In "The Scarlet Ibis," what is the physical description of the atmosphere?

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Whenever we think about the atmosphere of a given piece of literature, it can often be helpful to consider the description and, in particular, the words that are used to describe the setting. If we have a look at the beginning of this excellent story, it is clear that the words used and the objects that the author chooses to include in this opening description play an important part in building up the kind of atmosphere that dominates the story and also foreshadows what is to come. Let us consider the opening paragraph:

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 stained 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 softly the names of our dead.

What is notable about this description is the way that the phrases and diction suggest an atmosphere of death and decay. Note the way that summer is described as being "dead," the ibis lands in a "bleeding tree" and the flowers are variously described as "rotting" and "rank." Interestingly, the flowers that are doing well are the "graveyard flowers," whose scent seems to "speak softly" the names of lost loved ones. Such an opening creates an atmosphere that immediately makes us think of death and the cycles of nature, which of course foreshadows the way that this story will concern the death of one of the central characters.