Study Guide

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

The Scarlet Ibis Essay - Critical Essays

Criticism

Claire Robinson

A peacock with its tail spread Published by Gale Cengage

Robinson is a writer and editor. In the following essay, Robinson analyzes how the story of the life and death of a disabled child is explored by Hurst's use of symbolism.

In James Hurst's "The Scarlet Ibis," the arrival of the scarlet ibis is mentioned in the first sentence, suggesting that it has major significance. The memory of the ibis's visit triggers the memory in Brother's mind of his brother Doodle. The bird's red color, combined with the fact that it alights in the bleeding tree, combines to create an image of blood, foreshadowing later events in both the ibis's and Doodle's lives. The link between the ibis and Doodle is further developed later in the story, when the ibis's arrival is described in detail. Doodle is the first to notice the bird and the first outside to investigate further. He is wonder-struck by the sight. At that point, the bird falls dead out of the tree. Daddy goes to get the bird book and establishes that it is a scarlet ibis, a native of the tropics that must have been separated from its flock and blown in by a storm. Readers understand that the bird is out of its natural environment, alone, weakened, and fragile. Doodle, too, is a creature out of his natural environment, too weak to do the things Brother expects of him, with a skin too sensitive even to bear the sun's rays, and expected not to survive at the beginning of his life. In "The Scarlet Ibis," James Hurst establishes a symbolic link between the bird and the disabled boy that illuminates the significance of the boy's life and death.

The bird's arrival on the wings of a freak storm raises the questions: What is Doodle's natural environment? Where is his flock? The answers are not given explicitly but are suggested symbolically. Doodle is frequently characterized by images of winged beings. There is the ibis itself, to which Doodle is symbolically linked; there are the people who inhabit his fantasies who have wings and fly wherever they want to go; and there is Brother's comment that giving Doodle the name William Armstrong is "like tying a big tail on a small kite." Finally, there is Doodle's favorite fantasy of a boy with a golden robe and a pet peacock who spreads his magnificent tail. This boy's robe is so bright that the sunflowers turn away from the sun to face him. The only light that could be brighter than the earth's brightest source of light, the sun, would have to be of divine origin. Winged beings include earthly birds but also heavenly angels.

Other images in the story link Doodle with a divine level of existence. Aunt Nicey, the spiritual conscience of the family, remarks that Doodle was born in a caul and explains that "cauls were made from Jesus' nightgown" and that caul babies must be treated with respect because they might be saints. She also compares his learning to walk with the Resurrection. Aunt Nicey's reverent and deeply spiritual appreciation of Doodle reflects his own attitude toward the ibis, particularly when he solemnly conducts a burial service for the bird.

Aunt Nicey's view of Doodle and Doodle's view of the ibis show readers there is another way of responding to beings who are different, other than expecting them to die (Doodle's family) or forcing them to become the same as everyone else (Brother). It is possible to love, honor, and respect a being for its uniqueness. This possibility is suggested in Doodle's vision of the boy with the golden robe and the peacock. The vision is a wish-fulfillment for Doodle's own life: that instead of being singled out for his perceived inadequacies, he is singled out and adored even by the flowers for his glorious and shining appearance. However, it is significant that saints, the scarlet ibis, and boys with peacocks do not live in the everyday world: a...

(The entire section is 1540 words.)

Sheldon Goldfarb

Goldfarb has a Ph.D. in English and has published two books on the Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray. In the following essay, Goldfarb discusses religion and duality in "The Scarlet Ibis."

"The Scarlet Ibis" is a deceptively straightforward story, apparently about the guilt the narrator feels over the death years ago of his little brother, Doodle. On the surface, the story is about not forcing people to do things beyond their abilities, about recognizing people for their own individual talents and not forcing them to fit a common mold. The unnamed narrator, known only as Brother, seems to suggest that he should not have pushed Doodle to do the normal, everyday things other little boys do: running, swimming, climbing trees, rowing a boat. Doodle, delicate and physically handicapped from birth, was not able to do these things, and pushing him to do them killed him.

Yet there seems to be so much more in the story. For one thing it bristles with imagery, allusions, and symbols. There is the symbol of the scarlet ibis, the dead red bird to which Doodle is compared at the end. There are all the references to flowering and dying plants, especially in the opening paragraph, in which the narrator talks of "rotting brown magnolia petals" and "graveyard flowers" and a "bleeding tree." Moreover, there is the strange reference at the very end of the story to "the heresy of rain."

What might "the heresy of rain" mean? A heresy is a belief opposed to orthodoxy, especially orthodox religion. In the story, Brother tries to shelter Doodle's body from "the heresy of rain," though Doodle is dead and one would think beyond need of sheltering. The sheltering is clearly an action of guilt, and perhaps of belated love, and it also seems to be an attempt to preserve Doodle's similarity to the scarlet ibis. In death, Doodle is covered with blood, creating a resemblance to the scarlet bird which died earlier that day. Perhaps "the heresy of the rain" stems from the fear that the rain may wash away the blood and destroy the resemblance.

But if rain is the heresy, is the orthodoxy the notion that Doodle in some way is like the scarlet ibis? The ibis, as the children's father determines, is native to the tropics, far south of the family's home, which appears to be somewhere in rural North Carolina near Raleigh (given the reference in the story to Dix Hill, a mental institution in Raleigh). In North Carolina, the ibis is exotic and out of place. It is also full of "grace," a term which may simply mean charm but which is also a Christian term for the divine love through which human beings may obtain salvation. When the ibis arrives, it lands in a "bleeding tree," which literally means a tree oozing sap but which also suggests an allusion to the Cross on which Christ died.

Perhaps both the ibis and Doodle are meant to be Christ figures, dying for others' sins and somehow bringing them grace. Or if that is reading too much into this sad little story, then perhaps it is just about a brother's remorse. Yet the odd use of the word "heresy" at the end, along with several other references to religion, implies more meaning.

In the most triumphant part of the story, when Brother manages to teach Doodle to walk, Aunt Nicey comments that the big surprise the two boys keep promising had better be as "tremendous … [as] the Resurrection," and it is in a way. Raising Doodle to his feet, getting him to stand and then walk when everyone had said it was impossible seems almost akin to raising someone from the dead. Interestingly, the person who performs this resurrection is not Doodle, but Brother. It is Doodle in a way, of course, for he is the one who stands and walks, but really the work was Brother's. Brother pushes Doodle to do it, putting Doodle on his feet at least a hundred times a day and picking him up when he falls. In a telling remark, Brother says that the enterprise seemed so hopeless that "it's a miracle [he] didn't give up." This comment about working a miracle makes Brother seem like a Christ figure, having the power to work miracles and perform a resurrection.

Proud of his achievement, Brother begins to believe in "[his] own infallibility," another Christian term especially associated with the Catholic Church, which holds the pope in his exercise of his office to be infallible. Of course, in the story Brother turns out to be seriously fallible, so perhaps his association with miracles and resurrection should not be taken to mean that he is God-like, or perhaps he is some sort of false god; after all it is Doodle who is compared to the magical or sacred scarlet ibis. Aunt Nicey suggests that Doodle might turn out to be a saint,...

(The entire section is 1918 words.)

David Remy

Remy is a freelance writer in Warrington, Florida. In the following essay, Remy examines the ways in which Hurst's narrative strategies control time and influence the story's interpretation.

Though laden with symbolism, "The Scarlet Ibis" is a story that combines elements of biblical fable, romance, and mystery to capture the reader's interest. It is the way in which the story is told, rather than its symbolic content, however, that makes the "The Scarlet Ibis" linger in the reader's imagination. Part of this attraction derives from Hurst's creating a narrative structure that is as anomalous as the bird itself, for he incorporates narrative techniques that are not traditionally found in the short story....

(The entire section is 2518 words.)