Why does James Hurst consider the setting as a character in "The Scarlet Ibis"?  

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mercut1469 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

James Hurst describes the setting in great detail in his short story "The Scarlet Ibis." The story is presumed to be set in coastal North Carolina (the state is never explicitly given but "Dix Hill" which is in Raleigh is mentioned) in the second decade of the 20th century. Hurst goes out of his way to detail the flora of the area. He also uses specific references to historical events and the weather. The setting definitely transforms into an important character in the story. It is both benign and malignant.

On one hand the setting is comforting and inviting. The narrator describes Old Woman Swamp as "the only beauty I knew" and Doodle too is impressed as he says it was "pretty, pretty, pretty." The boys use the numerous flowers around the swamp to make wreaths. The narrator mentions any number of flowers which seem to heighten the soothing effects of the environment. Doodle learns to walk amidst the beauty of Old Woman Swamp and the narrator even uses the setting to help describe the hope the two boys experience:

Hope no longer hid in the dark palmetto thicket but perched like a cardinal in the lacy toothbrush tree, brilliantly visible. "Yes, yes," I cried, and he cried it too, and the grass beneath us was soft and the smell of the swamp was sweet. 

In contrast, the setting is often violent and foreboding. The summer of 1918, which is also the summer Doodle dies, is described as "blighted." The narrator also details the effect of a hurricane which comes through, "splitting the limbs of the elm trees" and blowing "the fallen oaks around." The boys' mother talks of specific battles during World War I and that a neighbor boy was killed. The mention of the war represents the silent battle between the narrator and Doodle. The narrator admits that in his training of Doodle, "I made him swim until he turned blue and row until he couldn't lift an oar."

Finally, the weather is an important character in the deaths of the ibis and Doodle. The bird is blown off course until it winds up in the family's "bleeding tree." It is exhausted fighting its way in the storm and suddenly tumbles from the tree and dies. Doodle too is exhausted by the driving rainstorm as he tries to catch up to his brother in the final sequence of the story. 

The setting could be described as a dynamic character because it changes through the course of the story. It is initially tranquil and seems to engender the love between the two brothers at Old Woman Swamp. Then it turns turbulent and tempestuous as storms aid in the deaths of the ibis and Doodle.

 

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The Scarlet Ibis

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