illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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Discussion Topic

The narrator's complex feelings towards Doodle in "The Scarlet Ibis."

Summary:

The narrator's feelings toward Doodle in "The Scarlet Ibis" are complex, encompassing both love and shame. He cares deeply for his brother and is proud of Doodle's accomplishments, but he is also embarrassed by Doodle's disabilities and pushes him too hard, driven by his own pride and the desire for a "normal" sibling.

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How does "The Scarlet Ibis" show the narrator's mixed emotions about Doodle from birth?

I suggest looking at paragraphs three, four, and five for information about how Brother feels about Doodle's birth and having a brother.  

Paragraph four describes how Brother is very excited about the possibility of having a brother.  A brother would give him a buddy to play with.  Brother tells readers that he desperately wants somebody to run, jump, and climb stuff with.  That makes perfect sense.  Brother is six years old, and he's really active.  When Doodle is born, Brother can't help but be excited about finally having a playmate.  

That excitement is mixed with disappointment though.  

He was born when I was six and was, from the outset, a disappointment.

Doodle is physically disabled, and the family suspects that he is also mentally disabled.  Brother has built up in his head an ideal of what having a brother will be like, and with Doodle's limitations, Brother realizes that his hopes have been dashed.  Brother even admits that he is willing to accept Doodle's physical limitations, but he is not willing to accept the mental limitations.  

It was bad enough having an invalid brother, but having one who possibly was not all there was unbearable . . .

That's why Brother plans to kill Doodle.  That's dark; however, those feelings of doom and gloom are immediately replaced with joy and hope once Brother realizes that his parents are wrong.  Doodle is mentally just fine.  

However, one afternoon as I watched him, my head poked between the iron posts of the foot of the bed, he looked straight at me and grinned. I skipped through the rooms, down the echoing halls, shouting, "Mama, he smiled. He's all there! He's all there!" and he was.

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Why is the narrator in "The Scarlet Ibis" sometimes angry and disappointed with Doodle?

The narrator in this story is the older brother of Doodle, a physically disabled child who was given his nickname by his brother. The narrator states that he gave his brother this name because of his physical oddities: the child crawled around backwards on the rug. The suggestion is that the nickname was given almost out of pity so that the child would not have to live up to his strong-sounding real name of William Armstrong.

It was always anticipated that Doodle would die in infancy. The narrator describes him as having been "a disappointment" physically because of his large head and tiny, shriveled body. Because of his physical impairments, the narrator was forced to fashion a cart in which he would pull his brother around. He notes that a "knot of cruelty" can sometimes emerge from frustrated love, which is what happened with Doodle: the brother would make Doodle touch his own casket and tell him he was expected to die. Partly, this seems to have been out of embarrassment—the narrator was embarrassed that his brother, at five, could not walk, and this reflected badly upon the family. However, because the narrator seems to have loved his brother, we can infer that part of his anger was born out of the fear that Doodle would, indeed, die.

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Why is the narrator in "The Scarlet Ibis" sometimes angry and disappointed with Doodle?

Doodle was born when the narrator, Brother, was six years old.  When Doodle came into the world, he was physically disabled, and the family was concerned if he was mentally disabled as well.  Brother describes him as “all head, with a tiny body that was red and shriveled like an old man’s.”  Brother even calls him a “disappointment.”  Once the family realizes that Doodle is not mentally disabled, Brother finds new interest in Doodle and plans to teach him to run, jump, climb a rope, and swim in Old Woman Swamp.  Brother is embarrassed by Doodle’s physical disabilities and wants to make him as normal as possible.  To please Brother, Doodle pushes beyond his physical capabilities and does learn to walk.  At the end of the story, Doodle dies, exhausted by his efforts to run and catch up with Brother in a storm. 

Brother’s pride caused Doodle’s death; he was dissatisfied and embarrassed by Doodle’s physical flaws, and left him behind.  

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