The Scarlet Ibis

by

James Hurst

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The Scarlet Ibis Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Brother opens his narration by describing the end of a summer in his past, during which an ibis landed “in the bleeding tree.” The birds’ nests were empty, and the flowers were decaying. Brother comments on how much things have changed since that summer. A grindstone has taken the place of the tree, and the songs of the birds seem to “die up in the leaves.” He begins to recount that summer and the events that led up to it, starting with his brother Doodle’s birth.
Even before introducing himself into the narrative, Brother introduces the recurring theme of nature reflecting the attitudes and dynamics of the characters in the short story. The references to empty nests, decaying flowers, and the “bleeding tree” put readers in Brother’s frame of mind during the time of Doodle’s death. “Bleeding” here probably refers to the leaking of sap or other liquid from trees. Brother’s use of the phrase immediately establishes a connection between nature and the human body.
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Doodle is born when Brother is six, and Brother remarks that Doodle is a disappointment. He has a large head and a tiny, shriveled body. His doctor and parents believe that he will die quickly. Only Aunt Nicey has faith that Doodle will live. Assuming that Doodle will die, Doodle’s father has a small coffin built for him.
Brother reveals his own initial reactions to Doodle and those of the other characters, highlighting how Doodle will be forced to either live up to the expectations that others have placed upon him, or disappoint them. The foreshadowing of his premature death continues with the introduction of his tiny coffin.
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To everyone’s surprise, Doodle lives, and his parents decide to name him William Armstrong. Brother explains how excited he was to have someone to accompany him racing and boxing and climbing trees, but his mother explains that even if Doodle lived, he would never be able to do those things, and she intimates that he may have mental limitations in addition to physical ones. This thought is unbearable to Brother, who plots to smother Doodle, but one day he sees Doodle look at him and smile. This excites Brother and confirms for him that Doodle has normal mental capabilities.
Brother goes more in-depth into his own thoughts about Doodle. He elaborates on what he expected from a little brother and why he becomes so disappointed in Doodle so quickly, based on his mother’s own false expectations of her son. These two attitudes show the contradictory forces of societal pressure that Doodle faces—on the one hand, to be a normal boy, and on the other, not to achieve anything. The reader can also see the beginning of Brother’s mean streak towards Doodle as he confesses that he plotted to smother Doodle, hinting that Brother, in his cruelty, is capable of killing Doodle.
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When he is two years old, Doodle begins to try to move by himself. The doctor believes that the strain of this effort could kill Doodle, but Doodle is able to learn to crawl, and he joins the family outside of his bedroom for the first time. Brother takes it upon himself to give his brother the nickname Doodle because he only crawls backwards, like a doodlebug. Brother comments that it was the nicest thing he did for Doodle because no one expects much from someone with a name like Doodle.
Yet again the text highlights the unfair expectations placed upon those with disabilities. Left to his own devices, Doodle is able to crawl on his own and survive infancy. Hurst suggests that Doodle’s family, and Brother in particular, only begin to accept him when he is able to achieve this small but formidable step. Brother still believes that Doodle won’t be able to do much, and therefore thinks that giving him a silly nickname is a kindness because people won’t expect very much of him. This is ironic, as Brother himself comes to hold very high expectations of Doodle.
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Doodle’s father builds Doodle a go-cart so that he can join Brother outside, and soon it becomes Brother’s responsibility to take him outside whenever he wants to go out and play. Brother describes how much of a burden Doodle is. The doctor says that he can’t get “too excited, too hot, too cold, or too tired and that he must always be treated gently.” Brother tries to discourage Doodle from coming with him by pulling the go-cart very fast and running around corners, sometimes tipping him over.
Doodle’s go-cart provides him a means of working with his disability and trying to progress on his own terms. Meanwhile, Brother still views Doodle’s disability as an extreme disappointment, and the appearance of the go-cart means that Doodle’s disability is now a burden and responsibility that he himself must bear, as well. However, the ability for the two of them to play outside together, surrounded by nature, ultimately kindles a stronger bond of brotherhood between them.
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Brother finally realizes how much he loves Doodle, and is able to share his love of nature his brother. He takes Doodle to Old Woman Swamp, where the two of them weave flowers into necklaces and crowns for themselves.
Brother’s love for Doodle grows with their ability to be outside together, linking the strength of their relationship with the natural world. Here their idyllic setting both reflects and fosters their brotherly friendship.
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Brother admits that he also has a mean streak towards Doodle. One afternoon he takes Doodle up to the barn loft to show him his coffin, and will not bring Doodle down until he touches it. Doodle, afraid of being stranded, touches the coffin and screams in terror. Brother brings him down, but Doodle begs over and over again, “Don’t leave me.”
Hurst again foreshadows Doodle’s death (and the fact that Brother causes it) when Brother forces Doodle to touch his coffin. Doodle’s repeated begging here mirrors the end of the short story, in which he begs his brother not to abandon him.
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Doodle is now five years old and still unable to walk. Brother is embarrassed at having a brother of that age who can’t walk, so he decides to teach Doodle. Doodle doesn’t understand why Brother wants to teach him, and tells him that everyone says he can’t walk. Brother tries to teach Doodle anyway, and sets him on his feet. Each time he does this, Doodle quickly collapses.
This is the first time that Brother mentions shame and pride when speaking about Doodle. Now that Doodle has become his responsibility, Brother takes it upon himself to make sure that Doodle is not an embarrassment to him. Doodle, for his own part, seems content to work within his own abilities and progress at his own pace. Doodle will continue to collapse repeatedly through the end of the story, signaling that Brother is pushing too hard and expecting too much from him.
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Eventually, Doodle is able to stand by himself for a few seconds, which encourages Brother to keep trying. On Doodle’s sixth birthday, they reveal his ability to his family, and he demonstrates how he can walk slowly across the room. His parents and Aunt are overjoyed at seeing Doodle walk. Brother begins to cry because he knows that he only helped Doodle out of his own pride.
Doodle’s achievements and the joy of his family highlight their expectations for him. They never thought that he would be able to walk and are overwhelmed with pride in both of their sons. But Brother privately acknowledges his true motivations. Although he has brought a lot of happiness to his family by helping Doodle, he understands that his actions were purely selfish.
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Doodle’s walking improves, and his go-cart is put in the loft next to his coffin. When he and Brother walk together, taking frequent breaks, they tell lies and stories to pass the time. Doodle tells a story about a boy in a golden robe who is protected in his sleep by a magnificent peacock. The two of them also talk about their futures, and how they would build a house of leaves with swamp birds for chickens. They’d swing through vines and their parents could even live with them.
Doodle’s progress allows him to be mobile, but the fact that he is able to walk and no longer needs the go-cart opens the floodgates for Brother to push him even harder. The stories that Doodle makes up subtly foreshadow his death, as he describes a vision of his future too fantastical to ever exist. His story about the peacock is perhaps symbolic of his relationship to his brother, whom he sees as a protector—and who, like the peacock, is prideful and show-offy.
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Now that he has taught Doodle to walk, Brother believes that he could teach Doodle anything. He plans a development program in which he would teach Doodle to run, swim, climb trees, and fight. They plan to accomplish these goals within a year, before Doodle starts school so that he can keep up with other boys.
The pride that Brother felt in teaching Doodle to walk furthers Brother’s desire for Doodle to become more normal. He doesn’t want to be embarrassed that his brother can’t keep up with the other boys, and so he sets very high expectations through his development program.
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Doodle and Brother don’t make much progress in the winter because Doodle is sick and Brother is in school, but during the spring they begin working on Brother’s development program. Brother describes how “promise hung about [them] like the leaves.”
As time passes, nature continues to reflect the boys’ lives. In winter, when nothing is growing, they make no progress. In the spring, when everything begins to come to life, they become hopeful about what they’ll be able to accomplish. Thus, the characters themselves begin to seem like forces of nature, the tragic trajectory of their lives seemingly inevitable.
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The story jumps ahead to summer. There is no rain for the crops and then a hurricane tears through the family’s cotton and corn fields. That same summer (the summer of 1918), Doodle and Brother hear whispers of strange names: Chateau-Thierry, Amiens, and Soissons. At dinner, Mama also comments on a family who lost their son at Belleau Wood.
Nature begins to reflect the dynamics of the broader world as well as the lives of Doodle and Brother. In this passage, it’s possible that Hurst meant to suggest a parallel between the destruction of the cotton and cornfields and the devastation of World War I, which was ongoing during the summer of 1918.
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The storyline has now arrived at the end of the summer to which Brother referred at the story’s opening. Doodle has not made as much progress as Brother would have liked. He pushes Doodle harder and harder, and one day Doodle collapses. Brother asks Doodle if he wants to be different from everybody else. At night, Doodle grows sick and has nightmares.
At the end of the summer, Brother’s pride and disappointment once again manifest in ugly ways. He is upset that Doodle will not be able to keep up with other boys, and unfairly takes out his frustration on Doodle. His efforts start to wear away at Doodle, who continues with the plan because he wants his brother and family to be proud of him. However, as Doodle’s “development program” becomes increasingly strenuous, it raises the question of how his life may have been different had his family simply accepted him as he is.
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A few days before school starts, Doodle, Brother, their parents, and their Aunt are having lunch. They hear a strange sound in the yard, and they discover a large red bird in their bleeding tree. As soon as they see it, the bird attempts to fly, but its wings are “uncoordinated,” and it crashes to the ground.
The initial descriptions of the ibis begin to connect it to Doodle. Its uncoordinated wings, which make it unable to fly normally and cause it to crash to the ground, are similar to the physical disabilities that Doodle has. Although there have been many references to death up until this point, this is the first time that death is actually present in the story. Again, what takes place in the natural world mirrors (or in this case foreshadows) the fates of the characters.
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They discover in their bird book that it is a scarlet ibis. The bird lives in the tropics, and Daddy guesses that it must have been carried up to North Carolina by a storm. Doodle insists on burying the ibis, singing “Shall We Gather at the River” as he digs a hole in the flower garden. When he is finished, he returns to the dining room, and Aunt Nicey comments that red dead birds are bad luck.
Doodle is very moved by the death of the ibis. His instinctive sense of connectedness to the fallen bird suggests that he himself feels extremely helpless. The ibis’s death at the hands of a storm parallels Doodle’s own death at the hands of a storm later in the story. Thus, his own storyline is reflected in the nature around him. Aunt Nicey highlights this foreshadowing by commenting that the bird is a bad omen.
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When Doodle and Brother have finished eating, they rush off to continue their development program. They race out to the woods, but Doodle says he is too tired to swim, so they row instead. A storm begins to gather.
Although it is only a few days before school, Brother refuses to let up on his expectations for Doodle. Brother’s own symbolic counterpart, the storm, begins to gather as he relentlessly forces Doodle to row even as Doodle grows more and more exhausted—suggesting that Brother is as brutal in his treatment of Doodle as a raging storm.
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Lightning starts to appear in the sky, and Doodle and Brother return to shore. Doodle collapses in the mud out of exhaustion. Brother reflects that Doodle had failed, and both of them knew it. They begin to return home, trying to beat the storm. As Brother walks faster and faster, Doodle struggles to keep up with him, and he shouts for Brother not to leave him.
Brother’s stubbornness becomes more dangerous as lightning strikes around them, and more dangerous to Doodle as he is overcome by exhaustion. Brother is ashamed and frustrated with Doodle’s failure, and as his pride starts to grow, so does the storm, heightening their symbolic connection. Doodle’s cries echo his own plea, from earlier in the story, when Brother threatened to leave him in the barn loft—thus reminding the reader of how many times Brother’s pride has already hurt Doodle.
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Brother confesses that the fact that his plans had come to nothing awakened “a streak of cruelty” in him. He runs as fast as he can away from Doodle as the rain begins to fall, and soon he can no longer hear Doodle’s cries. When his bitterness subsides, Brother stops to wait for Doodle. Doodle does not come, so Brother turns back to find him.
Brother’s pride and the mercilessness born from it reach their peak in this passage. Here, as throughout this final episode in the story, the storm’s heaviness matches Brother’s cruelty and its consequences.
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Brother finds Doodle under a red nightshade bush, but when he goes to pull Doodle up, Doodle falls backwards, limply, onto the ground. He has been bleeding from the mouth and blood runs onto his neck and down his front. Brother tries to shake Doodle awake, but he is no longer alive. Brother begins to weep. He screams Doodle’s name through the deafening storm, and tries to shelter his “fallen scarlet ibis” from the rain.
The vision of Doodle at this moment parallels the death of the ibis. This symbolism is reinforced by the appearance of the color red staining his neck and shirt, as Brother acknowledges in the final sentence, thereby making the symbolism of both the ibis and the storm explicit. The themes of pride and death also culminate in the ending, as Brother’s pride directly, though inadvertently, caused Doodle’s death when he abandoned him. Brother not only has to live with the loss of his brother, but with the knowledge that it was his own pride, selfishness, and cruelty that caused his brother’s death.
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