illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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What does "The Scarlet Ibis" symbolize and how does it represent Doodle?

Quick answer:

As an exotic bird not indigenous to the setting of the story, the scarlet ibis symbolizes those who are lost and out of place, particularly those who are weak and fragile. When Brother sees Doodle's dead body, he notices the physical similarities between Doodle and the scarlet ibis. Both of their necks were broken, and red blood reminiscent of the color scarlet is trickling out of Doodle's mouth. In this moment, the scarlet ibis becomes a symbol of death.

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In Hurst's short story "The Scarlet Ibis," the ibis is a very powerful symbol: it represents the main character, Doodle, as well as all emotionally and physically fragile and sensitive beings, which is why Hurst decided to name the story "The Scarlet Ibis."

The ibis is a rare tropical bird which is described as graceful, elegant, beautiful, and captivating, but at the same time it is weak, lost, alone, and fragile. It comes from different parts of the world and finds itself in the wrong place at the wrong time. The ibis suffers because of a horrible storm and barely manages to survive; in the end, it dies because it is weak and exhausted and incapable of adapting to the new and harsh environment.

Like the ibis, Doodle is also weak and doesn't belong in his environment; he's physically disabled, and the world is not very kind to him because he's different and doesn't fit in. Despite all of this, Doodle is still a bright and beautiful boy, who manages to find love, kindness, joy, and happiness in his life. Unfortunately, neither Doodle nor the ibis are capable of finding their way and their strength. Doodle is also lost and powerless against the harshness and cruelty of the world in which he lives in. In the end, he dies too, succumbing to his weakness and exhaustion.

When he sees the lifeless and bloody body of Doodle, his brother acknowledges the similarities between Doodle and the scarlet ibis and calls his little brother "my fallen scarlet ibis."

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The scarlet ibis symbolizes Doodle in that both are fragile and lovely creatures of nature who die too soon.

The handicapped Doodle's love of nature is established early in the story. The narrator, Brother, who does much of the caretaking of the younger boy, drags him in a cart to Old Woman Swamp. Doodle cries because the place is so beautiful that it makes him happy. Because Doodle as such an affinity for this natural setting, Brother takes him there often. It is in the swamp that Doodle is able to learn to walk.

Doodle is the one who first hears the sounds of the scarlet ibis in the tree outside the family's dining room window. He goes outside to see the bird, and the rest of the family follows. Like Doodle, the bird seems out of place, and it soon falls from the tree and dies:

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

Doodle feels a kinship with the bird and decides he will bury it.

Soon after this, Doodle and Brother go the Horsehead Landing so that Doodle can have a swimming lesson. Like the bird, Doodle falls down. Brother runs away him from in a thunder storm, though he knows Doodle is frightened. When he goes back to find him, he discovers that Doodle, like the scarlet ibis, has died and is bloodstained. Lest we miss the symbolism, Brother calls him "my fallen scarlet ibis." Doodle is a beautiful creature of nature too fragile to survive.

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The titular bird of this short story symbolizes Doodle in a couple of ways. First of all, the scarlet ibis is a delicate bird. But despite its fragile nature, the ibis fully engages with its world. It has flown far from its tropical home to North Carolina, most likely due to the violent winds of a storm. Despite its resolve, the bird succumbs to exhaustion and dies. This foreshadows Doodle's fate. Like the ibis, Doodle is physically fragile despite an eagerness to do physical feats. At the story's end, he overexerts himself on the lake and running through the storm and meets the same fate as the bird. In this way, the scarlet ibis symbolizes the eager, yet fatally delicate, nature of Doodle. Despite Brother's feelings of guilt over Doodle's death, both the boy and the bird die because they became victims to natural forces much greater than themselves.

Furthermore, the ibis is out of place in North Carolina. It is something that does not belong there. There are no birds like it where it ends up and this makes the ibis quite the novelty. Despite being born in North Carolina, Doodle is also out of place. Due to his physical disabilities, he is different from all the other children.

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The scarlet ibis represents in more ways than one. The scarlet ibis is small and fragile like Doodle, but more importantly the scarlet ibis is out of place in their yard. The scarlet ibis is not indigenous to Doodle's neighborhood, it's as if the bird is lost. Doodle was out of place in his world too because he was different, small, fragile, mentally and physically impaired. When Doodle dies, his brother stands over his body crying and the thought occurs to him that Doodle looks a lot like the scarlet ibis did in death. His neck is twisted like the ibis and he has blood trickling from the corner of his mouth (the ibis was scarlet, a deep shade of red perhaps even dark like blood).

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Discuss the ways that the scarlet ibis itself is a symbol for Doodle.

The ibis is this story is not in its natural habitat.  It is alone, and it stands out because of its shocking and uncommon coloring.  It struggles because the enviornment of the boys hometown is not the weather it is used to - it finds the conditions harsh, hard to manage. 

The same is true of Doodle.  He was born disabled.  He is unlike his brother and his family.  He is alone, alienated, and the environment does not suit him - it is designed for those who can walk.  Like the bird, Doodle is fragile; but also like the bird, Doodle is beautiful.  His obstacles have made him appreciate life more than others.  He is sensitive and pure.  Although his brother teaches him to walk, Doodle can't overcome the harshness of his own environment, and is left behind in his brother's anger and rashness. 

The author frames the story with images of the ibis to make clear the symbolism.  The red color of the bird helps to further represent Doodle's mortality (blood) and the passionate emotions (rage, selfishness and love) that drive the protagonist's actions.

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