illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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In "The Scarlet Ibis," how did the narrator treat Doodle at the end of the story?

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The narrator of The Scarlet Ibis and his brother Doodle are close both because of and in spite of Doodle's condition. When Doodle is born, the narrator is disappointed because he "wanted more than anything else someone to race to Horsehead Landing, someone to box with, and someone to perch with in the top fork of the great pine behind the barn." But he is told that his brother will never learn to walk, and the doctors don't give much hope for many other independent living skills, either.

The narrator makes it his mission to help his brother do the things doctors and their parents say is impossible. Far from noble, he honestly assesses that his motivation in doing these things is because of his own pride. When he first secretly teaches his brother to walk when Doodle is six, he cries because he realizes that "Doodle walked only because I was ashamed of having a crippled brother."

He continues to help his brother, but his motivation remains the same. They do share a tenderness, planning for a future that is part realistic and part Doodle's fantasy. The narrator dreams big dreams with his younger brother and enjoys their time together at Old Woman Swamp when the weather is nice and Doodle feels well.

However, the tone becomes more tense when everyone decides that Doodle has progressed so much that he should attend school. The narrator assesses his brother's skills and determines a new schedule of all the skills that Doodle needs before heading to school. Doodle, according to his brother, needs to learn how to swim, row, climb rope vines, and box. Since his younger brother has been told that any exertion could trigger a fatal heart condition, the foreshadowing runs deep that his brother is pushing him too hard.

His brother's health declines; Doodle grows feverish and doesn't sleep well. He suffers with nightmares and overall is just more ill than before. His brother, saddled with his prideful timeline, presses forward relentlessly.

In the final scene, the narrator takes Doodle rowing and has to row back quickly because of an ominous storm brewing. When they return to land, Doodle is frightened and tired and smiles ashamedly at his big brother. Doodle follows his brother closely as they head home, and the narrator says that within him a "streak of cruelty awakened." He runs as fast as he can, leaving his brother behind as Doodle calls out, "Brother, Brother, don't leave me! Don't leave me!"

The narrator doesn't realize it, but this is the last time he will see his brother alive. Doodle dies of the exertion that the doctors warned against in his early years, and his brother is left with the certainty that his own pride is the cause of his brother's death.

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At the conclusion of the story, Doodle's brother pushes him beyond endurance to accomplish feats of physical strength that are simply beyond the little boy's endurance. When Doodle is too tired to swim, his...

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brother makes Doodle row their skiff against the current through a thunderstorm. When Doodle reaches land and collapses, Doodle's brother is filled with anger and bitter disappointment because Doodle had "failed." His brother then runs away from Doodle in a "flood of childish spite," leaving the boy alone, exhausted, and frightened in the storm. When he returns to Doodle's side, he finds his little brother has died. He then holds Doodle's body, screams his name, and weeps with grief:

For a long long time, it seemed forever, I lay there crying, sheltering my fallen scarlet ibis from the heresy of rain.

Doodle's brother realizes too late the consequences of his pride, cruelty, and selfishness.

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What could be the reader's reaction to the narrator's treatment of Doodle at the end of the story "The Scarlet Ibis"?

In considering how mature readers would react to an incident in a narrative, they must consider all previous incidents and the character development of all characters involved in the particular incident. Otherwise the "reaction" tends to be subjective and less critical [in the sense of literary criticism or evaluation] as it should be for mature readers.

Therefore, a key consideration in projecting the reaction of readers to the narrator's treatment of Doodle will consider these factors:

  • The narrator mentions early in the narrative that there is in him, as there is in others, 

...a knot of cruelty borne by the stream of love, much as our blood sometimes bears the seed of our destruction, and at times I was mean to Doodle.

  • He is embarrassed to have a brother like Doodle, so he "set out to teach him." Because of his success in getting Doodle to walk, the narrator believes that he can somehow make Doodle more "normal" by making his brother want to do things.
  • In a early incident in which the brother has Doodle in a loft and tries to force him to touch it before picking him up, Doodle cries, "Don't leave me. Don't leave me" after the brother carries him out. 

In essence, then, the stage is set for the final incident, and the brother's actions are not out of character. In fact, these actions underscore the prevailing theme of the story that people always suffer when others try to make them over in their own image.

Now, readers may well react emotionally and critically to the act of "cruelty borne by a stream of love" that the narrator commits, they should also understand that in his frustration that Doodle cannot measure up to his standards and be the brother that he desires, the brother's cruelty is unthinking,

The knowledge that Doodle's and my plans had come to naught was bitter, and that streak of cruelty within me awakened.

When, however, the "flood of childish spite evanesced," he then waits for Doodle, thinking his brother will catch up to him and finally runs back to retrieve Doodle. In his rue for his mindless cruelty, the brother weeps for his "fallen scarlet ibis" as well as for himself--he who has been cruel out of a mistaken notion of love.

Readers, then, may well be angry with the narrator, who has, indeed, been spiteful and selfish, but they may also feel pity for him as he must carry the burden of his cruel "stream of love" for the rest of his life.

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