illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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Historical Context

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World War I and the Growth of the Anti-war Movement

By July 1918, the United States was sending over 3,000 troops every month to Europe to fight in World War I (1914–18). By the end of the war in November 1918, total U.S. combat deaths numbered 51,000; U.S. non-combat but war-related deaths numbered 62,000.

Though the horrors of World War I led to its being dubbed "the war to end all wars," this hopeful prediction did not become fact. World War II began in 1939 and continued until 1945. Virtually all countries that participated in World War I were involved in World War II. Over 405,000 Americans were among the approximately 50 million people who died as a result of the war. This 50 million includes those who died in the Holocaust, the name given to the Nazis' program of extermination of peoples they deemed genetically inferior, and the United States' atomic bombings of civilians in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.

Though the United Nations was set up in 1945 to prevent the outbreak of another world war, peace proved elusive. By 1961, the year after the publication of "The Scarlet Ibis," in response to a perceived Communist threat, the United States had deployed 4,000 troops in South Vietnam. The cold war was reaching its height, with tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union running high. In February 1960, France tested its first atomic bomb; the Soviet government had determined by 1959 that any future war would be nuclear and worldwide. In October 1960, U.S. presidential candidate John F. Kennedy first suggested the idea of the Peace Corps, which would promote understanding between the United States and the rest of the world. U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the cold war marked a significant rise in the peace movement, which first become organized after World War II. The peace movement advocated the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam on the grounds that this would lessen tensions in the region and result in less bloodshed and that other nations should be allowed to work out their problems without foreign military intervention. Though by April 1970, approximately 115,000 U.S. troops had been withdrawn from Vietnam, complete withdrawal only took place in 1973.

Eugenics

It is difficult to read "The Scarlet Ibis" without a consideration of the history of the philosophy of eugenics. Eugenics (from the Greek for "good breeding") aimed to improve human hereditary traits through social interventions: for example, selective breeding; enforced sterilization of people seen as genetically inferior; and genetic engineering. Selective breeding was suggested by the Greek philosopher Plato (c. B.C. 427–c. B.C. 347), but the modern eugenics ideology, which developed from the growing discipline of genetics, was formulated in 1869 by Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911), a British anthropologist and cousin of the founder of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin (1809–1882).

Eugenicists of a religious frame of mind fused Galton's scientific arguments with the biblical injunction: "I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me" (Deut. 5:9). In this light, enforced sterilization of those considered to be degenerate was seen as a moral duty. The Supreme Court upheld eugenic sterilization in 1927, with the pronouncement of Judge Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841–1945), as quoted in Trent's book Inventing the Feeble Mind, that "three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Eugenics was supported in the early twentieth century by many prominent thinkers but became discredited after World War II, when it was seen to be the key idea justifying genocide by the Nazis (it was still practiced, however, by many national and regional governments into the 1970s and has as of 2005 been taken up by proponents of human genetic engineering). The Nazis had decided that anyone who did not conform to the so-called Aryan ideal (tall, blond, of Nordic appearance, and intelligent) should be eradicated. This objectionable group included people who were different from the norm, such as gypsies, homosexuals, intellectuals, dissidents, and the disabled, as well as all of European Jewry.

While the vocal proponents of eugenics have traditionally been drawn from the educated elite, an unofficial form of genocide of disabled people was practiced by ordinary families well into modern times. Acting from the standpoint that a disabled child was a financial burden and that such a child was likely to have a poor quality of life and would be better off dead, families would simply allow such a child to decline and die. This neglect happened in hospitals as well as private homes, showing that at least some of the medical community shared this view.

In "The Scarlet Ibis," the family loves Doodle and would never countenance deliberately allowing

him to die. Nevertheless, they fully expect him to die and are even receptive to this outcome by providing him with a coffin before the event. Brother, on the other hand, favors a more aggressive course of forcing Doodle to fit into his preconceived notion of what a brother should be. While Doodle's family expects him to become invisible through death, Brother expects him to become invisible by conforming. When Brother fails, he runs off and leaves Doodle, which leads to his death. Both the family's and Brother's attitudes toward Doodle raise uncomfortable questions about society's attitudes toward disability.

Disabled Persons' Rights

Before the middle of the nineteenth century, it was common in American and European societies for mentally or physically disabled people to live within their families and to be integrated into society to whatever extent possible. However, in the 1870s, there arose an attitude that a disabled child posed a serious financial burden on members of the laboring class and should be placed for life in an institution funded by the state. Families often did not object, since there was a great social stigma attached to having a disabled child, perhaps due to the widespread belief that such an event was God's judgment for bad behavior on the part of the parents or their ancestors or even evidence of immoral inbreeding between relatives. Frequently, families who institutionalized their children did not visit them or talk about them to other people.

Institutionalization remained the favored approach to disability in many countries as recently as the 1970s. Conditions in the institutions varied from good to appalling. With the growing prosperity after World War II, however, activism grew among parents on behalf of their disabled children. This activism was partly inspired by a return to belief in human rights after the Nazi genocide. A desire grew for disabled children to remain within their families and receive the same care and services, including education, as so-called normal children. Deinstitutionalization followed, and in 1975 Congress in passing the Education for All Handicapped Children Act guaranteed free public education to children with disabilities.

Literary Style

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Setting

"The Scarlet Ibis" is set in and around Brother's family home in the American South. The story is laden with rich descriptions of the natural environment, in the family garden and the nearby countryside. Hurst never describes the setting for its own sake; it always comments on the action. For example, the description of the "blighted" summer, with the hurricane bringing down trees and ruining crops, is introduced immediately after Brother recounts his intensification of Doodle's learning program. These images of devastation emphasize the destructive effects of Brother's pushing Doodle beyond his limits.

Moreover, the nearby Old Woman Swamp embodies nature's abundance and beauty. For Brother and Doodle, it seems to signify a world of infinite possibilities and the glory of life. Doodle cries with wonder when he first sees it, and the boys gather wild flowers and make garlands and crowns with which to bedeck themselves. The suggestion is that this is a place where they feel royal, beautiful, and wealthy (the flowers are referred to as "jewels"). Old Woman Swamp is also where Brother teaches Doodle to walk, which, in spite of its disastrous outcome, represents a widening of Doodle's horizons. Doodle fantasizes about living a blissful existence in Old Woman Swamp.

Foreshadowing

Hurst frequently uses foreshadowing to suggest an upcoming event. This technique creates suspense as the reader waits for the resolution of a certain narrative thread. The first paragraph is an example: "It was in the clove of seasons, when summer was dead but autumn had not yet been born." This image of death is reinforced by the reference to the "untenanted" oriole nest that rocks "like an empty cradle." Cradles usually contain babies, a sign of new life, but this one is empty, suggestive of a dead child. Next follows a reference to "the last graveyard flowers," which speak "the names of our dead," evoking the image of men who have died in the war. These images combine with other elements, like the doctor's warning about Doodle's weak heart, to foreshadow the death of Doodle.

Symbolism

The scarlet ibis is a carefully chosen symbol. To understand why, it helps to know a little about the bird. A native of the South American tropics, the scarlet ibis is vivid red. Its color derives from the shrimps that form the bulk of its diet; if there are no shrimps, it loses its color. It needs a particular habitat in order to thrive as it only feeds in shallow waters along the coast, in mud flats and lagoons. The scarlet ibis is an endangered species which has not bred successfully in its natural habitat since the 1960s. Reasons for this include development of coastal areas, water pollution, and depletion of food sources. Scarlet ibises are colonial nesters, meaning that they nest in large flocks; they rely on the presence of other birds of their own species.

The ibis in "The Scarlet Ibis" is symbolically linked with Doodle from the beginning of the plot, as the memory of the ibis's arrival triggers in Brother's mind the memory of Doodle, and Doodle immediately feels a bond with the bird. Like the ibis, Doodle is a being alone, different, singled out, with no flock, out of his natural environment. Like the ibis, he does not thrive in the environment in which he finds himself: he is delicate, sickly, and fragile. But while the ibis's beauty is obvious to Doodle, Doodle's beauty of spirit is hidden inside an unattractive exterior; thus, the bird externalizes Doodle's inner nature. Doodle is associated with winged and divine beings, just as the bird is literally a winged creature. Both boy and bird are characterized by sacred imagery. It could be argued that both are symbolically linked with Christ.

Narrative Technique

The story is told as a first-person reminiscence by Brother, who looks back from some time in his maturity to events that took place in his childhood. Thus he is able to imbue the raw events with his reflections on the lessons he learned from them. For example, Brother as a boy would not be able to explain that the reason he cried after his family congratulated him for teaching Doodle to walk was his shame at having acted from pride, "whose slave [he] was." This is the reflective adult speaking. The narrative technique of reminiscence also enables Brother to foreshadow events before they are described in the narrative, as in "I did not know then that pride is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death." This statement suggests that Brother will at some point realize this truth, apparently through some catastrophic event, as indeed happens.

That readers only observe the other characters through Brother's eyes might suggest that their sympathies lie with him. However, many readers will sympathize more with Doodle because of the emotional honesty of the adult Brother. He has had time to reflect on events and he lays bare the less admirable aspects of his character and of his feelings for Doodle, showing us the "knot of cruelty borne by the stream of love." If Doodle has a harsh side to his character, it is not presented; he comes through as an innocent.

The adult Brother remains closely in touch with the negative emotions that many children feel for their close relatives. Children tend to be more open than adults about having mixed emotions for those close to them. They will declare that they hate their mother, brother, or best friend, only to show minutes later the love and devotion that they also feel. Adults tend to suppress such negative emotions because they are more able to see the consequences of expressing them. The adult Brother, however, does not gloss over his negative feelings for Doodle, and this candor increases readers' sympathy for the younger boy, the target of those feelings.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1910s: By July 1918, the United States has sent one million troops to Europe to fight in World War I (1914–1918), a force augmented by an average of 200,000 men per month until the armistice is signed on November 11, 1918. After the war ends, certain works of literature and people in wider society ask whether the war was necessary.

    1960s: In 1961, in response to a perceived Communist threat, the United States deploys 4,000 troops in South Vietnam. By July 1965, some 75,000 U.S. troops are in Vietnam. The figure continues to climb to more than 510,000 early in 1968. Opposition to U.S. involvement in the war begins in 1964 on college campuses. Protests against the draft begin in 1965, when the student-run National Coordinating Committee to End the War in Vietnam stages the first public burning of a draft card in the United States.

    Today: Between 2003 and 2005, many global protests are held worldwide against the U.S./British-led invasion of Iraq. These protests include several said to be the biggest peace protests before a invasion actually began.

  • 1910s: Many prominent thinkers support eugenics, which aims to improve human hereditary traits through social interventions such as selective breeding and enforced sterilization of mentally or physically disabled people. In the United States, the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) opens in 1910. In years to come, the ERO collects many family pedigrees and concludes that those who are mentally and physically unfit come from poor backgrounds.

    1960s: Eugenics is widely discredited after it becomes clear that during the 1930s and 1940s the Nazis forcibly sterilized hundreds of thousands of people whom they viewed as mentally and physically unfit and killed thousands of disabled people through compulsory euthanasia programs. However, enthusiasm for eugenics quietly continues in some parts of the scientific community and within some national and regional governments, which pursue enforced sterilization of disabled people.

    Today: Human genetic engineering to bring about higher intelligence and fitness and to eradicate disability is advocated by some scientists. The Human Genome Project, which aims to map the human genetic makeup, makes modification of the human species seem possible again. The legalization of the patenting of genetic discoveries means that in theory, profits can be made from human genetic engineering, and corporations become involved in eugenics.

  • 1910s: Unofficial euthanasia, in which disabled children are allowed to die, is practiced within families and sanctioned by members of the medical profession. In the event that the child is kept alive, institutionalization for life, funded by the state, is the favored approach.

    1960s: The civil rights and women's rights movements add momentum to an activist movement for disability rights that begins after World War II ends in 1945. For disabled persons to remain within the family as children and to have independent lives as adults instead of being institutionalized are major goals of this movement.

    Today: The Americans with Disabilities Act is signed into law in 1990 by George H. W. Bush. It is a wide-ranging civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. It includes a section obliging public services to embrace service for people with disabilities.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources

Ebor, Donald, ed., The New English Bible with Apocrypha, New York: Oxford University Press, 1972, pp. 4-5.

Hurst, James, Telephone conversations with author, July and September 2005.

――――――, "The Scarlet Ibis," in the Atlantic Monthly, July 1960, pp. 48-53.

King James Bible, Deuteronomy 5:9.

Trent, James W., Jr., Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States, University of California Press, 1994, p. 199.

Further Reading

Keegan, John, The First World War, Vintage, 2000.

This book is a vivid account of the causes and progress of World War I, drawing on diaries, letters, and action reports of the time. Keegan concludes that the war was unnecessary.

Keller, Helen, The Story of My Life, Bantam Classics, 1990.

Born deaf and blind, Keller refused to be crushed by her disabilities and went on to become an effective suffragist, pacifist, social reformer, and author. She helped start several foundations that in the early 2000s continue to help the deaf and blind. This joyful, perceptive, and beautifully written autobiography is credited with helping to change social attitudes toward the disabled.

Nies, Betsy L., Eugenic Fantasies: Racial Ideology in the Literature and Popular Culture of the 1920s, Routledge, 2001.

Nies draws on psychoanalytic theory, anthropology, and literary theory to argue that the rise of eugenics served as a palliative for anxieties over war-torn bodies and a means of repairing the loss of belief in the white male as defender of the nation.

Trent, James W., Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States, University of California Press, 1995.

Trent traces the U.S. history of treatment of disabled people, including institutionalization, neglect, sterilization, medical abuse, and mistreatment. The book is illustrated with disturbing photographs.

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