Study Guide

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

The Scarlet Ibis Analysis

Historical Context

World War I and the Growth of the Anti-war Movement

By July 1918, the United States was sending over 3,000 troops every month to Europe to fight in World War I (1914–18). By the end of the war in November 1918, total U.S. combat deaths numbered 51,000; U.S. non-combat but war-related deaths numbered 62,000.

Though the horrors of World War I led to its being dubbed "the war to end all wars," this hopeful prediction did not become fact. World War II began in 1939 and continued until 1945. Virtually all countries that participated in World War I were involved in World War II. Over 405,000 Americans were among the approximately 50 million people who died as a result of the war. This 50 million includes those who died in the Holocaust, the name given to the Nazis' program of extermination of peoples they deemed genetically inferior, and the United States' atomic bombings of civilians in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

Though the United Nations was set up in 1945 to prevent the outbreak of another world war, peace proved elusive. By 1961, the year after the publication of "The Scarlet Ibis," in response to a perceived Communist threat, the United States had deployed 4,000 troops in South Vietnam. The cold war was reaching its height, with tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union running high. In February 1960, France tested its first atomic bomb; the Soviet government had determined by 1959 that any future war would be nuclear and worldwide. In October 1960, U.S. presidential candidate John F. Kennedy first suggested the idea of the Peace Corps, which would promote understanding between the United States and the rest of the world. U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the cold war marked a significant rise in the peace movement, which first become organized after World War II. The peace movement advocated the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam on the grounds that this would lessen tensions in the region and result in less bloodshed and that other nations should be allowed to work out their problems without foreign military intervention. Though by April 1970, approximately 115,000 U.S. troops had been withdrawn from Vietnam, complete withdrawal only took place in 1973.

Eugenics

It is difficult to read "The Scarlet Ibis" without a consideration of the history of the philosophy of eugenics. Eugenics (from the Greek for "good breeding") aimed to improve human hereditary traits through social interventions: for example, selective breeding; enforced sterilization of people seen as genetically inferior; and genetic engineering. Selective breeding was suggested by the Greek philosopher Plato (c. B.C. 427–c. B.C. 347), but the...

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The Scarlet Ibis Literary Style

Setting

"The Scarlet Ibis" is set in and around Brother's family home in the American South. The story is laden with rich descriptions of the natural environment, in the family garden and the nearby countryside. Hurst never describes the setting for its own sake; it always comments on the action. For example, the description of the "blighted" summer, with the hurricane bringing down trees and ruining crops, is introduced immediately after Brother recounts his intensification of Doodle's learning program. These images of devastation emphasize the destructive effects of Brother's pushing Doodle beyond his limits.

Moreover, the nearby Old Woman Swamp embodies nature's abundance and beauty. For Brother and Doodle, it seems to signify a world of infinite possibilities and the glory of life. Doodle cries with wonder when he first sees it, and the boys gather wild flowers and make garlands and crowns with which to bedeck themselves. The suggestion is that this is a place where they feel royal, beautiful, and wealthy (the flowers are referred to as "jewels"). Old Woman Swamp is also where Brother teaches Doodle to walk, which, in spite of its disastrous outcome, represents a widening of Doodle's horizons. Doodle fantasizes about living a blissful existence in Old Woman Swamp.

Foreshadowing

Hurst frequently uses foreshadowing to suggest an upcoming event. This technique creates suspense as the reader waits for the resolution of a certain narrative thread. The first paragraph is an example: "It was in the clove of seasons, when summer was dead but autumn had not yet been born." This image of death is reinforced by the reference to the "untenanted" oriole nest that rocks "like an empty cradle." Cradles usually contain babies, a sign of new life, but this one is empty, suggestive of a dead child. Next follows a reference to "the last graveyard flowers," which speak "the names of our dead," evoking the image of men who have died in the war. These images combine with other elements, like the doctor's warning about Doodle's weak heart, to foreshadow the death of Doodle.

Symbolism

The scarlet ibis is a carefully chosen symbol. To understand why, it helps to know a little about the bird. A native of the South American tropics, the scarlet ibis is vivid red. Its color derives from the shrimps that form the bulk of...

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The Scarlet Ibis Compare and Contrast

  • 1910s: By July 1918, the United States has sent one million troops to Europe to fight in World War I (1914–1918), a force augmented by an average of 200,000 men per month until the armistice is signed on November 11, 1918. After the war ends, certain works of literature and people in wider society ask whether the war was necessary.

    1960s: In 1961, in response to a perceived Communist threat, the United States deploys 4,000 troops in South Vietnam. By July 1965, some 75,000 U.S. troops are in Vietnam. The figure continues to climb to more than 510,000 early in 1968. Opposition to U.S. involvement in the war begins in 1964 on college campuses. Protests against the draft begin in 1965, when the student-run National Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam stages the first public burning of a draft card in the United States.

    Today: Between 2003 and 2005, many global protests are held worldwide against the U.S./British-led invasion of Iraq. These protests include several said to be the biggest peace protests before a invasion actually began.

  • 1910s: Many prominent thinkers support eugenics, which aims to improve human hereditary traits through social interventions such as selective breeding and enforced sterilization of mentally or physically disabled people. In the United States, the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) opens in 1910. In years to come, the ERO collects...

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The Scarlet Ibis Topics for Further Study

  • In "The Scarlet Ibis," Hurst uses natural elements of the setting to comment on the action or the characters. These include plants, birds, insects, and weather phenomena. Make a list of some of these natural elements and write a paragraph on each, explaining how they comment on the action or the characters. Where appropriate, research the habits, habitat, behavior, appearance, symbolic value or other aspects of each natural element and use your findings to elucidate your answers.
  • Research the lives of two disabled people: one who is alive today, and one from history (born at any time before 1920). Write an essay on the lives and achievements of each. Include in your composition the following: the problems they faced and how they responded; society's and their family's attitudes to, and treatment of, them; and how the life and achievements of each may have been affected if they had been born in the other's time period.
  • Write a short story in which the main character has a disability, or imagine that you have a particular disability and write a "day-in-the-life" diary entry. If you have a disability in real life, choose a different disability for this exercise. Take into account in your story or diary entry how your disability will affect your feelings, actions, perceptions, relationships and choices.
  • Research the history of eugenics from its scientific beginnings in the nineteenth century to the present day, considering...

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The Scarlet Ibis What Do I Read Next?

  • The novel of German author Erich Maria Remarque All Quiet on the Western Front (1929) is a grimly realistic portrayal of experiences of ordinary German soldiers during World War I. Remarque's stance is staunchly anti-war. This novel has become the major classic fiction text relating to World War I for high-school and college students.
  • In 1915, during World War I, the French Red Cross asked American novelist Edith Wharton to make a tour of military hospitals near the frontline to publicize the need for medical supplies. Wharton's articles about these visits to the frontline were collected and published in her book Fighting France from Dunkirk to Belforte (1915; reprinted by Greenwood Press in 1975)....

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The Scarlet Ibis Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources

Ebor, Donald, ed., The New English Bible with Apocrypha, New York: Oxford University Press, 1972, pp. 4-5.

Hurst, James, Telephone conversations with author, July and September 2005.

――――――, "The Scarlet Ibis," in the Atlantic Monthly, July 1960, pp. 48-53.

King James Bible, Deuteronomy 5:9.

Trent, James W., Jr., Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States, University of California Press, 1994, p. 199.

Further Reading

Keegan, John, The First World War, Vintage, 2000....

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