In James Hurst's only short story, "The Scarlet Ibis," the narrator, who is never named, wants a brother who can run, swim, box, and basically do all the things a healthy young boy can do. Unfortunately, the brother he gets is physically challenged. Even his name, Doodle, suggests weakness. In fact, the doctor didn't give him much chance of surviving the first few months of his life. So, from the very outset he is not what the narrator expected:
He was born when I was six and was, from the outset, a disappointment. He seemed all head, with a tiny body which was red and shriveled like an old man's. Everybody thought he was going to die...
Soon enough Doodle becomes a burden to his brother. Because he can't walk the brother has to cart Doodle around in a wagon:
He was a burden in many ways. The doctor had said that he mustn't get too excited, too hot, too cold, or too tired and that he must always be treated gently. A long list of don'ts went with him, all of which I ignored once we got out of the house. To discourage his coming with me, I'd run with him across the ends of the cotton rows and careen him around corners on two wheels. Sometimes I accidentally turned him over, but he never told Mama.
Indeed, even though he has shortcomings physically, Doodle is quite resilient and very much seems to love his brother, no matter how cruelly he is treated. Though it seems that he implicitly loves Doodle as well, the narrator still has a mean streak. He admits his cruelty:
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 our destruction, and at times I was mean to Doodle.
This is certainly an emotion that many of us have experienced. The ones that we love most can also be our biggest enemies.
Because he is embarrassed by having a crippled brother, the narrator seeks to change Doodle. He first endeavors to teach him to walk and, much to the two brothers' surprise, Doodle is walking after "dogged" persistence from the narrator. When they show off Doodle's new talent to their parents the narrator cries, yet he admits he taught Doodle for selfish reasons. He simply did not want a brother who might draw derision from other kids. He says,
They did not know that I did it for myself, that pride, whose slave I was, spoke to me louder than all their voices, and that Doodle walked only because I was ashamed of having a crippled brother.
Emboldened by having taught Doodle to walk the brother embarks on a rigorous training plan so that by the time Doodle goes to school he will be the equal of other boys. Unfortunately, Doodle is not able to live up to his brother's expectations and, after a particularly strenuous rowing session, Doodle collapses:
Doodle was both tired and frightened, and when he stepped from the skiff he collapsed onto the mud, sending an armada of fiddler crabs rustling off into the marsh grass. I helped him up, and as he wiped the mud off his trousers, he smiled at me ashamedly. He had failed and we both knew it, so we started back home, racing the storm. We never spoke (What are the words that can solder cracked pride?), but I knew he was watching me, watching for a sign of mercy.
Bitterly disappointed, the narrator once again exhibits his "knot of cruelty" and runs away from Doodle, leaving him far behind. As Doodle struggles to keep up he becomes overworked and collapses under a nightshade bush, in similar fashion to the bird of the title who dies under the bleeding tree. Like the bird, Doodle is fragile and rare. The narrator has simply pushed Doodle too hard and his delicate condition gets the best of him.
Is the brother responsible? Yes, literally the narrator ran his brother to death. The crippled little boy could not sustain the rigors of his brother's world. In retrospect, however, the narrator was a good brother to Doodle and Doodle's short time on earth was made better by their relationship.