illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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Discussion Topic

The symbolism and fascination of the scarlet ibis in relation to Doodle in "The Scarlet Ibis."


The scarlet ibis symbolizes Doodle in "The Scarlet Ibis." Both are unique, fragile, and out of place in their environments. The bird's death foreshadows Doodle's tragic end, emphasizing themes of beauty, vulnerability, and the consequences of pushing beyond natural limits.

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Why does the scarlet ibis symbolize Doodle?

The scarlet ibis and Doodle share some similarities. This particular species of bird isn't native to Doodle's home in North Carolina; it should be located in a more tropical climate. Finding this bird at their home near the swamp is unexpected, just as Doodle's physical condition is unexpected. While the family had planned for another (healthy) baby, they were met with quite a different reality. Like the bird, Doodle is different, and his challenges are unexpected to his family.

The scarlet ibis is also frail, struggling to move independently:

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.

These movements are similar to the physical struggles of Doodle, who struggles with movements that are typically innate to humans: walking, running, swimming, and climbing. In fact, as Doodle steps from the boat in the final scene, his fall into the mud is similar to the scarlet ibis's fall from the tree:

Doodle was both tired and frightened, and when he stepped from the skiff he collapsed onto the mud, sending an armada of fiddler crabs rustling off into the marsh grass .... He had failed and we both knew it.

The scarlet ibis also dies in relative isolation, with no members of its own species nearby. Likewise, Doodle dies alone, abandoned by the brother who has given up on him.

The scarlet ibis thus symbolizes the struggles of Doodle, reflecting his physical inability to exist in a world which isn't constructed for his success. In the final lines, the narrator connects the symbolism of the scarlet ibis to his brother:

I lay there crying, sheltering my fallen scarlet ibis from the heresy of rain.

The narrator realizes that he has created a metaphorical storm that has tragically ended the life of his young brother, much like the natural storm altered the course of the scarlet ibis and placed it in an unnatural habitat it could not endure. Its death is symbolic of Doodle's death as well, reflecting his inability to exist in a world that isn't designed for differences.

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Why is Doodle fascinated by the scarlet ibis in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

Doodle can relate to the bird’s death because he was very sickly as an infant and almost died.

The narrator’s little brother, nicknamed Doodle, is very special.  He was born small and weak, and they did not think he would live. 

Everybody thought he was going to die-everybody except Aunt Nicey, who had delivered him. She said he would live because he was born in a caul,and cauls were made from Jesus' nightgown. Daddy had Mr. Heath, the carpenter, build a little mahogany coffin for him.

Despite the odds, Doodle does live.  He is even able to learn to walk with his brother’s help.  His brother is not satisfied with having a little brother that can’t walk, so he teaches him.  Doodle can do a lot of things no one thinks he can do because his brother is persistent.

One day, the family finds a dead scarlet ibis in the yard.  It is a very rare bird.  Doodle wants to bury it, but his mother won’t touch it in case it has a disease. 

He took out a piece of string from his pocket and, without touching the ibis, looped one end around its neck. Slowly, while singing softly "Shall We Gather at the River," he carried the bird around to the front yard and dug a hole in the flower garden, next to the petunia bed.

Doodle looks silly burying the bird, because he has trouble with the shovel, and his family tries not to laugh.  He buries the bird all by himself.  It is that important to him.  He almost died, and he is drawn to the bird’s plight.

The ibis is a metaphor. It is weak, but special.  This also describes Doodle.  When Doodle dies after straining himself too much, his brother refers to him as his scarlet ibis.  He remembers Doodle’s reaction to the bird, and how they both were unique.

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Explain the connection between Doodle and the ibis in the story "The Scarlet Ibis" by James Hurst.

"The Scarlet Ibis" by James Hurst introduces the character of Doodle.  Along with Doodle comes the protagonist of the story, Brother. Doodle calls his older brother, Brother, who also serves as the narrator of the story.

Brother looks back at Doodle's story many years later.  It is only then that he can interject a more mature understanding of the events leading to Doodle's death. 

No one expected Doodle to live.  He was deformed with many internal problems.  Eventually, Brother does teach Doodle to walk,  and with tears, he proudly shows his little brother off to his parents.  This is when Brother admits that he has a cruel streak that rears its head sometimes with his brother.

One particular time, Brother made Doodle touch his own coffin:

I showed him his casket, telling him how we all believed he would die.  When I made him touch the casket, he screamed, crying 'Don't leave me, Brother!'

Brother would hear that cry again.

Later, everyone is seated at the lunch table at home.  A strange croak comes from the bleeding tree [it oozes red sap which is bright red in color].  Rushing to look, they find a large red bird up in the top branch looking dazed.  Suddenly, he falls to the ground; and with a jerk, he dies.  The father tells them it is a Scarlet Ibis, which normally lives in the tropics. A storm must have driven it off course, and it injured itself. 

It lay on the earth like a broken vase of red flowers and even death could not mar its beauty.

Doodle wants to immediately bury the beautiful bird.

Brother makes Doodle go to his swimming lessons.  He does not want to go because he tells Brother that he is tired.  A storm come up and scares Doodle who falls down in the mud.  Angrily and with the cruel streak rising again, Brother leaves Doodle and runs for shelter.

All he can hear is Doodle crying, asking him not to leave him.  Eventually, Brother goes back for his little brother.  It is too late! Doodle is found under a poisonous nightshade bush with blood on his shirt, bleeding from his mouth like the Ibis.  Brother realizes what he has done and screams.  Finally, he understands the value of his brother and cries to himself, sheltering Doodle, his fallen scarlet ibis.

As he remembers the events through his flashback,  the older Brother is able to better understand his actions as a thirteen year old boy.  With a more mature outlook, he accepts his responsibility for his part in the death of Doodle.  

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What is the significance of Doodle's interaction with the ibis in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

As has already been mentioned, there is a deep symbolic connection between the scarlet ibis and Doodle. The two can be interpreted as beautiful rarities who do not quite "belong" in the setting in which they are found and both ultimately die beneath a tree for seemingly senseless purposes. Once the ibis dies, about two-thirds of the way through the story, Doodle shows a deep compassion and understanding for the bird. While his family chuckles at the awkward time Doodle has of burying the creature, Doodle, struggling, manages to provide the bird with a funeral. The narrator, who is Doodle's older brother, says:

Slowly, while singing softly "Shall We Gather at the River," he carried the bird around to the front yard and dug a hole in the flower garden, next to the petunia bed. Now we were watching him through the front window, but he didn't know it.

Doodle's actions, although they exhaust him greatly, are necessary in his mind because he senses a kinship and empathy for this beautiful and exotic bird. The death of the scarlet ibis also foreshadows Doodle's own death at the very end of the story since they die in similar situations. However, the readers sees the stark difference between how Doodle reacts to death and how Doodle's older brother does. Thus, the story weaves symbolism, foreshadowing, and character foils through the interaction between the scarlet ibis, Doodle, and the narrator.

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What is the significance of Doodle's interaction with the ibis in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

The ibis symbolizes Doodle, and he recognizes this connection when the bird falls out of the tree.  Doodle's parents want him to leave the bird alone, but Doodle--seeing the similarities between the fragile bird and himself--will not let it be.  He buries the bird, and the self-sacrificing act drains his strength.

Other similarities between Doodle and the bird are that they both have a scarlet exterior and seem out of place in their environments.  In fact, the arrival of an ibis at the beginning of the story causes Brother to flash back to his boyhood with Doodle.  Likewise, when Brother finds Doodle dead in the rain, his form reminds the narrator of the fallen scarlet ibis.  Neither Doodle nor the bird is expected to survive, but both leave indelible impressions on those who come in contact with them.

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