What is the tone of James Hurst's short story "The Scarlet Ibis"? Why?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Beyond being regretful and reminiscent, author James Hurst's tone in "The Scarlet Ibis" is reproachful and sorrowful. Hurst is especially reproachful of the cruelty exhibited by the narrator, the same cruelty the narrator says he has, with sorrow, witnessed in others and, therefore, we can infer the author has witnessed in others as well:

There is within me (and with sadness I have watched it in others) a knot of cruelty borne by the stream of love, much as our blood sometimes bears the seed of our destruction, and at times I was mean to Doodle.

This cruelty is frequently incited by what we perceive to be differences in others. Differences can include being excessively frail, being unable to walk, or being unable to talk and think like others. Seeing others as overly frail can especially ignite our cruelty since another person's frailty can feed our desires for domination.

Hurst portrays and reproaches this innate human desire for cruelty through his characterization of Doodle's older brother. For example, Doodle's brother insists on trying to teach Doodle to walk, not because he thinks it will be good for Doodle to learn but because "he [is] ashamed of having a crippled brother." The older brother's shame stems from being unable to understand and accept what he sees as being differences in Doodle's abilities. But, Doodle's brother doesn't just stop at teaching Doodle to walk; the older brother insists on teaching Doodle "to run, to swim, to climb trees, and to fight" though the older brother knows Doodle's heart is not strong enough to take that much exercise. The reaction of Doodle's brother to Doodle's failure to fulfill the tasks he was given shows that the older brother's cruelty stems from his fear of differences. The older brother's reaction is captured when he says to Doodle, "You can do it. Do you want to be different from everybody else when you start school?" Doodle's brother knows that if only he had let Doodle be different, Doodle would still be alive.

Through his reproachful and sorrowful tone, Hurst reveals his dominant theme depicting the need to accept another person's differences, differences that, as Doodle points out, don't "make any difference."

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clane | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator

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The tone of the story is regretful and reminiscent. Remember that the tone of piece of literature is the attitude that an author takes toward a subject or the audience. The narrator, Doodle's brother, is writing the story about his brother in the past tense after he is grown. The opening paragraph is the true voice of the narrator as the adult. The language and vocabulary is that of an adult, it is very poetic in nature. His tone at the beginning of the story and much of it throughout is reminiscent, he is remembering his younger brother and the time he spent with him. His voice shifts as his memories slip into childhood and his voice and language become more like that of a child. His tone takes on a regretful quality to it because he feel guilty for the way he treated his little brother. He recalls incidents when he was cruel to Doodle and he feels bad because he had no idea that the time with his brother was so limited.

tsweem's profile pic

tsweem | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Salutatorian

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The tone of the story is regret and remorse.  The narrator has borne the burden of guilt for the death of his little brother for many years. We see this most poignantly in the final scene as he cradles his brother's dead body in his arms and sobs.

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