Study Guide

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

The Scarlet Ibis Themes

Themes

Conflict between Love and Pride

"The Scarlet Ibis" explores the conflict between love and pride in Brother's relationship with his physically and mentally disabled brother, Doodle. Brother loves and appreciates Doodle, as can be seen in the incident when the brothers fantasize about living in Old Woman Swamp, when Brother is overwhelmed by the beauty of the images that Doodle conjures up.

Love is accepting and compassionate in its nature. But Brother's love for Doodle is challenged by two very human failings: pride, and the cruelty that results from it. Brother feels embarrassed and ashamed of Doodle's limitations and obvious differences from other people. They threaten his sense of pride. He decides to make Doodle do all the things that other people do in spite of the fact that Doodle himself sees no need to conform. Teaching Doodle to walk is Brother's first success. When Brother's family congratulates him on his success, he cries with shame, because he knows that he acted not out of love but out of pride, "whose slave [he] was." Brother's pride again triumphs over love when he continues to push Doodle to harder physical feats in spite of Doodle's obviously declining health. In the end, Doodle's heart fails under the strain, a victim of Brother's insistence. Well might Brother reflect, "I did not know then that pride is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death." In this case, the "life" aspect is the undoubted progress that Doodle makes under Brother's demanding tutelage, and the "death" aspect refers to the fate of the fragile boy.

The Desire to Make over Others in One's Own Image

All of the family, except Brother, accepts Doodle as he is. However, their acceptance is not portrayed as entirely positive, as it comes with a heavy dose of resignation and hopelessness about Doodle's prospects. Mama and Daddy are so convinced that he will die soon after birth that Daddy orders a coffin for him. When Doodle does not die, Daddy makes the go-cart, accepting that Doodle will never walk. The consignment of coffin and go-cart to the loft are signs of the progress that Doodle makes in being like his older brother.

Brother's impatience with Doodle's limitations is as ambiguous as the rest of the family's acceptance of them. But Brother's attitude is the more dangerous because it forces change on a body that is not equipped to deal with it and on a mind that does not desire it. Brother's success in re-making Doodle in his own image is greeted as wonderful progress by everyone except Doodle. When Brother tells him that he must learn to walk, Doodle asks, "'Why?'" Neither does Doodle understand why he should struggle to avoid being different from everybody else at school. Because the story is told from the point of view of Brother and not Doodle, it is not clear how much Doodle's life is improved by his new skills. But it is certain that after the initial success of the walking project, Brother's...

(The entire section is 1222 words.)