodle’s progress in his ability to walk and the narrator’s unrealized developing affection for his brother. Like a paradise, the duo is away from the corrupt and judging forces of the world in the lap of purity. Nonetheless, the narrator also admits the streak of the cruelty inherent in humans which compels him at times to be mean and unjust to his brother. Doodle becomes a mission for his elder brother, something the latter is to succeed in because he wishes to feel proud. The efforts put in to treat Doodle are not out of love but self-recognition and glory.
However, Doodle never finds out about the true intentions of his brother, or maybe the author opts not to reveal it even if he does know because the young child might desire to continue living in his fantasy of his brother protecting him like the peacock of his dreams which spreads its magnificent tail like a “losing go-to-sleep flower, burying him in the gloriously iridescent, rustling vortex.” There is a possibility that Doodle chooses to live in denial of his brother’s selfishness which comes to light when the latter leaves him helpless in the rain begging for assistance. As a result, he dies and his death poses doubt regarding who actually killed him? Is it the narrator and his overbearing training sessions or Doodle himself for allowing his brother to exert pressure on him? Certainly, it cannot be the narrator alone to be blamed because Doodle too wished to surprise his parents by walking without any support. But his inability to refuse further exertion costs him his life.
The death of Doodle and the scarlet ibis mirror each other in the transcendence of their respective natural boundaries of life. In both cases, it’s the external factors that cause their death. For the bird, the unwelcoming storm becomes a medium for a tiresome journey, and for Doodle it is his brother’s constancy to work hard on his body. The bird’s death involves “uncoordinated” wings with its “long, graceful neck [that] jerked twice into an S, then straightened out…[and]its legs were crossed and its clawlike feet were delicately curved at rest.” Similarly, Doodle bleeds “from the mouth, and his neck and the front of his shirt were stained a brilliant red.” His tiny body lies “very awkwardly, with his head thrown far back, making his vermilion neck appear unusually long and slim. His little legs, bent sharply at the knees, had never before seemed so fragile, so thin.” Both couldn’t survive the atrocities of their surroundings as they were forced to do things unsuitable to them.
Like the beloved Jesus Christ who sacrificed for the sins of mankind, Doodle’s death also resembles a similar act of surrendering to the pride of his elder brother.
The Scarlet Ibis | Themes
Central to the story is the notion of death which marks its territory right from the beginning up till the end. The opening and closing of the narrative exhibit a gloomy atmosphere, lamentation, and sorrow. While death is an eternal truth looming over every living being’s life, its unnatural or rather forced occurrence to Doodle is a matter of concern. Though the young child was predicted to not live long, he managed to fight his battle with death up till the age of 7. The dual impact of witnessing the awful death of a scarlet ibis and the narrator’s pressurizing efforts on Doodle drives the child to lose morale and courage. Since the narrator attempts to tamper with Doodle’s natural state of being, the latter meets his tragic end covered in blood like the scarlet ibis which was thrown off from its natural habitat due to the storm and thus couldn’t sustain for long. Death overpowers everything and no amount of resistance can protect a human from dying.
Another subtle theme the author puts forward is regarding the life of people with disability and their struggles to cope with the challenging and competitive world. Insensitivity and ignorance are often the attitudes that such people usually receive like the narrator’s approach towards his young brother Doodle. Instead of rendering support and comfort to the child, the narrator sometimes acquires a sadistic pleasure by troubling his crippled and weak brother. Intentionally peeping inside the mahogany coffin ordered for Doodle during his infancy to meet the requirements in his event of death and coercing the innocent child to touch it is a pitiless act on the narrator’s part. He transcends all the boundaries of humanity towards the climax of the story when he leaves his tired and disheartened brother alone in the rain begging to not leave him alone and thus causing his death. The story conveys the popular notion that the weak usually lose the battle of life but not due to their own limitations. It is rather on an account of the inconsiderate and mindless acts of the self-considered superior creatures.
As a popular belief, one should avoid harboring too much pride for it will definitely pave a way for his/her doom. It often comes at the expense of someone’s life; in this case, it was Doodle who as a sacrificial lamb gave up his life to fulfill his brother’s whims and over-ambition. The narrator was well aware of his younger sibling’s deteriorating health and the near impossibility of achieving the target but his pride did not allow him to admit his defeat. He wished to prove to the world how capable he is to train Doodle and hence remove the stigma of the pathetic reputation that comes with an association with a family member with a disability. Humans are a slave to their pride which pushes them to strive for the unachievable and Doodle became his pride. He was a project, a mission that the narrator was determined to accomplish by transforming him into a “normal” human being. But he was unaware that “pride…[was] a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life, and death.” In his aim to provide a new life to Doodle, the narrator actually pushes him a step closer to death.
Nature is the all-pervasive force in the story that dominates the setting of the significant events. Whether it is the recollection of the lost brother by the narrator or the former’s site of death, nature marks its superior presence. The story however betrays the untainted, pure and serene scenery that nature is usually perceived as by displaying it as a site of collapsing manners. Doodle learns to walk in the Old Woman Swamp but also dies in the lap of nature amidst a rainstorm due to the narrator’s resentment. Also, before his death, Doodle receives a sign of his foreboding death through the unpleasant sight of a dead scarlet ibis in his backyard. Different elements of nature come together in the story such as rivers, rain, flowers, and birds to serve as a backdrop to both the happy as well as the tragic events in the lives of the characters.
The Scarlet Ibis | Characters
The elder brother but an unnamed character, he is an unaffectionate child who despises his young brother with a birth defect. His excessive pride over his image and reputation leads him to develop ugly feelings towards Doodle only to be transformed later when he observes a potential in the latter to overcome his weakness. Though it is his own selfish prospect that drives him to work hard on Doodle to charge his ability to walk and run, he somehow manages to perform a good deed. But he goes overboard with Doodle’s training, not realizing the strain he must be causing to his otherwise fragile brother. It’s Doodle’s eventual death that renders him a clear picture of his actions and a note of regret. The pride of achieving an unimaginable reality such as Doodle walking all by himself doesn’t settle there and it is his lust for more recognition that kills the innocent soul unknowingly.
Named William Armstrong by the parents, the unsuitability of the name for a weak and fragile kid like him compels the narrator to rename him Doodle due to his backward crawling. Despite suffering from a birth defect that causes his inability to partake in quotidian activities, he never complains and instead works hard to overcome his shortcomings. He never refuses the narrator for a training session even if it demands him strenuous efforts. But unbearable straining of muscles gradually takes a toll on his body as he begins to scale down the progress chart. To make matters worse, witnessing the death of a scarlet ibis frightens and tears him down, alarming him about his own fatality that has been predicted since his birth. Though he defeats death at birth, he is unable to do so in his 7th year due to his brother’s secretive and overbearing training sessions. He doesn’t want to die which is significant in his refusal to even touch the mahogany coffin his parents ordered for him during his infancy. His death is forceful, called upon and not wished by him. There were chances of his death at any stage of his life but if he defeated death once, he would have defeated it again had it not been a result of unnecessary exertion.
She is a religious and spiritual woman who delivers Doodle and stands against the doctors on their opinion of his assured death. For her, he is a special child born in caul made out of Jesus’ nightgown as biblically believed. She carries an air of superstitions and omens along with her such as situating the death of a scarlet ibis as a bad luck and foreshadowing of an unfortunate event.
They are commonplace characters and loving parents who love their sons in sickness and health. While the mother preserves an inclination towards superstitions and myths, the father is comparatively a more rational person who for instance does not observe the death of the scarlet ibis as an ill omen or foreboding of an unpleasant event.
The Scarlet Ibis | Literary Devices
“It was in the clove of seasons,’ summer was dead but autumn had not yet been born, that the ibis lit in the bleeding tree. The flower garden was stained with rotting brown magnolia petals and ironweeds grew rank amid the purple phlox. The five o’ clocks by the chimney still marked time, but the oriole nest in the elm was untenanted and rocked back and forth like an empty cradle. The last graveyard flowers were blooming, and their smell drifted across the cotton field and through every room of our house, speaking softly the names of our dead.”
“Then when the slanted rays of the sun burned orange in the tops of the pines, we drop our jewels into the stream and watch them float away toward the sea.”
“…the oriole nest in the elm was untenanted and rocked back and forth like an empty cradle.”
“He might, as long as he lived, lie on the rubber sheet in the center of the bed in the front bedroom where the white marquisette curtains billowed out in the afternoon sea breeze, rustling like palmetto fronds.”
“Trembling, he’d push himself up, turning first red, then a soft purple, and finally collapse back onto the bed like an old worn-out doll.”
“We were down in Old Woman Swamp and it was spring and the sick-sweet smell of bay flowers hung everywhere like a mournful song.”
“He collapsed onto the grass like a half-empty flour sack.”
“When he fell, I grabbed him in my arms and hugged him, our laughter pealing through the swamp like a ringing bell.”
“Hope no longer hid in the dark palmetto thicket but perched like a cardinal in the lacy toothbrush tree, brilliantly visible.”
“Success lay at the end of summer like a pot of gold, and our campaign got off to a good start.”
“Promise hung about us like the leaves”
“Doodle stopped eating, with a piece of bread poised ready for his mouth, his eyes popped round like two blue buttons.”
“Even death did not mar its grace, for it lay on the earth like a broken vase of red flowers, and we stood around it, awed by its exotic beauty.”
“The rain was coming, roaring through the pines, and then, like a bursting Roman candle, a gum tree ahead of us was shattered by a bolt of lightning.”
“When he crawled, he crawled backward, as if he were in reverse and couldn’t change gears” – Doodle’s movements are compared to a car’s.
“I did not know then that pride is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death.”
“There is within me (and with sadness I have watched it in others) a knot of cruelty borne by the stream of love, much as our blood sometimes bears the seed of our destruction, and at times I was mean to Doodle.”
“I pulled the go-cart through the sawtooth fern, down into the green dimness where the palmetto fronds whispered by the stream.”
“…autumn had not yet been born”
“Of course, he wasn’t a crazy crazy like old Miss Leedie, who was in love with President Wilson and wrote him a letter every day.” This is an allusion to the 28th American President Woodrow Wilson.
“And during that summer, strange names were heard through the house: Château-Thierry, Amiens, Soissons, and in her blessing at the supper table, Mama once said, “And bless the Pearsons, whose boy Joe was lost at Belleau Wood.” — The highlighted places are located in France where battles were fought near the end of the World War I.
“‘Dead birds is bad luck,’ said Aunt Nicey… ‘Specially red dead birds!’”
“Black clouds began to gather in the southwest, and he kept watching them, trying to pull the oars a little faster. When we reached Horsehead Landing, lightning was playing across half the sky and thunder roared out, hiding even the sound of the sea. The sun disappeared and darkness descended, almost like night.”
These images allow the readers to speculate Doodle’s young death due to commonality with the scarlet ibis in the redness of the body and the rarity of its presence. Doodle was too forced out of his comfort zone like the bird which was removed from its natural habitat due to the storm.
Owl screeching – an omen of death
Mahogany coffin – the parents have arranged a coffin for their son Doodle’s anticipated death in his infancy but he managed to surpass the threat. However, the narrator’s evil ploy to convey Doodle the same and even insist he touch it symbolizes the young boy’s close association with death.
Storm- coming in of unforeseen trouble and hence destruction
Scarlet- the bright red texture connotes passion and death which is observed in the blood-stained clothes of Doodle and the glowing red feathers of the scarlet ibis that fell down from the bleeding tree.