illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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What are the types of symbolism in the story "The Scarlet Ibis" by James Hurst?

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In addition to the well-explained examples the previous educator noted, I would like to add the following:

The storm:

At the end of the story, the narrator is frustrated with his brother, who he feels will never be like the other kids at school. As his anger toward Doodle intensifies, a storm builds in the background, forcing them to return to shore in their little skiff. When he tries to climb out, Doodle falls and smiles "ashamedly" at his older brother, who helps him up. The narrator notes, "He had failed and we both knew it."

As he reflects upon his brother's "failures," lightning builds in intensity. The narrator begins running, angry that his plans for his brother have "come to naught." Doodle screams his pleas for his brother not to abandon him. The narrator runs on, the rain stinging his face.

The storm symbolizes the narrator's cruelty and bitterness, which is to blame for Doodle's death. His swirling emotional storm is represented by the physical, natural storm which Doodle dies in.

Old Woman Swamp:

When the narrator decides to teach Doodle to walk, he takes him to Old Woman Swamp, a natural setting full of palmetto fronds, wild violets, and wildflowers. After much work, Doodle takes his first steps here, out of the "touch of the everyday world." The boys spend lots of time there, working and planning for their futures together. They decide that one day, they will both live in Old Woman Swamp. This setting, therefore, comes to symbolize hope. This is an almost mystical place where magic happens. The future that Doodle paints is so beautiful and serene that the narrator reassures him that it will all come true.

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James Hurst, the author of “The Scarlet Ibis,” filled his story with symbols supplying the reader with a guide to the literal and figurative significance of events. The narrator, an older and hopefully wiser Brother and the sibling of the character Doodle, tries to assuage his guilt and at the same time, lead the audience through his memories of his brother’s life and death. It is from Brother’s view that the reader catches the beauty and tragedy of the story.


Through his use of the color “red,” the author denotes emotions both personal and universal. The author paints Doodle “red.” Hurst further creates the unanimous significance of color in understanding emotions. In this story, the color red, which usually are ascribed the ideas of courage, death, and love connecting the boy- to the brother- to nature. In addition to the denotative meanings of these words, the narrator leads the reader through the many symbolic uses of the color in the story: the beautiful broken bird is a broken vase of red flowers; the tree that Brother sees in the beginning of the story is the “bleeding tree” from which the ibis falls to his death; Doodle dies in front of a red nightshade bush which has red poisonous berries often associated with death. When Brother finds his “Scarlet ibis,” he describes Doodle with these words:

“’Doodle, Doodle.’” There was no answer but the ropy rain. I began to weep, and the tear blurred vision in red before me looked very familiar.”

From the red and scarlet references, the reader can visualize and bring to life the story’s events. Figuratively, this color freezes in time the important tableaus.

”He had been bleeding from the mouth, and his neck and the front of his shirt were stained a brilliant red. “

From his symbolic comparison of Doodle to the ibis, the reader sees the “bleeding tree,’ the coffin, the Old Woman Swamp, and the death of the bird and the little boy.

The Ibis

“The Scarlet Ibis is more than just the title. The beautiful bird frames the story with its representation of the older, guilt-ridden Brother; moreover, the ibis represents Doodle. Both characters do not fit in the world that surrounds them, yet, both die with dignity and beauty. The ibis is considered to be an endangered species because of the loss of the rain forest in South America. Like the ibis, Doodle does not belong in his environment: physically he is misshaped; his learning is backwards; and no expects anything from him.


As the family watches the bird in the throes of death, Brother offers the needed visualization for the scene:

“Its [the bird] graceful neck jerked twice and then straightened out, and the bird was still…even death could not mar its beauty.”

Doodle in all of his outward ugliness finds joy in his surroundings. He loves and is loved. Despite enduring often harsh treatment, Doodle loved without question. Still, Brother, ashamed of Doodle, torments him and relentlessly leads him to his death.

The Coffin

Doodle’s father orders a coffin to be built. Doodle did not die as the doctor thought he would; nevertheless, the presence of death is often mentioned by Brother. The coffin lay waiting for the little boy instilling no doubt that he would not long survive. .Symbolically, the casket prepares the reader for the inescapable death of William Armstrong or Doodle. Admitting that he was often cruel to Doodle, this was never more evident than when Brother forced his little brother to lay down in his own coffin.

The Season of Doodle’s Death

As the narrator, Brother frames the story with different seasons. He begins explaining when Doodle and the ibis die. To add to the mystery of these incidents, Brother does not associate the deaths with summer or autumn. Rather he describes the passing away as “…summer was not dead but autumn had not yet been born” as though their dying took place during an in-between not season time. Doodle would never go to school nor live until the fall.

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