What are some examples of figurative language used in "The Scarlet Ibis" by James Hurst?

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linda-allen's profile pic

linda-allen | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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When you're looking for figurative language, you're usually searching for it in a poem. The author of the short story "The Scarlet Ibis" does use such literary devices as personification, symbolism, simile, and foreshadowing to tell the story of Doodle and his brother.

Let me give you a few examples:

personification: In the very first sentence, the seasons are personified, given human characteristics, with summer being dead and autumn not yet born.

simile: When his brother tries to teach him to walk, Doodle collapses "on to the grass like a half-empty flour sack." When Doodle manages to stand alone for a few seconds, the brothers' laughter rang "through the swamp like a bell."

symbolism: The scarlet ibis comes to symbolize Doodle. Just as the bird flew many miles just to fall at their feet dead, so also Doodle accomplished what many thought was impossible by learning to walk, only to die when he couldn't keep up with his brother.

foreshadowing: The fate of the scarlet ibis foreshadows Doodle's fate.

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Michael Ugulini | (Level 3) Educator

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The following are some examples of figurative language used in "The Scarlet Ibis":


Simile involves the comparison of two things that are essentially different. In “The Scarlet Ibis”, in the first paragraph, the writer, James Hurst, uses this type of figurative language. He writes that:

…but the oriole nest in the elm was untenanted and rocked back and forth like an empty cradle.

The author is using simile to show that the empty oriole nest, although rustically made of twigs, paper, and such, is akin to (in its present state) an empty cradle. Simile here conveys the message of emptiness as concerns fragile birds and their nests and fragile babies and their cradles.


Metaphor involves comparing people, places and/or things that are unalike. This is shown quite clearly in the last paragraph of “The Scarlet Ibis” when the brother falls on the dead younger brother (Doodle) and relates that:

I lay there crying, sheltering my fallen scarlet ibis from the heresy of rain.

In this passage, the boy Doodle is compared to the fiery red bird the scarlet ibis. Doodle has bled to death. His body violently broke down as he tried to run with all his heart to keep up with his brother who chose to run away from him.


Hyperbole is when a writer uses exaggeration as a literary tool. This exaggeration is meant to convey deep feelings. A writer uses hyperbole to make a point in a more dramatic way. In “The Scarlet Ibis”, hyperbole is evident in this line:

There is within me (and with sadness I have watched it in others) a knot of cruelty borne by the stream of love...

Here, Hurst does not simply write that we can be mean to those we love. He uses the above line to show this sentiment more intensely, with the heightened language employed. This hyperbole allows the reader to really understand what Doodle’s brother is feeling.

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tinicraw's profile pic

tinicraw | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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James Hurst's "The Scarlet Ibis" is filled with rich imagery and figurative language. One of the best similes found therein reads as follows:

They named him William Armstrong, which was like tying a big tail on a small kite.

A simile uses "like" or "as" to compare two unlike things in order to make a strong point. In the above passage, the little brother's full name is compared to a large kite tail. The kite itself could represent how small Doodle's body is. The kite could also represent Doodle's predictably short life and the fact that his name has a longer life-expectancy than he does. The imagery, simile, and implied message of this sentence is quite powerful.

The next example provides a look at an oxymoron and a metaphor as follows:

I did not know then that pride is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death.

First, two contrasting words describe the word "pride": wonderful and terrible. The juxtaposition of two opposing words often creates oxymorons that help the reader understand the internal conflict a character is experiencing. Pride is then compared to "a seed that bears two vines," which creates another comparison called a metaphor. Simply take out the preceding clause and the sentence creates a metaphor that would read as follows: "pride is a seed that bears two vines." 

Finally, there is an allusion to the tale of Hansel and Gretel:

It was too late to turn back, for we had both wandered too far into a net of expectations and had left no crumbs behind.

When an author refers to a story that readers are likely to recognize, an allusion is created that draws upon past experience. As a result, a meaningful connection between the two stories or characters deepens the understanding of how the story is read.


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