The Scarlet Ibis Criticism
by James Hurst

The Scarlet Ibis book cover
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Claire Robinson

(Short Stories for Students)

A peacock with its tail spread Published by Gale Cengage

Robinson is a writer and editor. In the following essay, Robinson analyzes how the story of the life and death of a disabled child is explored by Hurst's use of symbolism.

In James Hurst's "The Scarlet Ibis," the arrival of the scarlet ibis is mentioned in the first sentence, suggesting that it has major significance. The memory of the ibis's visit triggers the memory in Brother's mind of his brother Doodle. The bird's red color, combined with the fact that it alights in the bleeding tree, combines to create an image of blood, foreshadowing later events in both the ibis's and Doodle's lives. The link between the ibis and Doodle is further developed later in the story, when the ibis's arrival is described in detail. Doodle is the first to notice the bird and the first outside to investigate further. He is wonder-struck by the sight. At that point, the bird falls dead out of the tree. Daddy goes to get the bird book and establishes that it is a scarlet ibis, a native of the tropics that must have been separated from its flock and blown in by a storm. Readers understand that the bird is out of its natural environment, alone, weakened, and fragile. Doodle, too, is a creature out of his natural environment, too weak to do the things Brother expects of him, with a skin too sensitive even to bear the sun's rays, and expected not to survive at the beginning of his life. In "The Scarlet Ibis," James Hurst establishes a symbolic link between the bird and the disabled boy that illuminates the significance of the boy's life and death.

The bird's arrival on the wings of a freak storm raises the questions: What is Doodle's natural environment? Where is his flock? The answers are not given explicitly but are suggested symbolically. Doodle is frequently characterized by images of winged beings. There is the ibis itself, to which Doodle is symbolically linked; there are the people who inhabit his fantasies who have wings and fly wherever they want to go; and there is Brother's comment that giving Doodle the name William Armstrong is "like tying a big tail on a small kite." Finally, there is Doodle's favorite fantasy of a boy with a golden robe and a pet peacock who spreads his magnificent tail. This boy's robe is so bright that the sunflowers turn away from the sun to face him. The only light that could be brighter than the earth's brightest source of light, the sun, would have to be of divine origin. Winged beings include earthly birds but also heavenly angels.

Other images in the story link Doodle with a divine level of existence. Aunt Nicey, the spiritual conscience of the family, remarks that Doodle was born in a caul and explains that "cauls were made from Jesus' nightgown" and that caul babies must be treated with respect because they might be saints. She also compares his learning to walk with the Resurrection. Aunt Nicey's reverent and deeply spiritual appreciation of Doodle reflects his own attitude toward the ibis, particularly when he solemnly conducts a burial service for the bird.

Aunt Nicey's view of Doodle and Doodle's view of the ibis show readers there is another way of responding to beings who are different, other than expecting them to die (Doodle's family) or forcing them to become the same as everyone else (Brother). It is possible to love, honor, and respect a being for its uniqueness. This possibility is suggested in Doodle's vision of the boy with the golden robe and the peacock. The vision is a wish-fulfillment for Doodle's own life: that instead of being singled out for his perceived inadequacies, he is singled out and adored even by the flowers for his glorious and shining appearance. However, it is significant that saints, the scarlet ibis, and boys with peacocks do not live in the everyday world: a saint only becomes a saint after his or her death; the ibis lives in the far away tropics and when taken out of its natural environment, dies; and the boy with the peacock is only a fantasy. There is a...

(The entire section is 5,976 words.)