The Scarlet Ibis

by

James Hurst

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Themes and Colors
Expectations and Disappointment Theme Icon
Pride Theme Icon
Death Theme Icon
Humans and Nature Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Scarlet Ibis, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Death Theme Icon

Hurst refers to death explicitly and implicitly throughout “The Scarlet Ibis,” using foreshadowing, the symbolism of the ibis itself, and allusions to the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. These devices give the story an allegorical dimension, demonstrating that often the most innocent people die not because they deserve to die, but because of the carelessness and wrongdoing of others. The story contains several examples of foreshadowing of Doodle’s untimely death. For instance, when Doodle is born, Doodle’s parents assume that he will not live and have a small coffin built for him, which continues to haunt Doodle as a “memento mori” long after he has outgrown it. Similarly, Brother menacingly remarks that Doodle’s real name (William Armstrong) only sounds good on a tombstone. Together, these references serve to imbue the story with an atmosphere of death, constantly reminding readers of the eeriness and sadness of premature death.

The primary symbol at work in the story, the scarlet ibis, directly parallels Doodle in its journey and serves as an omen of his own fate as it falls victim to forces outside its control. The scarlet ibis—a bird not native to North America, making sightings of it incredibly rare—appears one day in the yard of the boys’ home, having been carried there by a storm. Brother observes that the bird is beautiful and graceful, but when it attempts to fly its wings are mangled, and it crashes to the ground. He wonders “how many miles it had traveled to die like this, in our yard, beneath the bleeding tree.” After Brother discovers Doodle lifeless in the forest, he acknowledges his brother’s connection to the bird. Doodle progresses so far past the limitations imposed on him by his disability, only to be overwhelmed by his own storm and at the very end of the story.

“The Scarlet Ibis” also parallels, in some ways, the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, in which Cain kills his younger brother Abel out of jealousy and spite. When God asks where Abel is, he responds, “am I my brother’s keeper?” and when God discovers what has happened, Cain is sent into exile. Although the motivations are different, there are clear connections between the stories. Most of The Scarlet Ibis takes place in a pastoral setting in which the boys roam free, but the opening (which occurs chronologically after Doodle has died) describes a vision of decaying nature, implying that Brother has left the idyllic world of his childhood behind. Brother betrays Doodle and causes his death, illustrating the same moral message as the Bible story: we must all behave like our brother’s keepers. These allusions, combined with the symbol of the ibis and the moments of foreshadowing, strengthen the reader’s understanding of Doodle as a tragic figure of innocence whose life is crushed by the selfishness and blindness of those around him.

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Death ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Death appears in each chapter of The Scarlet Ibis. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Death Quotes in The Scarlet Ibis

Below you will find the important quotes in The Scarlet Ibis related to the theme of Death.
The Scarlet Ibis Quotes

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 strained with rotting brown magnolia petals and ironweeds grew rank amid the purple phlox.

Related Characters: Brother (speaker), Doodle
Related Symbols: The Scarlet Ibis
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

It seemed so hopeless from the beginning that it's a miracle I didn't give up. But all of us must have something or someone to be proud of, and Doodle had become mine. I did not know then that pride is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death.

Related Characters: Brother (speaker), Doodle
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

Sadly, we all looked back at the bird. A scarlet ibis! How many miles it had traveled to die like this, in our yard, beneath the bleeding tree.

Related Characters: Brother (speaker), Doodle
Related Symbols: The Scarlet Ibis
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

I screamed above the pounding storm and threw my body to the earth above his. For a long time, it seemed forever, I lay there crying, sheltering my fallen scarlet ibis from the heresy of rain.

Related Characters: Brother (speaker), Doodle
Related Symbols: The Scarlet Ibis, The Storm
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis: