“The Scarlet Ibis” is filled with many rich descriptions of the natural world. It quickly establishes the rural North Carolina farmland in which the story takes place and draws some of its most important symbols from nature. Beyond providing a detailed vision of the story’s setting, however, Hurst uses descriptions of nature and the seasons to mirror the boys’ states of mind as well as the dynamic between them, and to suggest that, like nature, people can quickly turn volatile and violent.
The opening two paragraphs are two prime examples of this mirroring, as they describe the season of Doodle’s death and how the surroundings have changed since that time. In the first paragraph, Brother depicts a decaying world, using imagery of rotting brown magnolia petals, graveyard flowers, and rank weeds, as well as a bird’s nest that sits “untenanted…like an empty cradle.” These descriptions foreshadow the decay of Brother and Doodle’s excitement in Doodle’s training program and symbolize his eventual death. In the story’s second paragraph, Brother explains that, since Doodle’s death, a grindstone has replaced the old bleeding tree, and he notes how the trill of the birds seems to die as soon as they sing. Nature’s beauty has been lost to Brother, just as Doodle has been lost. These two paragraphs are a good setup for the pattern that Hurst establishes, in which nature provides a mirror image of Brother’s state of mind.
Later in the story, nature helps the boys to connect with one another and reflects their dynamic. Early on, Brother expresses how he wanted a brother so that he would have someone to accompany him to Old Woman Swamp. When Brother realizes how much he does love Doodle, he immediately takes him there “to share with him the only beauty [he] knew.” Before Brother sets out to try to teach Doodle to walk, he describes how he would gather flowers and the two of them would weave them into crowns. This moment of friendship is reflected in the idyllic setting of the swamp. It is spring when Brother plans to teach Doodle to walk, and spring returns when they set out to teach Doodle to race and swim, but when they’ve both grown exhausted, the season has turned to the lazy days of summer.
As the story approaches its tragic conclusion, the violence of nature becomes more and more pervasive. The summer preceding Doodle’s death was “blighted” with a terrible hurricane, and Brother makes a point to mention that the year is 1918, suggesting that perhaps the author meant to remind readers of the devastation of World War I as the boys and their father survey their corn and cotton fields in ruin. The harm that Brother causes Doodle is also reflected in the weather. The storm that approaches in the final moments of the story is symbolic of Brother’s cruel and tyrannical treatment of Doodle. As combined forces, the storm and Brother’s cruelty cause Doodle’s death. In this way, the natural world acts as a mirror to the characters and their emotions, reflecting the states of mind of the two brothers and the dynamics between them and ultimately suggesting that their story is as much a tale of tragedy as it is a tale about humanity and nature.
Humans and Nature ThemeTracker
Humans and Nature Quotes in The Scarlet Ibis
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.
Finally, I could see I was licked. Doodle was my brother and he was going to cling to me forever, no matter what I did, so I dragged him across the burning cotton field to share with him the only beauty I knew, Old Woman Swamp.
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.
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.
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.
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.