illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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What are two different conflicts in the story "The Scarlet Ibis"?

The two different conflicts in "The Scarlet Ibis" are an internal conflict in the narrator, in which he grapples with his feelings towards his brother, and an external conflict that relates to the way he treats his brother.

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I would argue that the first conflict exists within the narrator, between his frustration with his brother and the love he feels for him.

The second conflict is between the two brothers, with the narrator constantly pushing Doodle to push the boundaries of what he is capable of.

With regard to the first conflict, which is internal, it is apparently from the beginning that the narrator has mixed feelings towards his disabled younger brother. On the one hand, Doodle is a source of embarrassment and frustration; on the other hand, he is the only sibling the narrator has, and he finds himself wishing that their relationship could be different. There is a conflict between the brother he has and the brother he wants.

The second (external) conflict is the one that ultimately leads to Doodle's death. It is the conflict that sees the narrator reminisce about the cruelty that he showed his brother, going so far as to make him touch the casket that had been prematurely made for him. It is the same conflict that leads the narrator to leave Doodle behind in a storm with the ludicrous idea of testing his stamina. Given that Doodle dies in this incident, it is evident that the ongoing conflict between the two brothers led directly to Doodle's death.

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One conflict that runs throughout the story deals with Brother's pride. Brother admits that he is ashamed of his brother because Doodle can't do what Brother thinks that all little brothers should be able to do.

They did not know that I did it for myself, that pride, whose slave I was, spoke to me louder than all their voices, and that Doodle walked only because I was ashamed of having a crippled brother.

Brother admits a few paragraphs before the above quote that he didn't know it was pride that motivated him, nor did he understand that pride can be both helpful and hurtful. While Brother might not understand that his motivation is pride, he clearly wrestles with those feelings of disappointment. This motivates Brother to push Doodle quite hard in learning to walk, run, play, etc. This struggle between what Doodle can do and can't do is a conflict for both Brother and Doodle. Brother has to wrestle with how to teach Doodle, and Brother has to figure out how to be patient and motivating for both of them. Anybody who has ever coached understands this conflict.

For Doodle, there is an inner conflict within him that deals with never wanting to disappoint his older brother. Doodle is physically limited, but he appears to be intelligent and insightful. He knows that he has physical limitations, but he doesn't want his brother to see him for those limits. Another conflict within Doodle is his fear of being left alone. There are two times in the story that Doodle cries out "Don't leave me." He's terrified of being alone, and it's heartbreaking to watch Brother manipulate that fear.

“Then I’ll leave you here by yourself,” I threatened, and made as if I were going down.

Doodle was frightened of being left. “Don’t leave me, Brother,” he cried, and leaned toward the coffin.

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The two different conflicts in the story "The Scarlet Ibis" by James Hurst are:

a) Man against Man

b) Man against Himself

a) Concerning the first conflict, Man against Man, “The Scarlet Ibis” deals with the older brother and his conflict with his younger brother, Doodle. The conflict here is that Doodle is a bit of “a disappointment” to the family and certainly to the older brother. He does not like that his brother may not have the mental faculties and physical strength that he has, or that other less-challenged people have.

In addition, this older brother harbors resentment, somewhat, because Doodle, as espoused by the mother, may never be able to have boxing matches with him. Moreover, he may never be able to sit atop with him “in the top fork of the great pine behind the barn…”

Essentially the conflict is that this brother wants Doodle to be able to effortlessly do what the brothers of other people he knows can do. Doodle cannot; the older brother cannot really accept Doodle’s imitations. So this is the conflict of the older brother against Doodle.

b) Regarding Man against Himself, Doodle is in conflict with his limitations. He wants to be what the society around him calls ‘normal.’ Doodle wants to please his brother and enjoy life with him uninhibitedly, seizing the day with his brother, to borrow a famous saying. He wants to please his brother despite the mental and physical challenges he must battle with daily.

This is really evidenced toward the climax of “The Scarlet Ibis” when he cannot keep up with the older brother who is running away from him. This leads to his (Doodle’s) death and this is the ultimate price he pays in this battle against himself.

Furthermore, you can also say that a third conflict in this short story is the conflict both characters have - Man against Nature, or Man against his physical environment. Both are battling the deluge of rain that batters them as they struggle to get home.

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The narrator first struggles as a child and older brother with the fact that the disabled Doodle is not the brother he would have liked to have had. As he puts it early in the story:

Doodle was born when I was seven and was, from the start, a disappointment. He seemed all head, with a tiny body that was red and shriveled like an old man's.

Doodle does not die as expected by his family, but he is disabled and at five has not learned to walk:

I was embarrassed at having a brother of that age who couldn't walk, so I set out to teach him.

The narrator struggles between wanting to help and care for his younger brother—doing such kind acts as teaching him to walk—and what he calls his streak of cruelty in wanting to treat this dependent and disappointing boy badly. This leads him to show Doodle his coffin and to leave Doodle behind in the rainstorm.

The narrator is also conflicted by the guilt he feels over Doodle's death: was it his fault or inevitable? While his narrative makes it seems likely that Doodle's disability might have killed him anyway, the narrator still struggles with feeling responsible for his brother's death.

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