In James Hurst's short story "The Scarlet Ibis," what does the red symbolize?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In the short story "The Scarlet Ibis," author James Hurst uses the large, red exotic bird, called a scarlet ibis, to parallel his character Doodle and to symbolize characteristics that make us unique, as well as our frail humanity.

One hot, summer noon, while the family is eating lunch, a croaking sound brings the family out in the yard. Doodle is the first out into the yard and the first to see a "great big red bird" in their bleeding tree. As they continue to watch, the bird flutters, falls from the tree, jerks on the ground, then becomes very still, having died at the foot of the bleeding tree. The father identifies the bird as a scarlet ibis, explains "it lives in the tropics--South America to Florida," and speculates that "a storm must have brought it here," where it died of exhaustion.

Just like the scarlet ibis, Doodle is exotic due to his special needs and unique ability to see beauty in the world, such as when he cried the first time he saw the swamp because he thought it was so beautiful. However, his brother ignores his special needs and tries to train him into being something he is not, killing him with exhaustion and fear.

Since Hurst parallels Doodle with the scarlet ibis, we can see that red, the color of the bird, has a great deal of symbolic meaning. First, since red is an exotic color for a bird, it symbolizes those with distinguishing characteristics, like Doodle, as being exotic. In addition, red is the color of blood; therefore, red can also symbolize frail mortality, just as both Doodle and the bird were frail.

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