illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst
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What does Old Woman Swamp symbolize in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

Old Woman Swamp symbolizes the many facets of Doodle's character: he is a child of nature, at home in the swamp, and like the swamp, he is beautiful in his own way. But the swamp also symbolizes Doodle's limitations: nature, Doodle's "mother," will take back its own.

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Like the scarlet ibis, Old Woman Swamp symbolizes Doodle. Doodle is the "Old Woman's" child as much as his mother's, more at home among the beauty of the swamp, with its grasses and wild creatures, than he is in civilization. His parent's civilized home is where Doodle's little coffin, as Doodle knows, awaits his death; in the swamp, in contrast, he feels so moved and one with the setting that he begins to cry.

Doodle thrives as far as he is able to in this natural home away from home. Brother takes him here often, because Doodle loves it so much. It is here that Brother is able to teach Doodle to walk, away from the judgmental eyes of civilization, which doesn't believe he can accomplish this feat.

But the swamp, while a symbol of Doodle's natural being and inner beauty, is also a symbol of his limitations. It is at the swamp, when Doodle is too tired to learn to swim, that Brother realizes that he can't make him like the other boys at school. Doodle is a creature apart. He is like the scarlet ibis, a lovely but doomed creature of nature. Doodle's "mother" is nature, and nature takes him back at the end of the story.

The swamp is thus a complex symbol of the many facets of Doodle's nature.

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