The primary conflict of “The Scarlet Ibis” surrounds Doodle’s disability and how he works to overcome it with the help of Brother. The way in which Hurst presents Doodle’s journey, however, demonstrates that Doodle’s biggest challenges often arise not from his actual disability, but instead from the judgment and pressure he experiences from different people in his life. Brother admits that when Doodle was born, he saw him as a “disappointment” because he was born with physical disabilities that would make him unable to play with Brother or participate in activities such as racing, boxing, and climbing trees. This disappointment is only amplified when Doodle reaches school age, as Brother worries that Doodle won’t be able to physically keep up with his peers, facing Doodle with yet another societal pressure to fit in. Brother crafts a development program to teach Doodle to run, swim, climb trees, and fight. Although Doodle goes along with this program, Brother’s disappointment in Doodle ultimately leads to Doodle’s death at the end of the story, demonstrating the ways in which people are often gravely hurt by the unrealistic expectations of those around them.
Doodle’s brother is not the only person who has expectations for him. While Brother pushes Doodle to be more and more active, Doodle’s doctor seems resigned to restrict his activity. When Doodle is born, his doctor doesn’t think he will live past three days, but Doodle defies these expectations. Even as his life expectancy continues to be short, he surprises his doctor and parents when he starts to crawl and eventually walk, demonstrating that others’ expectations do not necessarily constrain him. Doodle’s parents work to make him feel loved as he is, but they also experience disappointment that Doodle cannot always share in the experiences of a normal boy. They ask Brother to include Doodle when he goes outside to play, and Doodle’s father builds him a go-cart to allow him to go outside and spend time with Brother. Early in the story, however, Doodle’s mother cries when she explains to Brother that Doodle likely would not be able to join him in his outdoor activities. In addition, Brother describes that Doodle only becomes one of the family when he is able to crawl and sit by the fire, demonstrating that only by overcoming his disability is the family able to accept him.
Readers get few insights into Doodle’s own thoughts on his disability. He seems content at first to live within the structure that his doctor has set out for him. Brother describes how a “list of don’ts” went with Doodle, and how he couldn’t be too hot, too cold, too tired, couldn’t be exposed to the sun, and couldn’t be played with too roughly. Doodle is comfortable inside his go-cart, so he doesn’t understand, at first, why his brother wants to teach him how to walk. However, he gives in to his brother’s demands, and after seeing his parents’ and Aunt’s delight when he begins to walk, Doodle continues to work harder and harder. After a few weeks, however, Doodle’s initial excitement of success wears off when he is unable to keep up with his brother and collapses after a particularly strenuous swimming and rowing lesson. However, his worst fear is not that he will be unable to keep up with other boys—it is that he will disappoint and be abandoned by his brother. Doodle experiences pressure on many sides, whether it’s his brother’s desire for him to overcome his disability, the subtle cues from his parents, or the restrictions of his doctor. Hurst makes it clear that these pressures constitute a far more complex and heartbreaking struggle than Doodle’s disability itself.
Expectations and Disappointment ThemeTracker
Expectations and Disappointment Quotes in The Scarlet Ibis
He was born when I was six and was, from the outset, a disappointment. He seemed all head, with a tiny body which was red and shriveled like an old man's.
Renaming my brother was perhaps the kindest thing I ever did for him, because nobody expects much from someone called Doodle.
He had failed and we both knew it, so we started back home, racing the storm. We never spoke (What are the words that can solder cracked pride?), but I knew he was watching me, watching for a sign of mercy.