illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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What do Doodle's reactions in "The Scarlet Ibis" reveal about his character?

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In the short story "The Scarlet Ibis" by James Hurst, the narrator first depicts the character of Doodle as a disappointment. He nicknames him after a crawling insect. However, during the story, they bond as brothers while the narrator teaches him to walk and perform other physical activities, and at the end, the narrator depicts the character of Doodle as a magnificently beautiful scarlet ibis.

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Doodle's reactions to various situations and stimuli reveal that he has a sensitive, artistic soul that responds to the beauty in nature. In addition, his sensitive nature and unselfishness allow him a remarkable capacity to love.

--Symbolic of the affect that the sensitive nature of Doodle has had is suggested in the beginning of the narrative with the opening, "Summer was dead...."
That is, with Doodle's death, the beauty in nature seems to have passed, as well. For, Doodle has always focused upon the beauty of nature. When his brother first takes him to Old Woman Swamp, Doodle is so moved that he cries.

It's so pretty, Brother, so pretty."
After that, Doodle and I often went down to Old Woman Swamp.

Doodle's reactions to this beauty are so marked and genuine that they touch his brother enough to motivate him to delight more himself in the beauty of this swampland.

--Another example of Doodle's love of the aesthetic occurs when the scarlet ibis lands in the bleeding tree because it is only Doodle who rushes to it while the rest of the family do not for more than a moment put aside their mundane activity of eating lunch. As they eat Doodle finds a way to bury the beautiful, but tragic bird. 

--Finally, when the human scarlet ibis Doodle dies, the brother cries in his "tear-blurred vision in red" as he realizes that with the death of his brother, there is also death to the appreciation of beauty in life.


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In "The Scarlet Ibis," how does Doodle show that he has his own unique personality?

Doodle's personality emerges through the strength of his determination to live against all odds.  Although Doodle can only crawl backwards, which is how he gets the name Doodle, which is given to him by Brother.  He acquires the ability to walk to please Brother.  His real distinction, his gentle spirit is expressed, especially through his attention to the Scarlet Ibis.

"He is the first to notice the visiting ibis and honors the bird by giving it a careful burial while finding a way of respecting his mother's orders not to touch it. The fact that Doodle is the only member of the family to care for the scarlet ibis enough to bury it shows his compassionate heart and emphasizes a symbolic link between boy and bird."

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In "The Scarlet Ibis," how does Doodle show that he has his own unique personality?

Doodle first shows his uniqueness when he refuses to die and survives despite the doctor's pronouncements of his imminent death. He even refuses to acknowledge the coffin that his father built for him. He has an appreciation of Nature that the rest of his family seems to lack. He cries when he sees how beautiful the Old Woman Swamp is. He's the first person to notice the Scarlet Ibis and he is the only one who seems to care that the Ibis gets a decent burial. Finally, he cares deeply for the feelings of others. He wants desperately to fulfill Brother's wishes that he pushes himself so hard that he eventually dies. At the time of his death, Brother seemed only interested in having a "normal" brother, but Doodle proves he is far beyond "normal".
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How does the narrator describe Doodle in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

The main thing about the description that is important is that the narrator is disappointed in Doodle.  Clearly, he expected a brother who could play with him, and when Doodle is born, he realizes that will not be the case.  “He was born when I was six and was, from the outset, a disappointment.”  He describes Doodle as having a big head, with a tiny, red, shriveled body.  The narrator does not like it that his brother is handicapped and that people call him crazy.  “It was bad enough having an invalid brother, but having one who possibly was not all there was unbearable, so I began to make plans to kill him by smothering him with a pillow.”  The narrator is not happy until he sees evidence that Doodle is “all there.”  At first, when Doodle begins to move around, he crawls backwards.  As he gets older, he has to be towed in a wagon by his brother, who is very embarrassed by this.  “When Doodle was five years old, I was embarrassed at having a brother of that age who couldn't walk, so I set out to teach him.”  This is when the narrator decides to make Doodle his "project," which turns out to be the wrong decision.  

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In "The Scarlet Ibis," how are both Doodle and the Scarlet Ibis rare and unique?

Doodle, the younger brother of the narrator called "Brother" has a variety of things that make him unique. First of all, Doodle (so-named because of his habit of crawling backwards, like a "doodle bug") has a number of physical problems that set him apart from people who are "normal." He cannot walk normally, so Brother devises a wagon to pull Doodle around until Brother eventually teaches his disabled sibling to walk. But these things, the physical disabilities and challenges, are not what make Doodle "unique."

Doodle proves himself to be unique in a number of more subtle ways, not the least of which is defying the expectation that he would live at all. So sure were his parents that he would not live to see his first birthday, Doodle's father had a coffin made for his tiny, malformed son. When Doodle defies the life-sentence his doctors had given him, the coffin was stored away. In an act of cruelty that Brother would later come to regret, he shows Doodle the coffin one day: 

One day I took him up to the barn loft and showed him his casket, telling him now we all had believed he would die. It was covered with a film of Paris green sprinkled to kill the rats, and screech owls had built a nest inside it.

Doodle studied the mahogany box for a long time, then said, "It's not mine."

In addition to his will to live, Doodle is also unique because he sees things that others typically take for granted, like the beauty of the natural word. Brother takes Doodle to a favorite spot he knows named "Old Woman Swamp." While most people may not think of a swamp as beautiful, to Doodle, it is. When they arrive, to Brother's surprise, Doodle begins to cry: 

"For heaven's sake, what's the matter?" I asked, annoyed.

"It's so pretty," he said. "So pretty, pretty, pretty."

The Scarlet Ibis has much in common with this young boy. Both are rare and unique. When the rare bird crashes into a tree beside the boys' home, no one knows what it is and their father orders Brother to go find the "bird book" so they may look it up: 

"It's a scarlet ibis," he said, pointing to a picture. "It lives in the tropics--South America to Florida. A storm must have brought it here." 

Unfortunately, this rare bird does not live: 

"..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. Its long, graceful neck jerked twice into an S, then straightened out, and the bird was still."

The end of the story is terribly sad. Brother has always lived in a place of tension in regard to Doodle: he loves him but he is also ashamed of him and pushes him hard to be something he is not. He tries, in essence, to make something special and unique ordinary and colorless. It is not until Doodle passes away that Brother understands what a brief and special person he had had in his sibling. 

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In the James Hurst story "The Scarlet Ibis," how does the narrator depicts the character of Doodle?

In the short story "The Scarlet Ibis" by James Hurst, the narrator is identified only as Brother, signifying the part he plays in the story. When his brother Doodle is born, the narrator at first calls him "a disappointment." He had been hoping for a robust, healthy, athletic younger brother with whom he could play. Instead, Doodle is born small and weak with a defective body. His parents name him William Armstrong, but as the narrator tells it, because "such a name sounds good only on a tombstone." At first the narrator wants to kill him—until he realizes that his brother is bright and intelligent.

When he gets a little older, William Armstrong manages to learn to crawl around backward. That's when the narrator nicknames him Doodle—because he resembles a doodlebug. So the narrator initially depicts Doodle as a doodlebug. At first the narrator considers him "a burden in many ways." However, later he shows Doodle the beautiful swamp and decides to teach him to walk. As he says,

But all of us have someone or something to be proud of, and Doodle had become mine.

The narrator even succeeds in teaching Doodle to walk, which is a great accomplishment.

After that, they are able to play and daydream in the swamp together, and the narrator gets even more ambitious. He decides to teach Doodle to run, swim, climb trees, and fight so that when he starts going to school, the other boys won't pick on him. Progress is slow, however.

A few weeks before school starts, a magnificent red bird lands in their yard. They identify it as a scarlet ibis. It soon dies, and Doodle buries it. That same afternoon, the narrator takes Doodle for more training, works him hard, and is disappointed that Doodle is not making enough progress. On the way home, the narrator runs ahead in the rain and leaves Doodle behind. When he goes back to look for him, he finds that Doodle has died, and his shirt is covered in blood. He calls him "my fallen scarlet ibis." In other words, he no longer depicts Doodle as a disappointment, but rather as someone unique and wonderful.

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In what ways does Doodle demonstrate that he has his own unique personality in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

Doodle demonstrates his own unique personality with his sheer force of will, imagination, and with his appreciation for the aesthetic.

Force of will

  • While the doctor predicted after Doodle's birth that the strain of turning over or really moving would probably kill him because of his weak heart, he yet learns to crawl and "[F]or the first time he became one of us," the brother narrates.
  • When the brother is irritated that he must pull Doodle around in a wagon and tries to discourage Doodle from coming with him by whisking the wagon around curves on two wheels, Doodle tenaciously holds on to the sides of the wagon. The brother narrates, "Finally, I could see I was licked."
  • Despite the doctor's predictions, Doodle learns to walk so that he can be with his brother. "Doodle walked only because I was ashamed of having a crippled brother."
  • Doodle learns to swim only as a willful response of his brother's insistence, despite his not sleeping well at night after he exerts himself so strenuously.
  • Despite his mother's admonition to not touch the fallen scarlet ibis, Doodle insists upon burying it.
  • Doodle exerts himself in his effort to run after his brother in the storm, although his refusal to give up costs him his life.


Doodle's stories are very creative, assuming the elements of fable: The people in his narratives have wings and fly wherever they please; a boy wears a golden robe that 

glittered so brightly that when he walked through the sunflowers, they turned away from the sun to face him.                            

This boy owns a resplendent peacock whose magnificent tail covers the boy at night "burying him in the gloriously iridescent, rustling vortex."

Appreciation for the aesthetic 

  • When the brother takes Doodle to Old Woman Swamp,

...down into the green dimness where palmetto fronds whispered by the stream...His eyes were round with wonder as he gazed about him. 

Doodle is so moved by the beauty of this area that the sensitive boy cries.

  • After the scarlet ibis lands in the tree and then dies, Doodle recognizes it as a unique thing of beauty and feels compelled to bury it, singing softly Shall We gather at the River.


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