illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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What does Hurst mean when he says the setting is a character in "The Scarlet Ibis," and how does he use language to convey it?

Quick answer:

The setting of “The Scarlet Ibis” takes on a personal quality because the narrator considers it to be a character in the story. He is able to communicate this through personification and connotation.

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It is evident that James Hurst considers the setting of “The Scarlet Ibis” to be a character in the story.

In the opening paragraph he puts a time stamp on the story by personifying the changing seasons saying, “Summer was dead, but autumn had not yet been born...

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when the ibis came to the bleeding tree.” In this paragraph he continues in this vain when he speaks of the five o’clock flowers as still “keeping time” while the smell of the flowers on the graves across the cotton fields filled the house with their smell. By immediately giving the time and place human qualities, Hurst creates theconnotation that the setting is a character in the story.

Each setting in the story acts as a character when the other characters interact with it. Let me provide some examples.

The narrator, who was six years old when Doodle was born, wanted a brother to share his adventures with. One of the places he wanted to take him was “Old Woman Swamp.” The swamp is described as one of the most beautiful places around the house that is surrounded by dry cotton fields. The first time Brother takes Doodle to the swamp, the little boy cries when he is overcome by her beauty. As the boys spend hours in the swamp, it becomes an integral part of the their lives. They work on Doodles’ physical skills and dream of their futures living on the edge of the swamp. Old Woman Swamp is where Doodle learns to walk, she gives him life.

Hurst brings the Scarlet Ibis to the bleeding tree which is another important setting because it portends bad luck. Aunt Nicey reminds the family that red birds are bad luck. Hurst uses the death of the Scarlet Ibis in the bleeding tree as symbol for Doodles' impending death.

The boys are in the stream at Horsehead Landing when this storm arrives and Brother leaves the petrified Doodle behind. Doodle bleeds to death under one of the red nightshade bushes along the road. Again, the name and color of the bush bring it into the story as a character.

Each one of these settings takes on personal qualities either through personification or through the connotations the author applies to their names or descriptions.

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Why does James Hurst consider the setting as a character in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

James Hurst describes the setting in great detail in his short story "The Scarlet Ibis." The story is presumed to be set in coastal North Carolina (the state is never explicitly given but "Dix Hill" which is in Raleigh is mentioned) in the second decade of the 20th century. Hurst goes out of his way to detail the flora of the area. He also uses specific references to historical events and the weather. The setting definitely transforms into an important character in the story. It is both benign and malignant.

On one hand the setting is comforting and inviting. The narrator describes Old Woman Swamp as "the only beauty I knew" and Doodle too is impressed as he says it was "pretty, pretty, pretty." The boys use the numerous flowers around the swamp to make wreaths. The narrator mentions any number of flowers which seem to heighten the soothing effects of the environment. Doodle learns to walk amidst the beauty of Old Woman Swamp and the narrator even uses the setting to help describe the hope the two boys experience:

Hope no longer hid in the dark palmetto thicket but perched like a cardinal in the lacy toothbrush tree, brilliantly visible. "Yes, yes," I cried, and he cried it too, and the grass beneath us was soft and the smell of the swamp was sweet. 

In contrast, the setting is often violent and foreboding. The summer of 1918, which is also the summer Doodle dies, is described as "blighted." The narrator also details the effect of a hurricane which comes through, "splitting the limbs of the elm trees" and blowing "the fallen oaks around." The boys' mother talks of specific battles during World War I and that a neighbor boy was killed. The mention of the war represents the silent battle between the narrator and Doodle. The narrator admits that in his training of Doodle, "I made him swim until he turned blue and row until he couldn't lift an oar."

Finally, the weather is an important character in the deaths of the ibis and Doodle. The bird is blown off course until it winds up in the family's "bleeding tree." It is exhausted fighting its way in the storm and suddenly tumbles from the tree and dies. Doodle too is exhausted by the driving rainstorm as he tries to catch up to his brother in the final sequence of the story. 

The setting could be described as a dynamic character because it changes through the course of the story. It is initially tranquil and seems to engender the love between the two brothers at Old Woman Swamp. Then it turns turbulent and tempestuous as storms aid in the deaths of the ibis and Doodle.

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