illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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Claire Robinson

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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 sense in the story that the rough, ordinary world is not ready to receive and nurture such rare beings as Doodle or the blown-in ibis.

The story shows readers that the response of the world to special beings is sadly, all too often, to cut off their wings, to remain oblivious to their uniqueness and to confine them in a prison of limited expectations. Two symbols of the limited expectations that the family have for Doodle are the coffin and the go-cart. Daddy has the coffin made when he believes that Doodle will die soon after birth. When it is clear that Doodle will not die, Daddy has the go-cart made so that Brother can pull the otherwise immobile Doodle around. Daddy acts out of love, but the symbolism tells an uncomfortable truth. Both items that he makes for Doodle are small wooden boxes. The family's expectations of him fit into a small wooden box. What would a beautiful bird or a winged person, or a boy with a golden robe and a peacock, do in a small wooden box? On one hand, Daddy's actions can be seen as acceptance of his condition, but on the other hand, they shut out the possibility of change. Doodle is serenely certain that the coffin is not his—he intends to live. Both coffin and go-cart are consigned to the barn loft when it becomes evident that Doodle has grown beyond the family's limited expectations.

Brother, too, in spite of his obsession with having a sibling who will not limit him or hold him back in his activities, also puts Doodle into a box of sorts. He claims that "Renaming my brother was perhaps the kindest thing I ever did for him, because nobody expects much from someone called Doodle." Until then, Doodle had been called by the grand-sounding name of William Armstrong. Brother renames him after a lowly bug. The word "doodle" also means a hastily done, unfinished drawing, so the nickname may carry a suggestion of Doodle's disability. Brother's act in renaming his brother seems anything but kind. It is as limiting and dismissive as the family's determination that Doodle will die soon after birth. Readers are alerted to this point by Aunt Nicey's disapproval of the renaming, on the grounds that it would not befit a saint.

The ibis, like Doodle, carries the touch of the divine, its death being suggestive of that of Christ. The ibis alights in a bleeding tree, and Christ is said to have bled from his wounds on the cross. The tree may be a symbol of the cross, for Christ is said to have been crucified on a tree. The ibis dies and falls from the tree, as Christ died on the cross. The colors of the dead ibis (scarlet plumage and white veil over the eyes) are those seen in many churches at Easter. They are the symbolic colors of the Passion of Christ, evoking respectively earthly suffering and spiritual serenity, humankind and the Godhead. Doodle's kneeling before the dead ibis and reverent burial of the bird while other members of his family continue their lunch is reminiscent of those loyal disciples of Jesus who cared for his body after his death, while, presumably, the sinners and unbelievers were preoccupied with their grosser needs.

Doodle has a spiritual awareness of the course of his life. After burying the ibis, Doodle returns to the house pale, quiet, and not interested in finishing his lunch. Just as he knows that the coffin his father made for him is not his, he now seems to know that the death of the scarlet ibis foreshadows his own death. He is proved right the same day.

That Doodle, through the ibis, is symbolically linked with Christ implies that he has a transformative function in others' lives. This point is borne out in the story. Doodle creates visions of beauty and oneness with nature in Brother's mind, such as his picture of their living together in Old Woman Swamp in a house built from whispering leaves and his vision of the golden-robed boy with the peacock. This vision moves Brother to an ecstasy beyond words, so that all he can do is whisper, "Yes, yes." More importantly, Doodle provides an opportunity for Brother to learn and exercise the Christ-like virtues of unconditional love and compassion. Though Brother fails to absorb this lesson while Doodle is alive, his penitent tears over Doodle's dead body and his reflections elsewhere in the story on the dangers of pride show that he has learned at last, albeit at the cost of Doodle's life. This is another suggested link between Doodle and Christ: both had to die so that those left alive could learn the gospel of love and compassion. In sheltering Doodle's body with his own from the "heresy of rain" (another Christian reference), Brother finally gives Doodle the selfless love and protection that proved so elusive while he was alive.

Source: Claire Robinson, Critical Essay on "The Scarlet Ibis," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

Sheldon Goldfarb

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Goldfarb has a Ph.D. in English and has published two books on the Victorian author William Makepeace Thackeray. In the following essay, Goldfarb discusses religion and duality in "The Scarlet Ibis."

"The Scarlet Ibis" is a deceptively straightforward story, apparently about the guilt the narrator feels over the death years ago of his little brother, Doodle. On the surface, the story is about not forcing people to do things beyond their abilities, about recognizing people for their own individual talents and not forcing them to fit a common mold. The unnamed narrator, known only as Brother, seems to suggest that he should not have pushed Doodle to do the normal, everyday things other little boys do: running, swimming, climbing trees, rowing a boat. Doodle, delicate and physically handicapped from birth, was not able to do these things, and pushing him to do them killed him.

Yet there seems to be so much more in the story. For one thing it bristles with imagery, allusions, and symbols. There is the symbol of the scarlet ibis, the dead red bird to which Doodle is compared at the end. There are all the references to flowering and dying plants, especially in the opening paragraph, in which the narrator talks of "rotting brown magnolia petals" and "graveyard flowers" and a "bleeding tree." Moreover, there is the strange reference at the very end of the story to "the heresy of rain."

What might "the heresy of rain" mean? A heresy is a belief opposed to orthodoxy, especially orthodox religion. In the story, Brother tries to shelter Doodle's body from "the heresy of rain," though Doodle is dead and one would think beyond need of sheltering. The sheltering is clearly an action of guilt, and perhaps of belated love, and it also seems to be an attempt to preserve Doodle's similarity to the scarlet ibis. In death, Doodle is covered with blood, creating a resemblance to the scarlet bird which died earlier that day. Perhaps "the heresy of the rain" stems from the fear that the rain may wash away the blood and destroy the resemblance.

But if rain is the heresy, is the orthodoxy the notion that Doodle in some way is like the scarlet ibis? The ibis, as the children's father determines, is native to the tropics, far south of the family's home, which appears to be somewhere in rural North Carolina near Raleigh (given the reference in the story to Dix Hill, a mental institution in Raleigh). In North Carolina, the ibis is exotic and out of place. It is also full of "grace," a term which may simply mean charm but which is also a Christian term for the divine love through which human beings may obtain salvation. When the ibis arrives, it lands in a "bleeding tree," which literally means a tree oozing sap but which also suggests an allusion to the Cross on which Christ died.

Perhaps both the ibis and Doodle are meant to be Christ figures, dying for others' sins and somehow bringing them grace. Or if that is reading too much into this sad little story, then perhaps it is just about a brother's remorse. Yet the odd use of the word "heresy" at the end, along with several other references to religion, implies more meaning.

In the most triumphant part of the story, when Brother manages to teach Doodle to walk, Aunt Nicey comments that the big surprise the two boys keep promising had better be as "tremendous … [as] the Resurrection," and it is in a way. Raising Doodle to his feet, getting him to stand and then walk when everyone had said it was impossible seems almost akin to raising someone from the dead. Interestingly, the person who performs this resurrection is not Doodle, but Brother. It is Doodle in a way, of course, for he is the one who stands and walks, but really the work was Brother's. Brother pushes Doodle to do it, putting Doodle on his feet at least a hundred times a day and picking him up when he falls. In a telling remark, Brother says that the enterprise seemed so hopeless that "it's a miracle [he] didn't give up." This comment about working a miracle makes Brother seem like a Christ figure, having the power to work miracles and perform a resurrection.

Proud of his achievement, Brother begins to believe in "[his] own infallibility," another Christian term especially associated with the Catholic Church, which holds the pope in his exercise of his office to be infallible. Of course, in the story Brother turns out to be seriously fallible, so perhaps his association with miracles and resurrection should not be taken to mean that he is God-like, or perhaps he is some sort of false god; after all it is Doodle who is compared to the magical or sacred scarlet ibis. Aunt Nicey suggests that Doodle might turn out to be a saint, and certainly Doodle has some saint-like attributes. He is the compassionate one who goes out to bury the dead ibis while the others laugh at his awkwardness; the one who seems most inspired by nature, crying with wonder because the swamp is so pretty; and the one with a mystical imagination, conjuring stories about boys in golden robes, people with wings, and magnificent peacocks with ten-foot tails.

Perhaps Hurst is pointing out the duality of religion, especially the duality in Christian religion. Jesus, after all, can be thought of as the crucified meek and mild martyr, but also as the powerful worker of miracles who raised others and himself from the dead. Certainly, the dualities in this story suggest religious duality. On the one hand, Brother, a fairly conventional boy, is "pretty smart" at things like "holding [his] breath, running, jumping, or climbing the vines." On the other hand, Doodle can hardly do any of those things, but he has a gift for storytelling, loves to talk, and is compassionate and full of wonder at natural beauty.

Unfortunately, even years later Brother does not seem to recognize Doodle's talents. Doodle's storytelling Brother calls "lying"; his talk is ignored by the rest of the family; and his compassion for the dead ibis is scorned by them. Only by comparing Doodle to the ibis does Brother seem to suggest that Doodle was at all special. More typically, Brother refers to Doodle as crazy, though he does say Doodle was not "a crazy crazy," just "a nice crazy, like someone you meet in your dreams." This last comment indicates that there may have been something magical about Doodle, but mostly what Brother seems to express is his guilt over forcing Doodle to do things that were beyond him. Brother seems unaware that there was something that Doodle could do that was beyond the others.

The story itself, though, does seem to bring this message home, as if to say that, in a world of dualities, dualities are needed. There is a need for the active side of life, the running and the jumping and the climbing, and also for the more contemplative and mystical side, the Brother side and the Doodle side. Moreover, it is important that everyone has at least a little of each: even Doodle wants to be able to move around a little; on his own he strives to crawl, not content to remain motionless on his stomach on the bed in the front room. When he learns to walk, he is happy; the whole story is happy, with "Hope no longer hid … but … brilliantly visible" and Doodle and Brother crying for joy while they lie on the soft grass smelling the sweetness of the swamp.

Of course, that the sweetness is in a swamp may give readers pause; with every positive there comes a negative, it seems. The very opening of the story is about bright flowers which seem full of life but which are also dying. Life and death exist together, and in Brother's feelings for Doodle both affection and cruelty exist, as he says himself when explaining why he forced Doodle to touch the little coffin.

It would be easy to interpret the story as a condemnation of Brother and his ordinary way of life, with praise for Doodle's contrasting mystical qualities. The story does seem to suggest that special qualities such as Doodle has should be respected and that someone like Doodle, who has talents of a certain type, should not be forced to ignore those talents in favor of running and climbing and jumping. But the story does not reject these activities outright. When Doodle expresses reluctance about learning to walk and says he just "can't do it," when he says that instead of practicing they should just make honeysuckle wreaths, the story does not seem to agree with him. It turns out that he can learn to walk and is happy to do so. If there is magic and godliness in the spiritual life, so there is some too in the life of physical activity. The world needs both, the story seems to say.

The danger comes when one side of life crushes out the other: when Brother pushes Doodle to become just like an ordinary boy, he pushes too hard. He does not allow for differences. To Brother it is a horrible thing to be "different from everybody else," and he is especially worried that his little brother will leave him open to shame if he is still different when he starts school. At some level Brother has thought that it would be better to have no brother at all than a brother who might shame him. When Doodle was first born and it seemed that he might be mentally as well as physically handicapped, Brother even thought of smothering him. When it becomes clear that Doodle is "all there," Brother gives up his overt plan to kill him, but in some sense he kills him still, all because Doodle is different.

The effect is sadness, not only at the end of the story, when Brother cradles his dead brother, but at the very beginning when Brother describes his life years later. Instead of a garden of riotous flowers, some rotting and rank but others blooming, instead of a wild, living land, Brother now has a "prim" garden, a house that is gleaming white, and a "pale fence" standing "straight and spruce." It sounds clean and neat, but also sterile, and instead of the bleeding tree there is a grindstone, something mechanical instead of natural, something lifeless, something that never had life in it.

Ultimately a question remains about "the heresy of rain." For Brother, the rain attempts to kill the magical ibis quality of his little brother, Doodle. If having the grace of true religion in this story means being scarlet like the ibis, then the rain that washes away the scarlet blood is the enemy. But it was Brother's own shame that killed Doodle, and the true heresy seems to be the fear of difference, the fear of dualities, the fear of accepting contrasting aspects. True religion, this story seems to say, consists in acknowledging and accepting both sides of life, the active and the spiritual. When one side destroys the other, the result is death or worse than death, a lifeless existence of grindstones, prim gardens, and pale fences instead of the joyous experience of death-in-life in the swamp.

Source: Sheldon Goldfarb, Critical Essay on "The Scarlet Ibis," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

David Remy

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Remy is a freelance writer in Warrington, Florida. In the following essay, Remy examines the ways in which Hurst's narrative strategies control time and influence the story's interpretation.

Though laden with symbolism, "The Scarlet Ibis" is a story that combines elements of biblical fable, romance, and mystery to capture the reader's interest. It is the way in which the story is told, rather than its symbolic content, however, that makes the "The Scarlet Ibis" linger in the reader's imagination. Part of this attraction derives from Hurst's creating a narrative structure that is as anomalous as the bird itself, for he incorporates narrative techniques that are not traditionally found in the short story. Nevertheless, the narrative moves at a pace that makes the reader want to know what happens and why, the reader's sense of time and causality influenced by the narrative point of view. Through narrative techniques that illuminate the brothers' relationship as the story moves from present to past, the narrator, Brother, manipulates time to create an air of mystery, arousing the reader's suspicion that, indeed, Doodle's death, unlike that of the scarlet ibis, may have been the result of design rather than accident.

By using a first-person narrator to tell the story, Hurst immediately establishes rapport between the reader and the narrator, whose voice remains personal and convincing from beginning to end. Moreover, the narrator, Brother, is always at the center of the story's action. It is through his eyes that the reader understands Doodle's character and the sequence of events that leads to the story's melodramatic climax. However, one of the limitations of the first-person narrator is that he or she can only express his or her thoughts and perceptions. Despite having a strong even domineering character, Brother lacks omniscience.

The benefits of using a first-person narrator far outweigh the detriments, however, for Brother elicits the reader's sympathy from the outset, shaping causality and structuring time to enhance his account of events. As the narrator, Brother determines when the reader receives information. The story's chronology, which moves from the present to the past, with compressed periods of time omitted in between, influences the reader's understanding of how the story unfolds. The order of events is structured so that it supports Brother's beliefs and perceptions, his way of viewing the world. Therefore, Brother establishes an emotional and temporal distance as he looks upon his younger self, a narrative stance that invites the reader to identify with the wiser, more mature adult he has become.

Although not commonly found in the short story form, a circular narrative allows Brother to record the movement of time and evoke a bygone era. The seasons and the school year serve as guideposts for the trials and tribulations, the successes and failures that mark a boy's coming of age. There is a cyclical movement of time associated with these traditional beginnings and endings, a rhythm closely tied to nature and to the expectations Brother places upon himself and Doodle. Now, many years after the "clove of seasons," the present meets the past to close the circle, raising the reader's curiosity about why Brother chooses this particular time and place to tell his story.

Another narrative technique not traditionally found in the short story is the flashback, which, because the short story form usually emphasizes a particular moment in time rather than several periods extended over a longer period, is better suited for narrating events that occur within a novel. Nonetheless, Hurst uses flashback to great effect in "The Scarlet Ibis" because of the story's focus on the sweep of personal history and the transformation that has apparently occurred within the narrator. Brother evokes the past to help the reader understand the present, especially as it relates to the narrator's sense of loss. The opening paragraphs are suffused with images of death and decay, and, in this respect, the use of flashback establishes a vivid contrast between the present and Brother's vision of his childhood life in and around Old Woman Swamp.

The image of the revolving grindstone signals the beginning of the flashback, transporting the reader to a more innocent time that Brother remembers with a mixture of fondness and regret. Here the reader pauses to wonder if, perhaps, Brother is embarking on a type of confession story, one that will account for the narrative's melancholic tone. Regardless, that tone soon dissipates as Brother tells the reader about his success in giving his baby brother a name that is not only appropriate given his handicaps but which is actually preferred by the family. The tone becomes proud and almost defiant when Brother tells of how he, through sheer will and perseverance, was able to work a miracle in making Doodle walk. The flashback records Brother's triumphs as he dominates his younger brother. Each test that Doodle passes leads to yet another, more difficult test of his loyalty. Normally, a flashback ends when the present intrudes upon the past, thus bringing the narrative full circle, yet Brother never returns the story to the present moment. Instead, he remains focused on the past, making the reader wonder why.

Hurst introduces a different kind of time by introducing parallels to the archetypal brothers in conflict, the biblical story of Cain and Abel. This parallel Hurst helps the reader identify the roles his characters play. Brother and Doodle's relationship to each other becomes clearer against the backdrop of history or fable. Thus, this parallel functions like a narrative "shortcut," a way of establishing for the author a mythopoetic context in which the story's action occurs. In "The Scarlet Ibis," the archetypes of the good, obedient brother and the proud, covetous one stand outside time, for the essential qualities of each character have remained intact through the ages. The relationship between the brothers represents a moral flaw inherent to human nature—namely, that even the best of intentions can lead to deadly rivalry when pride becomes too strong.

Since Brother is the story's narrator, he becomes the author's obvious choice for bearing the weight of the biblical parallel. From the very beginning of the flashback sequence, Brother tells the reader that he wants a brother, someone "to race [with] to Horsehead Landing, someone to box with, and someone to perch with in the top fork of the great pine behind the barn, where across the fields and swamps you could see the sea." Brother desires a companion against whom he may measure himself and with whom he may share nature's beauty. Yet, instead of having a brother who is his equal, someone who could push him to greater heights of achievement, Brother finds himself having to care for Doodle, whom he refers to as a "disappointment" and a "burden." Like Cain, Brother is his brother's keeper; hence, his name resonates with biblical—and moral—significance.

Hurst extends the similarity in sibling rivalry by bestowing upon Brother traits that are associated with Cain, whom the Bible records as the first person to commit murder. Rather than focusing on this aspect of Cain's biography, however, Hurst establishes other parallels. Like Cain, who was a farmer, a man who tilled the soil and harvested its yield, Brother possesses an extensive knowledge of plant life, especially that found in the swamp. Indeed, Brother's childhood knowledge of botany is extraordinary. But Cain's dominion over the earth does not last forever, for the soil becomes cursed once he spills Abel's blood upon the ground. Similarly, Brother views nature as dead and decaying years after the "clove of seasons":

The flower garden was stained with rotting brown magnolia petals and ironweeds grew rank amid the purple phlox. The five o'clocks by the chimney still marked time, but the oriole nest in the elm was untenanted and rocked back and forth like an empty cradle. The last graveyard flowers were blooming, and their smell drifted across the cotton field and through every room of our house, speaking softly the names of our dead.

Brother's sense is that time has been suspended, separated from nature's recurrent nurturing elements, though the reader does not yet understand why.

Another character trait that clarifies and develops the correspondence between Brother and Cain is pride. When asked by God where Abel is, Cain, who has recently murdered his brother in a field, is proud enough—and defiant enough—to respond to God's question with one of his own: "Am I my brother's keeper?" Cain's pride and defiance fuel his capacity for violence. When God learns of Abel's murder, he places a mark on Cain so that no one may seek vengeance, and thus Cain wanders the earth forever like a vagabond. Though his whereabouts for the past several years remain unknown, Brother also possesses the potential for violence, which is the biblical legacy that has been handed down to him. Brother's violent tendencies are perhaps more shocking when the reader realizes that he regards life and death matter-of-factly, as though his being inconvenienced is of paramount importance: "It was bad enough having an invalid brother, but having one who possibly was not all there was unbearable, so I began to make plans to kill him by smothering him with a pillow." Whether Brother tries later to act out this impulse remains unclear.

Brother's cruelty toward Doodle, however, is not impulsive, erupting in brief flashes of anger that dissipate quickly and are soon forgotten; rather, Brother's cruelty is sustained like an undercurrent of malice, for the tests he makes Doodle endure are both a product and a measure of Brother's self-aggrandizement. Brother is able to control his cruelty only because his pride—and the adulation that he seeks from adults—needs reinforcement. This need for reinforcement and a narcissistic love temper Brother's actions, though his penchant for understatement reveals that he never fully comprehends the extent of suffering he causes his brother: "There is within me … a knot of cruelty borne by the stream of love, much as our blood sometimes bears the seed of our destruction, and at times I was mean to Doodle." This cruelty first appears when Brother takes Doodle up to the loft to touch his coffin, a scene in which Doodle's cry—"Don't leave me. Don't leave me."—foreshadows the story's ending. When Brother finally expresses his sincere remorse, it is from a moral and emotional viewpoint tempered by the passage of time: "I did not know then that pride is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death." Unfortunately for Doodle, Brother's realization arrives too late.

Hurst combines narrative elements to create an air of mystery and suspense in the story, revealing an outcome that is far from certain. The use of a circular structure and the tone of the story's narration inform the reader that Brother has survived some traumatic and life-altering event, for he cannot look at nature in the same way he did before. The paradise he enjoyed as a boy is gone forever. Obviously, this loss is connected to Doodle, but Hurst leaves the reader to decide the extent of that association. Furthermore, the story's first-person narration makes the reader question whether Brother is an unreliable narrator. This is a conceit that Hurst develops later in the story, though from the outset Brother's narrative style causes the reader to wonder what information, if any, he may conceal. Parallels to Cain and Abel compound a sense of impending violence, one that is satisfied rather anticlimactically at the story's end.

Hurst, however, carries the Cain and Abel parallel only so far, forcing the reader to adjust his or her expectations. Although the reader knows that Brother will not accept Doodle's failure to attain the desired skills and level of fitness before the school year begins, the question remains about how cruel Brother will be when he confronts his disappointment, for he takes Doodle's failure personally. Brother has already shown, in the scenes involving Doodle's casket and his various tests of physical endurance, that he can be merciless in making his younger brother conform to his ideal of normal health and physical agility. Doodle is aware that he will bear the brunt of his brother's anger and disappointment. Brother acknowledges as much when he says, "I knew he was watching me, watching for a sign of mercy."

However, just as Hurst builds the story's suspense to an almost unbearable level, Brother casts doubt in the reader's mind about the sequence of events that have transpired and which are to follow. The story builds to a climax, yet not all of the pieces of the story lead to a satisfactory conclusion. With first-person narration, the reader knows only the version of events that the narrator chooses to tell, and it is important to remember here one aspect of the story that, until now, seems out of place, not only with regard to the narrative but also with regard to Brother's character.

By Brother's own admission, the only thing Doodle was good at was "lying," which is, the way Brother describes it, merely the exercise of a child's imagination. Doodle's "lies," which are never uttered by him directly but are told from Brother's point of view, are fanciful tales, not malicious acts of gossip. However, in telling the reader that Doodle was a good liar, thus indicating, by implied comparison, that he, the narrator, is a bad one, is Brother himself engaged in the act of lying? Given his pride and his competitive nature, it seems improbable that Brother would be willing to make such a concession if it did not suit his purposes somehow. Thus, Hurst creates suspense by making the reader question the veracity of Brother's story. The unreliable narrator is one of the most popular characters in fiction because, during the course of reading the story, the reader acquires a wider range of knowledge than does the narrator. There is an element of surprise when contradictions reveal themselves. Because the narrator is unreliable, events described within a story may lead to moments of dramatic irony, which appears to be Hurst's authorial intent.

As the story nears its end, it seems ironic that Brother, who has kept Doodle within his sight almost from the moment he was born, should not be present during his brother's moment of greatest need. This contradiction indicates more than just a lapse in character; it indicates a narrative gap which raises a question about how Doodle actually died. Was it death by misadventure, suicide, or murder? Did Doodle possess enough knowledge of plant life to choose the deadly nightshade as his instrument of release? The only character who could possibly answer these questions is Brother, who, as both character and narrator, has proven himself to be less than trustworthy.

Throughout the story, Hurst employs a combination of narrative techniques that imbue "The Scarlet Ibis" with an air of intrigue and mystery. The story's open-ended conclusion ensures that the characters and events retain a timeless quality long after Brother finishes telling his sad tale of loss and regret.

Source: David Remy, Critical Essay on "The Scarlet Ibis," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.

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Critical Overview