James Hurst's short story "The Scarlet Ibis" is about two brothers growing up in coastal North Carolina in the first part of the 20th century. The story is told from the first person point of view of the older brother, who is never named. His younger brother is Doodle, a name the narrator gave him when he was still a toddler.
The most obvious difference between the two boys is that the narrator is able-bodied. He is a healthy young boy who lives to run, swim, and box. Doodle was born with major physical issues. For a while when he was a baby, almost everyone thought he would soon die. This difference drives a wedge between the two as the narrator is frustrated and embarrassed by having a disabled brother.
Another difference is that Doodle seems to appreciate the simple beauty of the world more than his brother. He also has a very keen imagination. He loves to sit by "Old Woman Swamp" and either make "honeysuckle wreaths" or tell fantasy stories. When the narrator first takes Doodle to the swamp, Doodle is overcome by the beauty of nature and cries. He says,
“It’s so pretty,” he said. “So pretty, pretty, pretty.”
Doodle weaves vivid stories about imaginary characters. The characters in Doodle's stories all fly wherever they want to go and one character has a pet peacock. These dreams represent Doodle's vision for overcoming his disabilities. Likewise, he is fascinated by the scarlet ibis that is blown off course and lands in one of the family's trees. Doodle admires the bird's fragile beauty, and when it dies, he insists on burying it.
The narrator, on the other hand, is obsessed with the physical aspects of life. From the very beginning he wants a brother who will be an athletic companion in tests of endurance and strength:
I thought myself pretty smart at many things, like holding my breath, running, jumping, or climbing the vines in Old Woman Swamp, and I wanted more than anything else someone to race to Horsehead Landing, someone to box with, and someone to perch with in the top fork of the great pine behind the barn, where across the fields and swamps you could see the sea. I wanted a brother.
Because of this, he pushes Doodle to be the playmate he always wanted. He initially teaches him to walk, but that isn't enough and he devises a rigorous training schedule for Doodle. Doodle, however, cannot live up to his brother's expectations and, when he fails, the narrator abandons him in a rainstorm.
In the end, the reader may assume that the narrator feels great remorse for the way he treated Doodle and that he was unable to realize the fragile elegance of the boy.