What are the symbols in "The Scarlet Ibis?" 

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amarang9 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The opening paragraph is filled with symbols of death and decay. Summer is "dead" and with autumn approaching, the plants and trees are losing leaves, wilting, and birds have left their nests or migrated for the winter. Having read the entire story, the image that stands out in this first paragraph is of the empty nest: 

. . . but the oriole nest in the elm was untenanted and rocked back and forth like an empty cradle. 

This empty nest suggests the absence of baby birds. To be sure, this could mean the birds have grown and flown away. But the emptiness in the context of this dying season seems more suggestive of death. When Doodle is born frail and crippled, he is given little chance of living. His father has a casket made and this empty casket is clearly a symbol of death. The interesting combination of the empty nest and the empty casket illustrates the process of life but the small casket clearly suggests a short life. (The foreboding symbolism of the bird's nest and the Ibis, later in the story, are poetic ways of describing Doodle.) 

When Brother shows Doodle the casket, it is covered with "Paris green" which is  poison designed to kill rats and bugs. Brother names him "Doodle" because he would crawl like a bug. The casket is covered with material poisonous to bugs, showing that even the idea of the casket is (emotionally as well as physically) poisonous to Doodle. 

The symbolism of birds is important in this story. Doodle has a story about a boy who has a pet peacock. The bird would enfold the boy when he went to sleep like a protective covering. 

When Doodle sees the Ibis, he relates to it as well. When the bird dies, Doodle is sad and refuses to eat. He determines to bury the bird. The Ibis is the most overt symbol in the story. It is a bird that comes from a different place. It can not survive in its new environment. Likewise, Doodle can never fit in or live up to Brother's expectations. The red color of the Ibis parallels Doodle's own blood in the end. The "bleeding tree" is also symbolic of Doodle's death.