illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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Metaphors In The Scarlet Ibis

What are three good metaphors in the short story "The Scarlet Ibis" by James Hurst?

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James Hurst's "The Scarlet Ibis" contains many different metaphors. We encounter this form of figurative language in the very first sentence, when Hurst 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.

Here, the narrator is metaphorically treating the seasons not just as markers of time which pass through the natural world, but as things which are born and which die, almost in a human capacity. The "clove"--which in its literal use is a dried red flower bud--is a metaphor for being a late bloomer (as we will soon learn Doodle is) and an examination of the divide between two time periods.

When the narrator speaks of his relationship with Doodle, he comments:

There is within me (and with sadness I have watched it in others) a knot of cruelty borne by the stream love...

The narrator is comparing love to a stream (a body of water which flows through a landscape), suggesting that love is an organic part of being human; at the same time, he is also viewing his tendency toward unkindness as a knot (the tangling of something), which is also part of nature. Both capabilities--love and cruelty--exist intrinsically within the narrator. 

The narrator goes on to say:

I did not know then that pride is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death.

Again, we encounter a metaphorical examination of a human quality as a component of the natural world. In this case, pride is a seed which yields (in an echoing of the open passage) both life and death as growing extensions of it.

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Of course, the controlling metaphor of James Hurst's short story is the beautiful red bird named in the title, "The Scarlet Ibis"; this bird becomes a metaphor, an unstated comparison for Doodle, whose nickname is also a metaphor as the brother has donned him after the doodlebug that walks backwards because as a baby he crawled that direction.

Here are three other metaphors employed by Hurst.

  • In the second paragraph, the brother narrates that a grindstone now stands where the bleeding tree in which the ibis had landed once was, replaced now with an elm. If an oriole lands there momentarily with a song, "its song seems to die up in the leaves, a silvery dust."  This is a metaphor as "song" is compared to "silvery dust."
  • In the ninth paragraph, "He was a burden in many ways." This is an expressed metaphor as Doodle = a burden.
  • In the thirtieth paragraph, the brother tries to teach Doodle to walk because he is embarrassed that his brother cannot do this. He realizes that now at this point Doodle has become someone he must make worthy of his pride. 

I did not know then that pride is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death. 

This metaphor, too, is expressed one as pride is equated to the seed; another metaphor is that [it] bears two vines, life and death. Life and death are compared to two vines.

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    The narrator's little brother, Doodle, receives several complimentary comparisons in the James Hurst short story, "The Scarlet Ibis." Three different examples of metaphorical useage (the comparison of two unlike things without using the words "like" or "as") are listed below.
    The big brother compares himself to a slave in his desire to help Doodle learn to walk:

    ... that pride, whose slave I was, spoke to me louder than all their voices... 

Later, the final storm's elements are compared to a child's game--of hide-and-go-seek, perhaps?

... lightning was playing across half the sky and thunder roared out, hiding even the sound of the sea. 

In the story's final line, the dead Doodle is compared with the fallen ibis, and the rainstorm is likened to an irreligious act.

For a long time, it seemed forever, I lay there crying, sheltering my fallen scarlet ibis from the heresy of rain.

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