Discuss the symbolism in "The Scarlet Ibis" by James Hurst.

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Symbolism abounds in "The Scarlet Ibis." Brother, the narrator in the story, also serves as the protagonist.  Everything works through Brother.  The entire story is a flashback back to a time for  that was difficult for Brother to face. He is telling this story remembering it as though it has just happened.

Doodle, Brother's younger brother, is different.  He was never expected to live and certainly not to be able to do anything. His father even built his coffin when he was a baby. Obviously, the coffin represents the death of Doodle maybe not just  then but eventually.   Admitting that he has a cruel streak, Brother eventually makes  Doodle touch his own coffin which made him scream:

And even when we were outside in the bright sunshine, he clung to me, crying, "Don't leave me, Brother! Don't leave me."

Foreshadowing of things to come.

Doodle was a disappointment.  Nothing about him was ordinary.  His heart condition kept him from doing anything that a little boy should be able to do.  Eventually, Doodle does become a sensitive, gentle soul that loves his brother unconditionally.  Doodle so wanted to please Brother that he was willing to go through excruciating pain to learn to walk and anything else his brother wanted to try.

The relationship between the brothers was not based on love because Brother is unclear about his feelings for Doodle.  He is ashamed of him but proud of him for learning to walk; however, Brother takes more pride in himself for having taught Doodle.   Doodle never had that with Brother because of his ambiguous feelings.   

The color red runs throughout the story.  The story might have been called "Painting Doodle Red." The tree that holds the ibis in the backyard is called the bleeding treeDoodle's body as a baby was red and shriveled like an old man's . 

The ibis that dies from its storm injuries is red and then bleeds when it falls to the ground.  When the bird falls unexpectedly to the ground, Brother notes that it looks like a broken vase of red flowers.  This beautiful bird did not belong where it landed.  Just like Doodle, it was out of place.  Symbolically, the ibis represents the little boy who immediately wants to bury the bird.

Cruelty takes over Brother's spirit again.  Doodle did not want to take his swimming lesson.  He did not feel like it. Brother forced him to go.  A storm sets in just as Brother realizes that Doodle will never be what he wants him to be.  Brother leaves Doodle and runs away from him. Remember when Brother showed Doodle his own coffin:

When the deafening thunder had died,  I heard Doodle cry out, "Brother, Brother, don't leave me! Don't leave me!"

He stops and waits for Doodle, but he does not come.  When Brother returns to find Doodle, he is huddled beneath a red nightshade bush which has poisonous berries symbolizing death. When Brother lifts Doodle up, he is bleeding from the mouth just as the Ibis did.  Hysterically, Brother realizes that he pushed Doodle too far:

I screamed above the pounding storm and threw my body to the earth above his.  For a long time, it seemed forever, I lay there crying sheltering my fallen scarlet ibis. 

Too little, too late--Doodle has become the symbolic beautiful bird that was out of place. Doodle's death was not unexpected, but Brother's part inhis death has never left him.  His guilt represents his unsympathetic treatment of this beautiful little fellow.