illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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What is the allusion in the first two paragraphs of "The Scarlet Ibis"?

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Hurst begins his story with some evocative language. People often remark on his "clove of seasons" opening line, but in fact there is a kind of poetry in these first few descriptive paragraphs that sets the tone for the whole story. A big part of what readers (perhaps unconsciously) respond to in this language is its subtle reference to the nursery rhyme, "Rock-a-bye Baby." The ibis, which comes to represent Doodle, lands in the "tree top" of the bleeding tree (a tree which, when its "boughs break," bleeds a white sap); the "cradle" of the oriole's nest "rocks" in the breeze "like an empty cradle." And, of course, the ibis does fall from the "tree-top," dead, later in the story. 

The function of the allusion is (at least) two fold. First, clearly it is a foreshadowing of what will happen to Doodle, the disabled "baby" of the family who also dies in a storm. Second, the allusion creates a particular tone for the story, which is less about what happens to Doodle than it is about the nature of childhood—how children can be cruelest sometimes to the ones they love the most. In the same way that the nursery rhyme conflates a gentle lullaby with a terrifying fall from a tree, the story acknowledges that love and cruelty can coexist: as the narrator puts it, "there is within me ... a knot of cruelty borne by the stream of love, much as our blood sometimes bears the seed of our destruction." 

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There is an allusion to a familiar children’s lullaby in the first paragraph of “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst. An allusion is a brief, usually indirect, reference to a something familiar. Often an author will allude to another piece of literature, a movie, a song, or a historical event.

In “The Scarlet Ibis,” James Hurst alludes to the English children’s lullaby “Rock-a-Bye Baby.” He makes this allusion in the third sentence of the first paragraph.

The five o'clocks by the chimney still marked time, but the oriole nest in the elm was untenanted and rocked back and forth like an empty cradle.

The children’s song contains a similar thought.

Rock-a-bye baby, on the treetop,

When the wind blows, the cradle will rock,

When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall,

And down will come baby, cradle and all.

This use of allusion can be considered to be foreshadowing of events in the story. Doodle is born with developmental disabilities, and dies in a storm which is too much for his frail body to endure. Brother does not accept Doodle's physical limits, which causes him to "rock the cradle" by pushing him to do things that tax his heart. Doodle's death leaves Brother with a feeling of emptiness as he reminisces about his younger brother.

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