illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst
Start Free Trial

Do you think that the narrator is to blame for Doodle's death in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

It is hard to blame the narrator ("Brother") completely because he is just a kid himself. He openly admits his responsibility in tormenting Doodle and pushing him too far, though, so the narrator is largely to blame.

Brother says Doodle was "a disappointment" from the beginning. Brother wanted a more physically able companion. As a result, he resents Doodle. Brother torments Doodle by showing him the casket that was meant for him.

Brother teaching Doodle to walk seems like a generous gesture to his parents, but Brother reveals he only taught Doodle to walk out of shame.

They did not know that I did it for myself, that pride, whose slave I was, spoke to me louder than all their voices, and that Doodle walked only because I was ashamed of having a crippled brother.

At the end of the story, when Doodle has "failed," Brother leaves him, literally and symbolically. Brother runs away faster and faster, knowing Doodle will push himself but inevitably be unable to keep up. As Brother runs away, he feels a "streak of cruelty." He runs faster and pushes Doodle to run himself ragged. He puts Doodle through physical and emotional strain and this becomes too much for Doodle's body to handle.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Despite his love for Doodle, the brother is responsible for the death of the fragile boy.

It is significant that Hurst alluded to World War I in his setting of "the summer of 1918" as a backdrop for the scenes of the death of the scarlet ibis and that of Doodle. One textbook editor has observed that Hurst wants readers of "The Scarlet Ibis" to consider the war raging among brothers in Europe is related to the conflict between Doodle and his brother. [Elements of Literature. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 2008.] 

In the final lines of the story, the brother/narrator states,

I lay there crying, sheltering my fallen scarlet ibis from the heresy [meaning mockery here] of rain.

On the day that Doodle dies, the brother wants to blame the rain for the ending of his and Doodle's practice session and their need to hurry to get home. However, he admits that he was angry about Doodle's failure to succeed at "keeping up with the other boys." Knowing that Doodle is weak and after Doodle's "being too tired to swim," the brother still makes Doodle row back to shore. Not only must Doodle row, but he must row against the tide. Then, even though Doodle has been greatly strained, the brother runs ahead of him, forcing Doodle to try to keep up. When the brother stops to rest, he admits his cruelty,

I hadn't run too far before I became tired, and the flood of childish spite evanesced as well. 

It is only after this "evanescence" of his spite that the brother comes to his senses and he stops and waits for Doodle. While he has not meant to kill Doodle, the brother has acted selfishly all along. Also, having admitted previously to a "streak of cruelty," he has tried to force Doodle to become normal despite knowing that the small boy is frail. Even at the end of the narrative, the brother wants to blame "the heresy of the rain" as the reason for Doodle's death because this is why they hurried. But he is the one who has taxed Doodle's heart all along.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Despite the narrator's guilt over the situation, he is not to blame for his brother's death. He may have treated him with indifference and occasional malice, both of which are displayed by his words and actions in the story, but in the end, those words and actions were not the primary cause of Doodle's death.

We as readers know that his condition is what eventually led to his certain death, and that from the very beginning, Doodle was supposed to have died many times before. The fact that he had lasted as long as he had was a fact of sheer amazement.

In the end, the narrator cannot be held responsible for Doodle's death, but we can continue to hold him accountable for his harsh words and behaviors toward his now-deceased brother.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Now, of course, this is an opinion question, so the answer is up to you, as well as the evidence to support that answer.

In my opinion, however, the narrator is not at all responsible for Doodle's death.  Although, of course, he feels terribly to blame.

Doodle was destined to die.  To use this course of reasoning, you really have to argue that fate has a huge role in this story.  This is evident in the scarlet ibis's presence, which was a foreshadowing of what was to come.  Doodle was represented by this brilliant bird, and the bird died.  Doodle was supposed to die.

The narrator was only 13.  He was cruel, it's true, but he was also only 13.  He was acting how most boys his age do when confronted with something uncomfortable, like a disabled brother.  He was jealous of the attention Doodle got, and he was embarrassed by Doodle's difference.  He was probably also disappointed that he didn't have a brother who could run, wrestle, and play with him as he'd probably originally hoped.  There was a lot of emotion flooding through the narrator.  There is really no way he could have known that Doodle was hurt as badly as he was.  Plus, Doodle sustained a head injury and died so quickly that he would have died even if the narrator had run back sooner to help him.

And regardless of the narrator's motives for helping Doodle to walk, he did improve Doodle's quality of life for a short while, regardless of how frustrated Doodle sometimes got.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on