“The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst is a short story about a young boy and his brother, Doodle. In the exposition the narrator, Brother, explains how Doodle was born weak and sickly. Throughout the rising action, Brother tries to deal with with the internal struggle to accept and love his sickly brother. His first mission is to make his brother “normal” is to teach him to walk, and to the amazement of the family, is a success. They then begin a more exacting program of running, swimming, and fighting. Despite both boys’ efforts, energies, and time, this is not successful. During lunch on day, a storm brings a scarlet ibis to the family’s yard/ the ibis flutters to its death, deeply affecting Doodle who buries the dead bird/ soon thereafter, the boys go out to continue their program. A storm brews causing the brothers to run home. Because of his frustration and anger, Brother leaves Doodle behind in the rain. When he returns, he finds Doodle dead under a tree. During the resolution, Brother cries, screams, and throws himself on top of Doodle’s body, sheltering him from the “heresy of the rain.”
One reason “The Scarlet Ibis” is such a poignant story is because of the simplicity and serenity found in Doodle. As a child he is completely unconcerned with his condition despite his brother’s urging for normalcy. He is content with who he is and what he can do, weather it is fabricating stories or making honeysuckle wreaths. His innocence is so vibrant, one cannot help but feel compassion for him. This virtue also makes him vulnerable, which we see many times in the mistreatment derived to him at the hand of Brother. There is something haunting and heartbreaking in the words, “Don’t go leave me brother!” as he is being forced to touch his casket (434). All he wants is to be loved for who he is as he loves those around them despite their flaws. Though a work of fiction, this precious little boy teaches readers the importance of the simple things in life, and the significance of acceptance.
The story takes place in the American South during several years leading up to 1918. This is significant to the plot for a number of reasons, but specifically in regards to Doodle’s condition. Medicine in the early 1900’s was in its infancy and many woman and children died in child birth. It was not uncommon for families to lose multiple children due to illness. When Doodle is born with disabilities, it is no wonder his family waits three months to name him. They did not want to grow attached to someone that was most likely going to leave them.
The theme of the story is that the entanglement of pride and love brings both salvation and doom. Several times during the story Hurst refers to pride, including when he writes, that pride is a “wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death” (432) and “what are the words that can solder cracked pride?” (440). This one is just prior to Doodle’s death. When Daddy asks why Brother is crying, he is too ashamed to admit that his teaching of Doodle was not altruistic but rather, motivated by pride - a pride that encapsulated Brother (434).
“The Scarlet Ibis” is wrought with foreshadowing and symbolism. From the first paragraph where death is mentioned four times and throughout the story, Hurst alludes to death. Even the family’s crops die. When the ibis dies in their yard, death hangs over the story like a shroud, foreshadowing the imminent death of Doodle. The scarlet ibis is the most prominent symbol, representing Doodle himself. Both are beautiful, mysterious, and out of place. Both are similar in death. Brother even refers to Doodle as “my fallen scarlet ibis.”