illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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How could "The Scarlet Ibis" be viewed as a commentary on the events of World War I?

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World War 1, as with any conflict, encourages a certain mindset in young men, many of whom see war as an opportunity to prove their manhood. In "The Scarlet Ibis" this attitude manifests itself in the cruel behavior of Brother towards Doodle. Brother doesn't want to be embarrassed in front of the other boys so he forces Doodle to exert himself physically, far beyond his limited capabilities. His cruelty towards his disabled brother inadvertently leads to Doodle's tragic death.

Doodle's untimely demise could be seen to symbolize the fate of so many young men during World War One, who died fighting in a conflict for which they were so woefully unprepared. Many soldiers who served at the front suffered deep trauma as the result of their experiences, and yet were still expected to fight. If they were unwilling or unable to do they could find themselves being court-martialed and shot for cowardice. Just as these men shouldn't have been fighting in the first place, so Doodle should not have been pushed way beyond the limits of his endurance by a brother who regarded him as little more than an embarrassment.

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Like the tumultuous weather which rages through James Hurst's short story "The Scarlet Ibis," the mention of World War I by the boys' mother can be seen as a symbol for the war that is going on between the two brothers.

In the beginning of the story the narrator (or "brother") contemplates killing his younger brother because his mother says he might not "be all there." When "Doodle" turns out to be mentally normal but physically challenged he and the narrator develop a stormy relationship marked by periods of love and times of friction. 

The mother mentions World War I at a time when the relationship between the two boys it at a crossroads (the "clove of seasons"). Hurst writes:

And during that summer, strange names were heard through the house: Chateau-Thierry, Amiens, Soissons, and in her blessing at the supper table, Mama once said, "And bless the Pearsons, whose boy Joe was lost at Belleau Wood." 

The narrator has devised a rigorous training regime for Doodle but the boy is not up to it. Like the weather, which is sometimes blighted and sometimes turbulent, the reference to the war focuses the reader on the trouble between the two brothers, which ultimately ends in Doodle's death in a rainstorm after his brother pushes him too hard.

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