The Scarlet Ibis Questions and Answers
by James Hurst

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What is the use of the red color as a symbol in the story "The Scarlet Ibis"?  

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The use of red in this story is interesting, because red can be a color of polar opposites. Valentine's Day and all of its redness is symbolic of love, yet red is also the color that animators frequently use to show a character filled with rage and hate. In "The Scarlet Ibis," the color red is consistently a negative color throughout. The first time readers see the red color is when Doodle is born:

He seemed all head, with a tiny body which was red and shriveled like an old man's.

Doodle's body appears sickly, and the color red is attached to that negative image. Brother pushes Doodle hard throughout the story, for various reasons, and Doodle works hard because of it. Readers see his exertion in his "red" face. Doodle is keeping up, but he's practically killing himself to do it.

Wherever we went, I purposely walked fast, and although he kept up, his face turned red and his eyes became glazed.

The ibis eventually enters the story, and red is central to its description. Unfortunately, what should be a beautiful bird is marred by its injuries. The "great big red bird" is a sickly and dying creature. Instead of being beautiful and vibrant, the red color is associated with death:

for it lay on the earth like a broken vase of red flowers . . .

The red and death symbolism comes again at the story's conclusion. Brother goes back to find his brother, beneath a "red nightshade." This detail should clue readers in to the bad news that is coming. Doodle is dead, with "brilliant red" blood all over his shirt.

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Variations of the color red are used throughout James Hurst's "The Scarlet Ibis." It is used to symbolize the blood that flows from Doodle onto his shirt at the end of the story. The redness of the bleeding tree is another symbol, with it's connotation of blood; like Doodle, it no longer survives as the brother retells his story from a later viewpoint. The ibis itself is vividly red--a bird that has somehow flown far from its native land only to die a lonely death, not unlike Doodle's own demise. The bird is also an endangered species--again, like Doodle--unable to breed successfully in native surroundings. Yet its red body makes it one of the most beautiful of all birds. Red symbolizes death, from Doodle's early days with his "red and shriveled" body; and bad luck, judging from Aunt Nicey's declaration about "Dead birds is bad luck... Specially red, dead birds." Doodle dies in the midst of "a red nightshade bush," blood running from his mouth "making his vermilion neck appear unusually long and thin."

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