illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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Discussion Topic

Symbolism and imagery in "The Scarlet Ibis" and their importance to plot development


In "The Scarlet Ibis," symbolism and imagery are crucial to plot development. The scarlet ibis itself symbolizes Doodle, with its unique beauty and tragic fate mirroring his own. Vivid imagery, such as the description of the storm, underscores the story's emotional intensity and foreshadows Doodle's demise, enhancing the narrative's themes of pride, love, and loss.

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How does the author use symbolism to enhance the narrative in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

The Scarlet Ibis is a story about faith and pride. It is a symbolic story in the sense that the events and places in it have a double nature: the cotton fields, the swamp, and Horsehead Landing are all real places, but they also come to have a second, spiritual meaning that Doodle and his brother share. The main symbol of the story, the ibis, can be understood as symbolic of Doodle himself. In this way we can understand Doodle as exotic (like the bird), perhaps out of place, or only a temporary visitor; like the bird, he is fragile and easily exhausted; the bird's death foreshadows Doodle's death.

But Doodle himself is a symbol of a sort; born with his head in a membrane ("caul") that Aunt Nicey says is made from "Jesus' nightgown," Doodle is from the start a baby not expected to live, perhaps not "all there," and a miracle child. The story of how Brother teaches Doodle to walk can be understood as symbolic of faith (Brother's faith in Doodle) made real. Seen in this way, Old Woman's Swamp is a magic, secret place where miracles occur; it is significant (and telling) that, in order to prove that Doodle really can walk, the scene has to shift to the decidedly unmagical dining room of the parents. Brother, who has a foot in both worlds, want to make Doodle fully "real" and permanent by making him stronger. This desire of Brother to forsake the special bond he has with Doodle is, as the narrator says, the work of pride, a "wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death." Doodle's repeated calls for Brother not to leave him mean, first, not to leave him behind of course, but they also mean that Doodle knows that he will never become the "real brother" Brother craves. Brother, who knows what Doodle is, still chooses to try to make him into something else.

The appearance of the bird at the end of the story brings to a climax the symbolic nature of Brother and Doodle's relationship. The bird's presence is just as impossible as Doodle's survival, and like the bird, Doodle too is not long for this world. His desire to bury the bird shows that Doodle feels a kind of kinship to the creature. His own death, brought upon by Brother's decision to show no "mercy" and leave him behind during the storm, suggests that whatever the requirements might be for becoming a "real brother," Doodle was made for something else.

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How does the author use symbolism to enhance the narrative in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

The symbolism of the scarlet ibis helps to express the delicate and rare nature of Doodle, as well as foreshadow the death of this rare child.

When this exotic bird from strange islands appears, it soon dies; nevertheless,

[E]ven death did not mar its grace, for it lay on the earth like a broken vase of red flowers, and we stood around it, awed by its exotic beauty.

The appearance of the beautiful, but fragile exotic bird certainly presages the events which follow.

After the family eats, the brother takes Doodle to Horse-head Landing in order to continue his rowing lessons; however, Doodle does not have the stamina to succeed. Angered by his failure, the brother walks ahead, hurrying because of the approaching storm. Doodle tries to keep up, but is unable. He cries for his brother to wait for him, but the brother pushes on in his bitterness until he can no longer hear Doodle. Finally, the brother decides to turn back and look for Doodle. He finds him dead, having collapsed into almost the same the position as that of the scarlet ibis. This strange resemblance makes the brother aware of the similarities of the fates of both the delicate exotic bird and the small boy whom he has made the victim of his selfish pride. Holding the delicate Doodle, the brother weeps inconsolably.

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How do images in "The Scarlet Ibis" signify the literal and symbolic importance to plot development?

The bleeding tree is a striking image because it bleeds sap and this symbolically foreshadows Doodle's death. The scarlet ibis brings even more symbolic clarity to this first comparison. The ibis is actually (literally) red and in this story, this is certainly symbolic of blood. The bleeding tree and the blood red color of the ibis all symbolize Doodle's blood at the end of the story. Despite Doodle's progress (at the hands of Brother's selfish motivation), these morbid images keep emerging.

Doodle's coffin is also an image that literally and symbolically refers to death. Doodle's father had it made when he was born, thinking he would not survive. Doodle survives, but they keep the coffin. Brother cruelly torments him the coffin, making sure he knows it was made for him.

Even after Doodle survives his infancy and learns to walk, the family keeps the coffin. "Within a few months Doodle had learned to walk well and his go-cart was put up in the barn loft (it's still there) beside his little mahogany coffin." That image of death is literally and symbolically still there. Between the bleeding tree, the scarlet ibis, and the coffin, the story constantly uses images to foreshadow blood and death.

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