illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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What are three examples of imagery in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

Some of the most notable examples of imagery in "The Scarlet Ibis" include the images described in the opening sentence, the image of the scarlet ibis, and the image of the thunderstorm at the end of the story.

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"The Scarlet Ibis" is a 1960 short story written by American author James Hurst. It tells the story of two brothers—one who was born with a medical condition and one who was determined to help him overcome all challenges. As a story with a powerful meaning and message, it's rich with both imagery and symbolism.

Hurst actually opens the story with imagery and foreshadowing when he writes,

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.

This sentence sets the tone of the narrative overall and alludes to the fact that the story is dark and that death and sadness are one of the main themes. In this context, it's notable to mention that Hurst also repeatedly uses the color red (scarlet) as a symbol of both life and death. In fact, the color has been connected to Doodle from the very start. When he is born,

He seemed all head, with a tiny body which was red and shriveled like an old man's.

Red is also apparent when he dies:

I peered through the downpour, but no one came. Finally I went back and found him huddled beneath a red nightshade bush beside the road. He was sitting on the ground, his face buried in his arms, which were resting on drawn-up knees. "Let's go, Doodle." He didn't answer so I gently lifted his head. He toppled backward onto the earth. He had been bleeding from the mouth, and his neck and the front of his shirt were stained a brilliant red.

The image of the scarlet ibis is also important, as it is a reflection of Doodle's appearance and personality.

On the topmost branch a bird the size of a chicken, with scarlet feathers and long legs, was perched precariously. Its wings hung down loosely, and as we watched, a feather dropped away and floated slowly down through the green leaves.

This paragraph is full of imagery, so that the readers can understand the connection between the ibis and Doodle; aside from the obvious parallels between the ibis and Doodle's appearance, as well as their uniqueness, the ibis is also a symbol of fragility, vulnerability, and death. In the end, Doodle's brother even directly compares Doodle to the scarlet ibis.

For a long time, it seemed forever, I lay there crying, sheltering my fallen scarlet ibis.

Near the end, when Doodle and his older brother attempt to outrun a thunderstorm and Doodle tragically loses his life due to his inability to keep up with his brother, Hurst uses imagery to essentially prepare the readers for Doodle's death.

Black clouds began to gather in the southwest, and he kept watching them, trying to pull the oars a little faster. When we reached Horsehead Landing, lightning was playing across half the sky and thunder roared out, hiding even the sound of the sea. The sun disappeared and darkness descended, almost like night. Flocks of marsh crows flew by, heading inland to their roosting trees; and two egrets, squawking, arose from the oyster-rock shallows and careened away.

The black clouds and the sudden disappearance of the sun help the reader imagine the thunderstorm and to understand its symbolic meaning. The suspenseful moment foreshadows death and darkness.

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There are lots of examples of imagery in "The Scarlet Ibis." In the first paragraph, for example, the narrator talks about sitting in the "cool, green parlor." This image of the parlor provides both a visual and tactile (feeling) image since the reader immediately imagines the green of this room and experiences the feel of cool air.

Secondly, there is another image in the description of Doodle. When he is born, for instance, he is described as having a "red" and "shriveled" body, just like an old man. By using this image, the narrator reinforces the idea that Doodle was a "disappointment" from the moment of his birth because he was sick and, therefore, lacked the typical physique of a baby boy.

Thirdly, there is another visual image in the final paragraph of the story when the narrator uses the phrase "tear-blurred vision." This image not only tells us how much the narrator cried when his brother died but also enables us to experience this tragic event from his perspective.

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The coffin Doodle's parents had built for him is a symbol/image that suggests the possibility of Doodle's death. When Doodle learns to walk, his cart is placed in the barn beside his coffin. This suggests the possibility that Doodle has progressed, but Brother pushes him too far. 

The color red (scarlet) is a significant image in the story because it connects blood, the ibis, and Doodle (his blood upon his death). When the scarlet ibis falls to the ground and dies, Daddy reads from the bird book that it is native to Florida and South America. Like Doodle, the ibis has trouble adapting to its environment. When the ibis dies, Aunt Nicey notes that dead birds are bad luck, "'specially red dead birds." The dead bird died because it was out of its element: like Doodle. The image of the ibis is a parallel for Doodle. 

Note the repetition of the color red (red, scarlet, and vermilion) which connects the images of the ibis, the "bleeding" tree, and death (the ibis's and Doodle's). Brother finds Doodle dead: 

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

He sat very awkwardly, with his head thrown far back, making his vermilion neck appear unusually long and slim. His little legs, bent sharply at the knees, had never before seemed so fragile, so thin. I began to weep, and the tear-blurred vision in red before me looked very familiar. 

The vision of red looked familiar: similar to the scarlet ibis, the image of red. 

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