How does James Hurst use symbolism in his story "The Scarlet Ibis"?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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"The Scarlet Ibis" by James Hurst depicts a troubling story between two brothers: Brother and Doodle.  Brother, the older brother, narrates the story as an adult looking back at his relationship with Doodle.

Doodle was handicapped.  No one expected him to live. When he turns five years old and still cannot walk, Brother teaches him to walk; however, he is not just trying yto help Doodle. Brother is embarrassed to have a disabled brother.

The author uses symbolism to add interest to the story.  The symbolism begins with the title of the story.  The scarlet ibis is not native to North Carolina where the story take place.  

As Daddy says after consulting the bird book, "It lives in the tropics – South America to Florida. A storm must have brought it here." 

But, the fact that the ibis is away from its natural home is not what causes its death.

The ibis and Doodle are linked to each other. Both are injured and die in a storm.  When the ibis falls to the ground, he has blood coming from his mouth.  Brother states that the bird was beautiful even in death. The same is true of Doodle.  Doodle had a special spirit and sensitivity.  When he dies in the storm in part as a result of ill-treatment by his brother, Doodle symbolically becomes the Scarlet Ibis.

There is a lot of the color red in the story.  The author could have called the story "Painting Doodle Red."  The ibis falls from the "bleeding" tree.  When it dies, it looks like a broken vase of red flowers. 

When Brother finds Doodle, he can barely contain his grief and guilt:

He had been bleeding from the mouth, and his neck and the front of his shirt were stained a brilliant red.

This is disturbing. It means Doodle is dead. Brother left him, so he  died alone, suffering. For Brother, finding beauty in the image of Doodle's bloodstained neck and t-shirt is probably a defense mechanism. The image is too horrible for him to look at it; therefore, he finds beauty in it.

The coffin made by Doodle's father when he was first born serves as a constant reminder that Doodle may not live long.  The coffin was placed in the barn loft.  Brother comments on his cruel streak that he sometimes uses toward Doodle.  Once he forced Doodle to touch his own coffin, with Doodle crying "Don't leave me Brother!" These are the same words that Doodle yells at Brother as he leaves him in the storm.

Nature becomes a part of Brother's life.  Brother is in tune with the natural world.  He notices how these elements impact his life and the lives of the people around him. The events in his memory of Doodle are marked by weather and the seasons. The beginning of the story brings this symbol to life:

It was in the clove of the seasons, summer was dead but autumn had not yet been born, that the ibis lit in the bleeding tree [its pine sap is bright red].

Brother wants to toughen Doodle up and help to be more like other boys.  He works with him all summer to try to teach Doodle to swim, dive, and play ball.  It was too much for Doodle and Brother pushed him too hard. 

In his journey back to his home now as an adult, Brother can see and better understand his actions that summer.  Now he can throw off some of the guilt that he carries for his "scarlet ibis."

 

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