illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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Symbolism in "The Scarlet Ibis"


The scarlet ibis in "The Scarlet Ibis" symbolizes the fragility and uniqueness of Doodle. The bird's death foreshadows Doodle's own tragic end, highlighting themes of pride and the consequences of pushing someone beyond their limits. Additionally, the color red, present in both the ibis and Doodle’s death, symbolizes blood and the inevitability of mortality.

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What does the ibis symbolize in The Scarlet Ibis?

The Ibis symbolizes Doodle and his struggle to survive and fit in. From the start of his life, Doodle struggled to survive and fit in, just like this scarlet ibis is struggling to survive in an environment that is not ideal. Doodle wished he could fit in and be just like his older brother, but he was too weak, just like the ibis is weak and fragile. The scarlet color of the ibis is a direct reference to Doodle in the rain, covered in the blood he has coughed up. Both of these beings, Doodle and the ibis, were too weak to survive.

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What does it mean to symbolize the Ibis in The Scarlet Ibis?

A symbol is something, such as a word or image, that stands for something else. For example, a heart shape could stand for love or Valentine's Day.

So to symbolize the Ibis, you are being asked to describe what or who the Ibis might stand for in the story. Try to think about the characterisitics of the Ibis and think about the story of The Scarlet Ibis. Does the Ibis remind you of anyone or anything in the story and why?

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What does the ibis symbolize in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

In the short story, “The Scarlet Ibis,” the ibis is a beautiful bird found far from his home when a violent storm carries it away from its normal environment.  Doodle and his family find the bird perched in a tree, and the bird is disheveled and weak.  The storm has brutally beat the bird, and the ibis falls from the tree dead.  Doodle buries the bird in the flower garden out of respect because he feels a connection to the bird when he first sees him in the tree.  As the ibis is falling from the tree, Doodle grabs his throat scared and anxious.  The ibis’s death is described as, “. . . the wings were uncoordinated, and amid much flapping and a spray of flying feathers, it tumbled down, bumping through the limbs of the bleeding tree and landing at our feet with a thud.”

The ibis is representative of Doodle and someone who doesn’t really fit or can survive in the environment in which he finds himself.  Because of his disabilities, Doodle is weak and unable to accomplish what Brother wants him to.  He is an anomaly (like the unusual ibis) and does not “belong” in the world although he desperately tries to succeed.  Like the ibis, he fights to survive, but because of his health, it is a fight he can’t win.  The ibis doesn’t have the strength to survive the storm, much like Doodle doesn’t have the strength to live up to Brother’s expectations. 

Doodle collapses after his Brother’s attempts to teach him to swim and climb a rope.  He dies with blood all over his clothes and chest.  This symbolizes the red breast of the ibis as well. 

Doodle and the ibis are both delicate, exotic, and unable to survive because nature (Doodle’s disability and the ibis’s fight against the storm) causes them to struggle to beat the forces against them.  

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What symbol represents the narrator in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

It is interesting that Brother narrates the story but that the main symbol of it, the scarlet ibis, represents Doodle.  As the criticism on the story provided by enotes points out, “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.”  We might even go so far as to consider Doodle “holy” because the ibis is linked with sacred imagery.  If Doodle is Christ-like in this way, then Brother becomes the story-teller of  the Christ-figure, a person with a sacred responsibility to pass on the truth of Doodle to others. In addition, we experience with Brother both his sins, his sorrow, and his redemption, thus symbolizing Christian growth brought about by the "sacrifice" of Doodle. Follow the link below for a fuller explanation of the story.

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What symbols are present in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

The opening paragraph is filled with symbols of death and decay. Summer is "dead" and with autumn approaching, the plants and trees are losing leaves, wilting, and birds have left their nests or migrated for the winter. Having read the entire story, the image that stands out in this first paragraph is of the empty nest: 

. . . but the oriole nest in the elm was untenanted and rocked back and forth like an empty cradle. 

This empty nest suggests the absence of baby birds. To be sure, this could mean the birds have grown and flown away. But the emptiness in the context of this dying season seems more suggestive of death. When Doodle is born frail and crippled, he is given little chance of living. His father has a casket made and this empty casket is clearly a symbol of death. The interesting combination of the empty nest and the empty casket illustrates the process of life but the small casket clearly suggests a short life. (The foreboding symbolism of the bird's nest and the Ibis, later in the story, are poetic ways of describing Doodle.) 

When Brother shows Doodle the casket, it is covered with "Paris green" which is  poison designed to kill rats and bugs. Brother names him "Doodle" because he would crawl like a bug. The casket is covered with material poisonous to bugs, showing that even the idea of the casket is (emotionally as well as physically) poisonous to Doodle. 

The symbolism of birds is important in this story. Doodle has a story about a boy who has a pet peacock. The bird would enfold the boy when he went to sleep like a protective covering. 

When Doodle sees the Ibis, he relates to it as well. When the bird dies, Doodle is sad and refuses to eat. He determines to bury the bird. The Ibis is the most overt symbol in the story. It is a bird that comes from a different place. It can not survive in its new environment. Likewise, Doodle can never fit in or live up to Brother's expectations. The red color of the Ibis parallels Doodle's own blood in the end. The "bleeding tree" is also symbolic of Doodle's death. 

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Discuss the symbolism in "The Scarlet Ibis" by James Hurst.

Symbolism abounds in "The Scarlet Ibis." Brother, the narrator in the story, also serves as the protagonist.  Everything works through Brother.  The entire story is a flashback back to a time for  that was difficult for Brother to face. He is telling this story remembering it as though it has just happened.

Doodle, Brother's younger brother, is different.  He was never expected to live and certainly not to be able to do anything. His father even built his coffin when he was a baby. Obviously, the coffin represents the death of Doodle maybe not just  then but eventually.   Admitting that he has a cruel streak, Brother eventually makes  Doodle touch his own coffin which made him scream:

And even when we were outside in the bright sunshine, he clung to me, crying, "Don't leave me, Brother! Don't leave me."

Foreshadowing of things to come.

Doodle was a disappointment.  Nothing about him was ordinary.  His heart condition kept him from doing anything that a little boy should be able to do.  Eventually, Doodle does become a sensitive, gentle soul that loves his brother unconditionally.  Doodle so wanted to please Brother that he was willing to go through excruciating pain to learn to walk and anything else his brother wanted to try.

The relationship between the brothers was not based on love because Brother is unclear about his feelings for Doodle.  He is ashamed of him but proud of him for learning to walk; however, Brother takes more pride in himself for having taught Doodle.   Doodle never had that with Brother because of his ambiguous feelings.   

The color red runs throughout the story.  The story might have been called "Painting Doodle Red." The tree that holds the ibis in the backyard is called the bleeding treeDoodle's body as a baby was red and shriveled like an old man's . 

The ibis that dies from its storm injuries is red and then bleeds when it falls to the ground.  When the bird falls unexpectedly to the ground, Brother notes that it looks like a broken vase of red flowers.  This beautiful bird did not belong where it landed.  Just like Doodle, it was out of place.  Symbolically, the ibis represents the little boy who immediately wants to bury the bird.

Cruelty takes over Brother's spirit again.  Doodle did not want to take his swimming lesson.  He did not feel like it. Brother forced him to go.  A storm sets in just as Brother realizes that Doodle will never be what he wants him to be.  Brother leaves Doodle and runs away from him. Remember when Brother showed Doodle his own coffin:

When the deafening thunder had died,  I heard Doodle cry out, "Brother, Brother, don't leave me! Don't leave me!"

He stops and waits for Doodle, but he does not come.  When Brother returns to find Doodle, he is huddled beneath a red nightshade bush which has poisonous berries symbolizing death. When Brother lifts Doodle up, he is bleeding from the mouth just as the Ibis did.  Hysterically, Brother realizes that he pushed Doodle too far:

I screamed above the pounding storm and threw my body to the earth above his.  For a long time, it seemed forever, I lay there crying sheltering my fallen scarlet ibis. 

Too little, too late--Doodle has become the symbolic beautiful bird that was out of place. Doodle's death was not unexpected, but Brother's part inhis death has never left him.  His guilt represents his unsympathetic treatment of this beautiful little fellow.

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What are the types of symbolism in the story "The Scarlet Ibis" by James Hurst?

In addition to the well-explained examples the previous educator noted, I would like to add the following:

The storm:

At the end of the story, the narrator is frustrated with his brother, who he feels will never be like the other kids at school. As his anger toward Doodle intensifies, a storm builds in the background, forcing them to return to shore in their little skiff. When he tries to climb out, Doodle falls and smiles "ashamedly" at his older brother, who helps him up. The narrator notes, "He had failed and we both knew it."

As he reflects upon his brother's "failures," lightning builds in intensity. The narrator begins running, angry that his plans for his brother have "come to naught." Doodle screams his pleas for his brother not to abandon him. The narrator runs on, the rain stinging his face.

The storm symbolizes the narrator's cruelty and bitterness, which is to blame for Doodle's death. His swirling emotional storm is represented by the physical, natural storm which Doodle dies in.

Old Woman Swamp:

When the narrator decides to teach Doodle to walk, he takes him to Old Woman Swamp, a natural setting full of palmetto fronds, wild violets, and wildflowers. After much work, Doodle takes his first steps here, out of the "touch of the everyday world." The boys spend lots of time there, working and planning for their futures together. They decide that one day, they will both live in Old Woman Swamp. This setting, therefore, comes to symbolize hope. This is an almost mystical place where magic happens. The future that Doodle paints is so beautiful and serene that the narrator reassures him that it will all come true.

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What are the types of symbolism in the story "The Scarlet Ibis" by James Hurst?

James Hurst, the author of “The Scarlet Ibis,” filled his story with symbols supplying the reader with a guide to the literal and figurative significance of events. The narrator, an older and hopefully wiser Brother and the sibling of the character Doodle, tries to assuage his guilt and at the same time, lead the audience through his memories of his brother’s life and death. It is from Brother’s view that the reader catches the beauty and tragedy of the story.


Through his use of the color “red,” the author denotes emotions both personal and universal. The author paints Doodle “red.” Hurst further creates the unanimous significance of color in understanding emotions. In this story, the color red, which usually are ascribed the ideas of courage, death, and love connecting the boy- to the brother- to nature. In addition to the denotative meanings of these words, the narrator leads the reader through the many symbolic uses of the color in the story: the beautiful broken bird is a broken vase of red flowers; the tree that Brother sees in the beginning of the story is the “bleeding tree” from which the ibis falls to his death; Doodle dies in front of a red nightshade bush which has red poisonous berries often associated with death. When Brother finds his “Scarlet ibis,” he describes Doodle with these words:

“’Doodle, Doodle.’” There was no answer but the ropy rain. I began to weep, and the tear blurred vision in red before me looked very familiar.”

From the red and scarlet references, the reader can visualize and bring to life the story’s events. Figuratively, this color freezes in time the important tableaus.

”He had been bleeding from the mouth, and his neck and the front of his shirt were stained a brilliant red. “

From his symbolic comparison of Doodle to the ibis, the reader sees the “bleeding tree,’ the coffin, the Old Woman Swamp, and the death of the bird and the little boy.

The Ibis

“The Scarlet Ibis is more than just the title. The beautiful bird frames the story with its representation of the older, guilt-ridden Brother; moreover, the ibis represents Doodle. Both characters do not fit in the world that surrounds them, yet, both die with dignity and beauty. The ibis is considered to be an endangered species because of the loss of the rain forest in South America. Like the ibis, Doodle does not belong in his environment: physically he is misshaped; his learning is backwards; and no expects anything from him.


As the family watches the bird in the throes of death, Brother offers the needed visualization for the scene:

“Its [the bird] graceful neck jerked twice and then straightened out, and the bird was still…even death could not mar its beauty.”

Doodle in all of his outward ugliness finds joy in his surroundings. He loves and is loved. Despite enduring often harsh treatment, Doodle loved without question. Still, Brother, ashamed of Doodle, torments him and relentlessly leads him to his death.

The Coffin

Doodle’s father orders a coffin to be built. Doodle did not die as the doctor thought he would; nevertheless, the presence of death is often mentioned by Brother. The coffin lay waiting for the little boy instilling no doubt that he would not long survive. .Symbolically, the casket prepares the reader for the inescapable death of William Armstrong or Doodle. Admitting that he was often cruel to Doodle, this was never more evident than when Brother forced his little brother to lay down in his own coffin.

The Season of Doodle’s Death

As the narrator, Brother frames the story with different seasons. He begins explaining when Doodle and the ibis die. To add to the mystery of these incidents, Brother does not associate the deaths with summer or autumn. Rather he describes the passing away as “…summer was not dead but autumn had not yet been born” as though their dying took place during an in-between not season time. Doodle would never go to school nor live until the fall.

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Is there symbolism in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

The major symbolism is this story is in its title. The story is about Brother and his relationship with his disabled brother, Doodle. However, the title of the story is the name of a bird. The point the author is trying to make is that Doodle and the Scarlet Ibis have much in common. Both have "flown" beyond expectations, the bird is hundreds of miles from its home and Doodle functions way above the expectations for him. Both have been injured on their life's journeys. The ibis is bloody and near death when Doodle notices him. Doodle's heart has been weakened by the strain Brother puts on him. Doodle is the only person to really care about the bird and buries him carefully. He and the bird both die on the same day, indicating a connection that lies deeper than just compassion. Thus, the scarlet ibis is a symbol for Doodle and his struggle to fly beyond expectations.

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What is the symbolism of the plants and animals mentioned in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

In the garden, among the rotting magnolia petals and the "rank" ironweed is a patch of purple phlox. Phlox is a genus of flowers that can grow in diverse environments. Phlox means "flame" which is fitting because it can spread. Given this information, phlox is a foil (opposite) to Doodle and the Ibis because it can thrive in a variety of environments whereas Doodle and the Ibis can not. 

The empty oriole nest in the elm tree seems eerily similar to Doodle's empty coffin. Recall that when Doodle was born everyone thought he was not going to live. So, they had a carpenter build him a tiny coffin. Perhaps the empty nest symbolizes or foreshadows Doodle's death. Maybe the baby oriole fell. In any case, the empty nest and the empty coffin both suggest the absence of a baby. 

The screech owl makes a nest inside the coffin. Brother cruelly takes Doodle to show him the coffin in order to scare him. When he does, the screech owl flies out, scaring them, and in the process they are sprinkled with "Paris green" a poisonous powder used to kill insects. Doodle, named for a bug, is sprinkled with a powder used to kill bugs. 

The palmetto might not really be symbolic. The fronds blowing in the breeze do connote a sense of peace. With Doodle safe in the front bedroom, he would be peaceful. 

It is significant that Brother names William Armstrong "Doodle" because it refers to a bug. Already, we start to associate Doodle with bugs and animals. He may have similarities to other animals but the labeling of him as a bug also makes him somewhat of an outcast, certainly in his brother's mind. 

The most important animal in terms of symbolism is the Scarlet Ibis. The Ibis is native to tropical climates in South America and the Caribbean. Father notes that a storm must have blown it off course. Being an exotic bird, it has had to survive a storm and is not equipped to survive in its new environment. Likewise, Doodle has trouble adapting to his environment, especially with Brother pushing him so much. And the supposition that the Ibis had to endure a storm foreshadows the storm at the end of the story. Note also that when they first spot the Ibis, it is injured. Its wings are "uncoordinated" and it falls to the ground. Doodle is uncoordinated and his inability to live up to Brother's expectations leads to his death. 

The bleeding tree's symbolism is straight forward. It is a tree that tends to leak sap, especially when a branch is broken. The color red is significant in this story. The scarlet color of the ibis, the bleeding of the tree, and Doodle's vermilion neck when Brother finds him dead all signify morbid images of blood, wounds, and death. 

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What does the scarlet ibis symbolize?

Hurst gives us a clue that the ibis is very important in the story by naming the story "The Scarlet Ibis." The title refers to the tropical bird that was blown off course and landed in the narrator's yard, but it also refers to Doodle. The scarlet ibis is a symbol for Doodle himself. The ibis is a beautiful bird who ends up in the wrong place. It does not belong at Doodle's house and it cannot survive there. It has been through a terrible storm and dies from exhaustion. No one in Doodle's family appreciates its beauty or rare presence.

This description applies to Doodle, as well. Doodle is a beautiful boy, despite his physical disabilities. His heart is full of love. There is no meanness in him, only gentleness. (It is Doodle who struggles to bury the ibis while his family laughs at him from the window.) Doodle's family is the wrong place for him to grow and thrive. They do not value him for the wonderful gift he is to them. He cannot and does not survive in that environment. At the conclusion of the story, Doodle, too, goes through a terrible storm and dies from exhaustion.

Hurst makes this symbolism clear in the story's conclusion. In death, Doodle looks like the scarlet ibis when it died. The narrator refers to Doodle as "my fallen scarlet ibis."

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What does the scarlet ibis symbolize?

The scarlet ibis is symbolic of Doodle himself.  First, the scarlet ibis is not native to the area.  It is native to the tropics.  

"It lives in the tropics-South America to Florida. A storm must have brought it here."

So what you have is a bird that is completely out of place in its current surroundings.  That is a lot like Doodle.  He is small, fragile, and handicapped.  Brother tries to incorporate Doodle in all kinds of things, but Doodle just can't quite keep up in the world that Brother demands.  The bird too is small and fragile.  It too is injured and broken in a way that prevents it from surviving in the world that it finds itself in.  

At that moment the bird began to flutter, but the wings were uncoordinated, and amid much flapping and a spray of flying feathers, it tumbled down, bumping through the limbs of the bleeding tree and landing at our feet with a thud.

I also see the scarlet ibis death scene as symbolic foreshadowing of Doodle's death.  There are a lot of similarities between the two.  Both were essentially killed by a storm.  Both died underneath a red plant, and both are covered in red.  The bird is naturally red, and Doodle is covered in blood.  

He had been bleeding from the mouth, and his neck and the front of his shirt were stained a brilliant red.

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