illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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

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The color red symbolizes death in "The Scarlet Ibis." Blue is used to indicate physical struggles. Green is symbolic of life and is used to contrast the ways Doodle is not suited for his physical environment. Gold is used to indicate success and achievement. White is symbolic of innocence and purity.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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