illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

Start Free Trial

Discussion Topic

Symbolism of colors in "The Scarlet Ibis."

Summary:

In "The Scarlet Ibis," colors symbolize various themes and emotions. Red represents both beauty and death, evident in the scarlet ibis itself and Doodle's fate. Green symbolizes life and growth, shown in the lush, vibrant setting. Blue often conveys sadness and loss, reflecting the story's underlying melancholic tone.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the red color symbolize in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

The use of red in this story is interesting, because red can be a color of polar opposites. Valentine's Day and all of its redness is symbolic of love, yet red is also the color that animators frequently use to show a character filled with rage and hate. In "The Scarlet Ibis," the color red is consistently a negative color throughout. The first time readers see the red color is when Doodle is born:

He seemed all head, with a tiny body which was red and shriveled like an old man's.

Doodle's body appears sickly, and the color red is attached to that negative image. Brother pushes Doodle hard throughout the story, for various reasons, and Doodle works hard because of it. Readers see his exertion in his "red" face. Doodle is keeping up, but he's practically killing himself to do it.

Wherever we went, I purposely walked fast, and although he kept up, his face turned red and his eyes became glazed.

The ibis eventually enters the story, and red is central to its description. Unfortunately, what should be a beautiful bird is marred by its injuries. The "great big red bird" is a sickly and dying creature. Instead of being beautiful and vibrant, the red color is associated with death:

for it lay on the earth like a broken vase of red flowers . . .

The red and death symbolism comes again at the story's conclusion. Brother goes back to find his brother, beneath a "red nightshade." This detail should clue readers in to the bad news that is coming. Doodle is dead, with "brilliant red" blood all over his shirt.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the red color symbolize in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

Variations of the color red are used throughout James Hurst's "The Scarlet Ibis." It is used to symbolize the blood that flows from Doodle onto his shirt at the end of the story. The redness of the bleeding tree is another symbol, with it's connotation of blood; like Doodle, it no longer survives as the brother retells his story from a later viewpoint. The ibis itself is vividly red--a bird that has somehow flown far from its native land only to die a lonely death, not unlike Doodle's own demise. The bird is also an endangered species--again, like Doodle--unable to breed successfully in native surroundings. Yet its red body makes it one of the most beautiful of all birds. Red symbolizes death, from Doodle's early days with his "red and shriveled" body; and bad luck, judging from Aunt Nicey's declaration about "Dead birds is bad luck... Specially red, dead birds." Doodle dies in the midst of "a red nightshade bush," blood running from his mouth "making his vermilion neck appear unusually long and thin."

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the red color symbolize in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

In the short story "The Scarlet Ibis," author James Hurst uses the large, red exotic bird, called a scarlet ibis, to parallel his character Doodle and to symbolize characteristics that make us unique, as well as our frail humanity.

One hot, summer noon, while the family is eating lunch, a croaking sound brings the family out in the yard. Doodle is the first out into the yard and the first to see a "great big red bird" in their bleeding tree. As they continue to watch, the bird flutters, falls from the tree, jerks on the ground, then becomes very still, having died at the foot of the bleeding tree. The father identifies the bird as a scarlet ibis, explains "it lives in the tropics--South America to Florida," and speculates that "a storm must have brought it here," where it died of exhaustion.

Just like the scarlet ibis, Doodle is exotic due to his special needs and unique ability to see beauty in the world, such as when he cried the first time he saw the swamp because he thought it was so beautiful. However, his brother ignores his special needs and tries to train him into being something he is not, killing him with exhaustion and fear.

Since Hurst parallels Doodle with the scarlet ibis, we can see that red, the color of the bird, has a great deal of symbolic meaning. First, since red is an exotic color for a bird, it symbolizes those with distinguishing characteristics, like Doodle, as being exotic. In addition, red is the color of blood; therefore, red can also symbolize frail mortality, just as both Doodle and the bird were frail.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "The Scarlet Ibis," what associations are triggered by the color red?

I think it is safe to say that generally we associate the colour red with three things: passion, danger and blood. However, what is most important to "The Scarlet Ibis" is the last symbolism, which can also be said to symbolise death. Let us remind ourselves of the definition of symbolism before we go any further. A symbol is an object, person, animal or event that we often associate with other concepts, such as peace or freedom. When an author uses symbols in his work he or she is adding deeper levels of meaning.

Thus when we examine the short story, we see that repeated reference is made to the colour red. The tree is described as "bleeding" with its blossom. Doodle is born "red and shrivelled" and the scarlet ibis is of course red. Therefore the repeated references to red perhaps symbolise the death of Doodle and act as a kind of foreshadowing. Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, as it makes the link between the scarlet ibis and Doodle clear, note how Doodle's body is described:

He lay very awkwardly, with his head thrown far back, making his vermilion neck appear unusually long and slim.

Vermilion of course is a bright red colour and the description of Doodle links him in our mind with the description of the dead scarlet ibis, making it clear that the colour red symbolises death in this moving short story.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What do the colors blue, red, green, gold, and white symbolize in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

While we often associate the color red with love, that isn't how it is used in "The Scarlet Ibis." Instead, Doodle's poor health is associated with the color red:

He seemed all head, with a tiny body that was red and shriveled like an old man's.

Later, the bird that comes to rest in a tree outside their home is also red:

He slipped out into the yard, and looked up into the bleeding tree. "It's a big red bird!"

Neither Doodle nor the bird is well-suited to the environment, and each dies as a result. Thus, the color red in this story is symbolic of death.

While blue is often used to represent calmness, the author again crafts an unexpected symbolism by intentionally using this color to depict struggle. Consider how the narrator pushes his brother to his physical limits so that he won't be "different from everybody else" once he begins school:

I made him swim until he turned blue and row until he couldn't lift an oar.

Thus, the color blue is associated here with a lack of oxygen. It symbolizes weakness and physical toil.

Green symbolizes life in this story, which is a common use of the color in literature. This is significant because it creates a contrast between life and death, which is a central theme in "The Scarlet Ibis." When the dying scarlet ibis rests in the tree, it is surrounded by life:

Its wings hung down loosely, and as we watched, a feather dropped away and floated slowly down through the green leaves.

Also notice that the poison used to kill the rats in the story is green:

A screech owl flapped out of the box into our faces, scaring us and covering us with Paris green. Doodle was paralyzed.

It's interesting that the author chose to use a color typically associated with life as the color of a poison in this story; this same poison covers Doodle, whose health is precarious, which foreshadows that his life will be cut short. He seems to recognize this omen and begs for his brother not to leave him.

Gold is often the color of success and achievement, and after the narrator teaches Doodle to walk, he believes that anything is possible:

Success lay at the end of summer like a pot of gold, and our campaign got off to a good start.

Yet after working all summer, the success that the narrator has envisioned seems like an almost impossible feat:

School was only a few weeks away, and Doodle was far behind schedule. He could barely clear the ground when climbing up the rope vines, and his swimming was certainly not passable. We decided to double our efforts, to make that list drive and reach our pot of gold.

The narrator's ultimate success would be to help his brother achieve a sense of normalcy compared to his peers, yet as summer winds down, this seems more like a dream than a true possibility.

The color white is often symbolic of youth and innocence. Consider the description of young Doodle's surroundings:

He might, as long as he lived, lie on the rubber sheet in the center of the bed in the front bedroom where the white marquisette curtains billowed out in the afternoon sea breeze, rustling like palmetto fronds.

While the narrator's heart is bent toward selfishness in his interactions with Doodle, Doodle is often described as almost angelic. His heart is pure, and the love he has for his older brother is genuine. This contrast between the narrator's need to have a "successful" brother and Doodle's pure heart is captured in the use of his white surroundings.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What colors are used as symbols in James Hurst's "The Scarlet Ibis," and what do the colors symbolize?

Doodle is identified with both red and green in the story.

The most pronounced symbolism is in the color red. Doodle is like the scarlet ibis who dies. Both are beautiful but doomed creatures of nature. Doodle, at birth, had a "tiny body that was red." When the ibis dies it is described as being "like a broken vase of red flowers." When Doodle dies, the narrator finds him "huddled beneath a red nightshade bush."

In both cases, red symbolizes both beauty and pain: the beautiful ibis is like a "broken vase" of red flowers, and the red nightshade bush the lovable and pure Doodle is found under is a poisonous plant, a traditional symbol of death.

Red is also the color of blood, and the dead Doodle will be found bleeding from the mouth, while the ibis will fall out of a tree that is described three times as "bleeding."

Red, therefore, symbolizes the beauty of Doodle and the ibis as well as the harsh, startling violence of the death of both the boy and the bird.

Green also symbolizes nature, but it represents the gentler, renewing qualities of the natural world rather than its stunning and deadly extremes. Doodle finds renewal amid the grass and leafy greenness of the outdoors. Away from the restrictions of civilization, which tell him he can't walk, Doodle is able to find his legs and show he has abilities beyond what others have decided are his limitations. Tragically, if his older brother's harsh ideas about civilization, symbolized by the distant school, had not intruded into the green, natural world and pushed him too hard, Doodle might have found a way to survive.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What colors are used as symbols in James Hurst's "The Scarlet Ibis," and what do the colors symbolize?

Beyond the color red, one other color frequently found in James Hurst's short story "The Scarlet Ibis" is white. In particular, when William Armstrong, nicknamed Doodle, is still an infant, not expected to live much longer, all he does is "lie on the rubber sheet in the center of the bed in the front bedroom where the white marquisette curtains billowed out in the afternoon sea breeze." Marquisette is a type of fabric that's very sheer; curtains made of marquisette float and flutter easily because of the lightweight sheerness of the fabric.

In Western culture, the color white is known to symbolize innocence and purity as well as birth and youthfulness; therefore, the image of Doodle lying near the white, fluttering curtains helps capture his innocence and can be likened to the image of a fluttering angel. The image of purity stands in stark contrast to Doodle's older brother, who is deeply affected by an instinctive desire to be cruel.

A second dominant color in the story is green. One day Doodle's older brother pulls Doodle in his go-cart to see Old Woman Swamp. Doodle is so impressed by the beauty of the swamp that he cries, beauty described as a "green dimness where palmetto fronds whispered by the stream" and bedecked with "soft rubber grass beside a tall pine." Most cultures agree that the color green has both positive and negative symbolic meanings. On a positive note, green symbolizes nature, rejuvenation, health, and good luck. However, on a negative note, green can symbolize envy and jealousy, and such negative feelings can lead to unfortunate consequences, making green also symbolic of misfortune ("Color Symbolism and Culture," Incredible Art Department).

This scene at the swamp marks one of the best moments of Doodle's young life since it is the moment he is happiest; therefore, the color green found in the images of palm trees, thick grass, and a pine tree symbolizes Doodle's rejuvenated life. It is also at the swamp that Doodle gains slightly stronger health because his brother successfully teaches him to walk, showing us that the green foreshadows positive events coming up in Doodle's life and symbolizing strengthened health. Yet, Doodle's brother tries to teach him "to run, to swim, to climb trees, and to fight," not for Doodle's benefit but because his brother can't stand the thought of having a crippled brother. Doodle had not been worried before about kids at school seeing him as different; it is his brother who puts the idea in his mind, and as soon as he does so, the brother awakens envy within Doodle. Therefore, the color green at the swamp also foreshadows Doodle's upcoming misfortunes that are a result of the combination of his brother's inability to accept his being handicapped and Doodle's envy of so-called normal people. In foreshadowing misfortunes, the color green also symbolizes envy.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What colors are used as symbols in James Hurst's "The Scarlet Ibis," and what do the colors symbolize?

The main color used in this story is obviously red.  It's used when describing the bird after it came tumbling through their (red) bleeding tree. It says that it lay "like a broken vase of red flowers" on the ground before them.

The other scene where the color is used dominantly is when the narrator goes back for Doodle in the ending scene.  He runs back to find that Doodle, and he sees that "his neck and the front of his shirt were stained a brilliant red."

Both Doodle and the ibis are beautiful creatures.  Red can symbolize love and represent the "heart" that the character has.  Doodle worked so hard to please his brother and the ibis tried so hard to survive.  However, neither could survive the struggle.

The most important symbolism is the guilt that the narrator felt for beign responsible.  He realized that his pride led to Doodle's death.  So the red symbolized his guilt as well.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does Hurst use the color red as a symbol in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

Red is a symbol of death.

From the moment Doodle is born, he is expected to die.  Preparation involves building a coffin rather than a crib.  He is also described as red, a symbol of death.

He seemed all head, with a tiny body that was red and shriveled like an old man's. 

Doodle is also the first one who spots the scarlet ibis, which is in the “bleeding” tree.

He slipped out into the yard, and looked up into the bleeding tree. "It's a big red bird!"

The red imagery is again connected with death, because the bird will die and Doodle will die.

Red as a symbol of death is common, because we naturally equate red with blood and often with death.  This is why the ibis is “scarlet” and the ibis itself is such an important symbol throughout the story.  Doodle seems to know he will die, even after everyone else has accepted that he will live.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What literal elements in "The Scarlet Ibis" are associated with the colors green, gold, white, red, and blue?

There is a lot of color symbolism in James Hurst's short story, "The Scarlet Ibis." There are also many specific and literal items linked to colors, especially the colors green, blue, white, gold, and red. 

In this story told by a narrator known only as "Brother," Doodle, the narrator's brother, is not expected to live long. For this reason, a coffin was made out of mahogany wood and is stored in the hay loft. It is covered with a film of Paris green, which is a poisonous powder used to kill rodents. Another specific reference to the color green that is literal is the narrator's description of the "green draped parlor," referring to his childhood home. 

In the second paragraph, the narrator describes his home as being "gleaming white," which is the current state of the house, prior to the flashback. The narrator also describes the "white marquisette curtains billowed out in the afternoon sea breeze." White is also used to describe the Scarlet Ibis when it falls in the yard. Its white beak appears unhinged, and there is a white veil over its eyes. These are all instances of color having specific and literal meanings in the story. 

The color gold is found in one of  Doodle's "lies," these were stories Doodle and Brother made up while they played. Here is a quote: 

"People in his stories all had wings and flew wherever they wanted to go. His favorite lie was about a boy named Peter who had a pet peacock with a ten-foot tail. Peter wore a golden robe that glittered so brightly that when he walked through the sunflowers they turned away from the sun to face him." 

The sun and sunflowers are also referenced in this passage, and both have golden hues. Another reference to the color gold occurs when the narrator describes Doodle's development plan. He says: "Success lay at the end of summer like a pot of gold, and our campaign got off to a good start." 

The only reference I could find to the color blue comes from Doodle, the first person to notice the scarlet ibis,  " Doodle stopped eating, with a piece of bread poised ready for his mouth, his eyes popped round like two blue buttons." 

Red is a significant color throughout the story. Any time Doodle is described as straining physically, his color is red or purple. The scarlet ibis, a red bird, is described as landing in the bleeding tree. While the bleeding tree could be just a reference to a tree that simply leaks sap, and not necessarily red, the word bleeding certainly evokes the color red. When Doodle dies, the narrator describes his "vermilion neck." Vermilion is a bright red

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What literal elements in "The Scarlet Ibis" are associated with the colors green, gold, white, red, and blue?

The color red is highly symbolic in James Hurst's short story "The Scarlet Ibis." In addition to the "red, dead bird" of the title, the color is mentioned in reference to blood; Doodle's "red" tiny body; a cardinal; and the bleeding tree. Other references to the colors you requested:

BLUE.  Doodle's "eyes popped round like two blue buttons." 

WHITE.  Doodle's house is "gleaming white"; cotton is mentioned several times; and Doodle's brother pictured the two together as "old men, white-haired, him with a long white beard."

GREEN.  Doodle's home has a "green-draped parlor," and nature's color is mentioned in the woods, fern, pines, grass and the "green dimness where the palmetto fronds whispered."

GOLD.  In one of Doodle's stories, he tells of a boy named Peter who walks through sunflowers in his "golden robe"; there is the "bright sunshine"; a "pot of gold"; and the "yellow cast of autumn."

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on