illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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What is the relationship between the brothers in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

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In James Hurst's short story entitled "The Scarlet Ibis," the narrator (known to readers only as Brother) chronicles the relationship he had with his younger brother until his accidental death. It is a moving tale told in flashback, and one of the themes of the story is that pride is something that can be wonderful, but it can also be something very destructive. It was brother's pride that contributed to Doodle's demise. 

Hurst develops the relationship of the two brothers through dialogue, description, and tone. The tone of the story is rather somber, with a lot of symbolism that foreshadows death: 

The flower garden was strained with rotting brown magnolia petals and ironweeds grew rank amid the purple phlox. 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 tone changes when brother starts talking about Doodle. He says "Doodle was just about the craziest brother a boy ever had . . . he was nice crazy, like someone you meet in  your dreams." 

Hurst's word choice and tone here establish that the speaker has affection for his younger brother, who was born when Brother was six years old. After this, he describes Doodle as a disappointment, because he was frail physically, and not expected to walk. Relatives even whispered that he may be mentally challenged. 

Brother describes plotting to kill his brother with a pillow, but when Doodle smiles at him, he abandons the idea and begins shouting, "He's all there! He's all there!" He was excited to learn his brother was going to be someone he could have a relationship with. He decided that he would teach Doodle to walk. He is careful to explain that he did not do this altruistically, but out of his pride. He was embarrassed to have a brother who couldn't walk. 

It seemed so hopeless from the beginning that it's a miracle I didn't give up. But all of us must have something or someone to be proud of, and Doodle had become mine. I did not know then that pride is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death.

Brother describes times that he was cruel to Doodle, like the time he took him to the barn to show him the coffin that had been made for him when it was thought that he wouldn't live. He describes the list of "don'ts" that came with Doodle, and how he ignored most of them. He also describes how he pushed Doodle very hard at times in an effort to make him do all the things he could do. 

But he also describes a deep friendship between the brothers. In the quote below, there is a description of their plans for the future, which reveal their bond. 

When we were grown we'd live in Old Woman Swamp and pick dog-tongue for a living. Beside the stream, he planned, we'd build us a house of whispering leaves and the swamp birds would be our chickens. All day long (when we weren't gathering dog’s-tongue) we'd swing through the cypresses on the rope vines, and if it rained we'd huddle beneath an umbrella tree and play stickfrog. Mama and Daddy could come and live with us if they wanted to. He even came up with the idea that he could marry Mama and I could marry Daddy. Of course, I was old enough to know this wouldn't work out, but the picture he painted was so beautiful and serene that all I could do was whisper Yes, yes.

This quote isn't the only one where Brother is affected by Doodle's imaginatively beautiful views of the world. Doodle teaches Brother to slow down and enjoy the beauty surrounding him. He bears the blame for Doodle's demise throughout the story by revealing his motivations and childish cruelties. In these lines, we see his deep love for his brother as he is broken over his loss. 

I began to weep, and the tear-blurred vision in red before me looked very familiar. "Doodle!" I screamed above the pounding storm and threw my body to the earth above his. For a long time, it seemed forever, I lay there crying, sheltering my fallen scarlet ibis from the heresy of rain.



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James Hurst's "The Scarlet Ibis" details a very complex relationship between the narrator and his brother, Doodle. 

At different times in the novel, the narrator explains that he's ashamed of Doodle.  First, he says,

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."

Later, the narrator teaches Doodle to walk--not because he wants to be helpful, but because he's ashamed of having a "crippled" brother.  When the family thanks the narrator for having taught Doodle to walk, he feels bad that his motives were born out of shame.

Throughout the course of the story, readers come to see Doodle as a very sensitive, kind person.  Doodle views his brother as "infallible," and looks up to him with the admiration that many younger brothers have for their older siblings. 

The ending of the story is certainly a sad one, and we can assume that the narrator's guilt over his treatment of Doodle continues to haunt him after the story's conclusion. 

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In "The Scarlet Ibis," what does the relationship between the two brothers represent? Use evidence from the short story to support your response.

Different readers might have different ideas of what the relationship between Doodle and Brother symbolizes, so feel free to defend your own feelings. One thing that I think their relationship represents is pride. The theme of pride runs throughout this story, but it is focused on Brother's attitude toward Doodle. Brother is embarrassed by the fact that he has a little brother that can't run, jump, or do any of the things that Brother believes a little brother should do. Brother believes that he can get Doodle to do those things through hard work, practice, and perseverance. That all sounds great, but Brother's motivation isn't altruistic. He doesn't want Doodle to achieve these things for the good of Doodle. Brother wants a brother he can be proud of, and his own pride won't let him fail.

"What are you crying for?" asked Daddy, but I couldn't answer. They
did not know that I did it for myself, that pride, whose slave I was, spoke to me louder than all their voices, and that Doodle walked only because I was ashamed of having a crippled brother.

That pride is what ultimately will lead Brother to abandon Doodle in the storm, and readers will be forced to question whether or not Doodle may have survived if Brother had stayed back.

He had failed and we both knew it, so we started back home, racing the storm. We never spoke (What are the words that can solder cracked pride?), but I knew he was watching me, watching for a
sign of mercy.

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