In James Hurst's story "The Scarlet Ibis," to what extent can the narrator be held responsible for Doodle's death? Were his intentions cruel?

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shake99 | Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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James Hurst’s short story “The Scarlet Ibis” is the sad tale of a boy and his brother Doodle. Doodle is disabled from birth and not expected to survive. However, he is able to exceed expectations; not only does he survive, but he also learns to talk and walk and in many ways live the life of a normal child.

To assess the narrator's actions, we need to first look at a few important lines from the story.

I wanted more than anything else someone to race to Horsehead Landing, someone to box with, and someone to perch with in the top fork of the great pine behind the barn . . . . I wanted a brother.

But Doodle cannot be this kind of brother—he is not capable of this kind of physical activity.

As Doodle grows the narrator, as his older brother, is given the responsibility of pulling him along with him in a go-cart their father made. Typically, as an older sibling, the narrator isn’t happy about it:

He was a burden in many ways.

The narrator also knows that Doodle could not be treated like ordinary boys:

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.

But the narrator resents this and intentionally pulls him too quickly sometimes, causing him to fall out of the cart. Doodle, however, is loyal and never tells on him. Eventually the narrator comes to a realization:

Finally, I could see I was licked. Doodle was my brother, and he was going to cling to me forever, no matter what I did . . .

The story could have ended here and we could still consider it a complete, and even happy, tale. But life usually doesn’t work like that—we don’t get to divide our time into segments that allow for ideal endings. Events keep coming and our lives develop continuously. Unfortunately for Doodle and his brother the story ends with Doodle’s death.

When they decide that Doodle needs to work on becoming as physically adept as other boys before starting school, Doodle proves incapable of keeping up with his brother, who leaves him behind in a thunderstorm. The narrator’s own words here are:

The knowledge that Doodle’s and my plans had come to naught was bitter, and that streak of cruelty within me awakened. I ran as fast as I could, leaving him far behind with a wall of rain dividing us.

Can the narrator be held responsible for his death? Yes, I think so. We have seen that he knew that Doodle had to be treated carefully, but his own ambition for Doodle’s development overcame him, and he pushed Doodle too far. Doodle's death would not have happened otherwise. 

Are the narrator’s intentions cruel? This is an interesting question because the narrator himself admits to being cruel. However, we cannot always trust a first-person narrator. Just like a person verbally telling us a story about their lives, we can disagree with their statements, particularly their judgments. I personally don’t think the narrator was behaving out of cruelty. He was certainly not being as sympathetic as he should have been toward his brother, and he selfishly wanted him to change because he wanted a brother who was physically normal, but he was not trying to be cruel. In my opinion, at the end of the story he runs away from Doodle out of frustration, not out of cruelty.

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