illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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How does Hurst use symbolism, tone, and conflict to make us sympathize with the narrator in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

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James Hurst's short story "The Scarlet Ibis" is told as a flashback by a first person narrator. We never learn the narrator's name as he recounts the story of his childhood with his brother Doodle. The fact the narrator already knows the outcome of the story colors his telling. He is obviously feeling guilty about what happened, yet the reader can't help but feel some sympathy for him.  

There are three distinct symbols which help us understand the narrator's actions. One of the first places the narrator ever takes Doodle is "Old Woman Swamp." Hurst writes, "I dragged him across the burning cotton field to share with him the only beauty I knew, Old Woman Swamp." Despite the fact the narrator sometimes considers Doodle a burden, sharing the beauty of the outdoors is a symbol of his love for the boy. In fact, the best times the two have are at the banks of the swamp as they make "honeysuckle wreaths" and tell "crazy" stories.

Another symbol that helps us sympathize with the narrator, and understand the conflict between the narrator and Doodle, is the mention of World War I by the boys' mother. Hurst uses the war as a symbol for the conflict between the brothers. The narrator is pushed by a blind source, his pride, to figuratively wage war on Doodle. His embarrassment at having a crippled brother makes him do things he wouldn't otherwise consider. Like the soldiers in a war, he is innocent as he is pushed by a source he doesn't understand.

The third symbol is the ibis, which represents Doodle. In the end, the narrator recognizes that the elegant fragility of the bird mirrors his brother. When he goes back, after abandoning Doodle in a rainstorm, he cries over his dead brother. Hurst writes,

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

The tone of the story is one of remorse and regret. From the outset, the story stinks of death as the narrator uses words such as "rotting," "rank," "empty," "untenanted" and "graveyard." Because of the somber tone and the death imagery of the first two paragraphs we already feel sorry of the narrator. Throughout the story he uses retrospect to explain his actions. He was often prideful, selfish and mean. 

This internal conflict in the story also helps us understand the narrator's actions. Before showing Doodle the coffin that was made when it looked like Doodle might die as a baby, the narrator explains his actions:

There is within me (and with sadness I have watched it in others) a knot of cruelty borne by the stream of love, much as our blood sometimes bears the seed of destruction, and at times I was mean to Doodle.

Later, he also admits he taught Doodle to walk, not for his brother's benefit, but for his own because he couldn't abide having an invalid for a brother. He launches into a rigorous training routine for Doodle for the same reason. He very much wants a brother that is equal to the other boys at school. This internal conflict is finally deadly for Doodle. The narrator, frustrated that he cannot remake his brother, runs away from him, ultimately contributing to the boy's death.

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