illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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In "The Scarlet Ibis," what language does the author use to create the tone?

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In James Hurst's short story "The Scarlet Ibis," a variety of language is used to create a tone that is reminiscent, forlorn, and bittersweet. 

James Hurst's story is narrated by a character known only as "Brother". The narrator is reminiscing about events from his childhood. His disabled brother, born when the narrator was six years old, is named William Armstrong. Brother nicknames his brother "Doodle," because he crawls backwards like a doodle bug. Doodle wasn't expected to ever be able to walk and wasn't expected to live very long. The narrator explains that his pride compels him to push Doodle to learn to walk, and once he accomplished that, he felt the urge to go further, which eventually results in Doodle's tragic death from heart failure.

"The Scarlet Ibis" is filled with vivid imagery and figurative language. An examination of the first two paragraphs of this story provides many examples of the imagery and figurative language Hurst uses to create the tone. 

"It was in the clove of seasons, summer was dead but autumn had not yet been born, that the ibis lit in the bleeding tree. The flower garden was strained with rotting brown magnolia petals and ironweeds grew rank amid the purple phlox. The five o'clocks by the chimney still marked time, but the oriole nest in the elm was untenanted and rocked back and forth like an empty cradle. The last graveyard flowers were blooming, and their smell drifted across the cotton field and through every room of our house, speaking softy the names of our dead."

Hurst's use of personification in this paragraph creates a reminiscence that draws the reader to a time of reflection. Hurst describes summer as being "dead," and autumn "not yet born." He describes the flowers by the chimney as "marking time," and the graveyard flowers "speaking softly the names of our dead." This creates a scene of remembering the past, one in which nature is participating in the reflection, and the tone that is created invites the reader to slow down and reminisce with the narrator. 

His use of simile in this paragraph foreshadows the tragic events to come. The oriole nest is described as "untenanted and rocked back and forth like an empty cradle." An empty nest creates an image of loss, or at least one of change, with the occupants either gone from this world or moved on. The empty cradle creates the same effect. 

The imagery Hurst uses creates a forlorn effect. The magnolia petals are rotting, and the ironweeds are rank. The ibis lands in a bleeding tree. The blooming flowers smell wafts through the house, but the smell is reminding the narrator of dead loved ones. 

"It's strange that all this is still so clear to me, now that summer has long since fled and time has had its way. A grindstone stands where the bleeding tree stood, just outside the kitchen door, and now if an oriole sings in the elm, its song...

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seems to die up in the leaves, a silvery dust. The flower garden is prim, the house a gleaming white, and the pale fence across the yard stands straight and spruce. But sometimes (like right now), as I sit in the cool, green-draped parlor, the grindstone begins to turn, and time with all its changes is ground away-and I remember Doodle."

In this paragraph, the narrator paints a scene of a beautifully kept house with a manicured garden that has seen many changes over the years. The narrator's word choice, "Time with all its changes is ground away--and I remember Doodle." lets the reader know that something has happened to Doodle, or with his relationship with Doodle. The narrator states that it is strange that it's all still so clear in his memory, suggesting a lot of time has passed. The bleeding tree is gone, replaced with a grindstone, and the narrator states that its loss has caused the song of birds to be lost, as well. This sets the scene that events that are coming will be bittersweet.  

The narrator describes boyhood joys in the story as well as sibling cruelty. He discusses the problem of his pride and declares himself to be enslaved to his pride. He describes the events from the memory of a child, and with the perspective of an adult, which creates a tone that is reminiscent, forlorn, and bittersweet.  

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