illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

Start Free Trial

What does the red color symbolize in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The use of red in this story is interesting, because red can be a color of polar opposites. Valentine's Day and all of its redness is symbolic of love, yet red is also the color that animators frequently use to show a character filled with rage and hate. In "The Scarlet Ibis," the color red is consistently a negative color throughout. The first time readers see the red color is when Doodle is born:

He seemed all head, with a tiny body which was red and shriveled like an old man's.

Doodle's body appears sickly, and the color red is attached to that negative image. Brother pushes Doodle hard throughout the story, for various reasons, and Doodle works hard because of it. Readers see his exertion in his "red" face. Doodle is keeping up, but he's practically killing himself to do it.

Wherever we went, I purposely walked fast, and although he kept up, his face turned red and his eyes became glazed.

The ibis eventually enters the story, and red is central to its description. Unfortunately, what should be a beautiful bird is marred by its injuries. The "great big red bird" is a sickly and dying creature. Instead of being beautiful and vibrant, the red color is associated with death:

for it lay on the earth like a broken vase of red flowers . . .

The red and death symbolism comes again at the story's conclusion. Brother goes back to find his brother, beneath a "red nightshade." This detail should clue readers in to the bad news that is coming. Doodle is dead, with "brilliant red" blood all over his shirt.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Variations of the color red are used throughout James Hurst's "The Scarlet Ibis." It is used to symbolize the blood that flows from Doodle onto his shirt at the end of the story. The redness of the bleeding tree is another symbol, with it's connotation of blood; like Doodle, it no longer survives as the brother retells his story from a later viewpoint. The ibis itself is vividly red--a bird that has somehow flown far from its native land only to die a lonely death, not unlike Doodle's own demise. The bird is also an endangered species--again, like Doodle--unable to breed successfully in native surroundings. Yet its red body makes it one of the most beautiful of all birds. Red symbolizes death, from Doodle's early days with his "red and shriveled" body; and bad luck, judging from Aunt Nicey's declaration about "Dead birds is bad luck... Specially red, dead birds." Doodle dies in the midst of "a red nightshade bush," blood running from his mouth "making his vermilion neck appear unusually long and thin."

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In James Hurst's short story "The Scarlet Ibis," what does the red symbolize?

In the short story "The Scarlet Ibis," author James Hurst uses the large, red exotic bird, called a scarlet ibis, to parallel his character Doodle and to symbolize characteristics that make us unique, as well as our frail humanity.

One hot, summer noon, while the family is eating lunch, a croaking sound brings the family out in the yard. Doodle is the first out into the yard and the first to see a "great big red bird" in their bleeding tree. As they continue to watch, the bird flutters, falls from the tree, jerks on the ground, then becomes very still, having died at the foot of the bleeding tree. The father identifies the bird as a scarlet ibis, explains "it lives in the tropics--South America to Florida," and speculates that "a storm must have brought it here," where it died of exhaustion.

Just like the scarlet ibis, Doodle is exotic due to his special needs and unique ability to see beauty in the world, such as when he cried the first time he saw the swamp because he thought it was so beautiful. However, his brother ignores his special needs and tries to train him into being something he is not, killing him with exhaustion and fear.

Since Hurst parallels Doodle with the scarlet ibis, we can see that red, the color of the bird, has a great deal of symbolic meaning. First, since red is an exotic color for a bird, it symbolizes those with distinguishing characteristics, like Doodle, as being exotic. In addition, red is the color of blood; therefore, red can also symbolize frail mortality, just as both Doodle and the bird were frail.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "The Scarlet Ibis," what associations are triggered by the color red?

I think it is safe to say that generally we associate the colour red with three things: passion, danger and blood. However, what is most important to "The Scarlet Ibis" is the last symbolism, which can also be said to symbolise death. Let us remind ourselves of the definition of symbolism before we go any further. A symbol is an object, person, animal or event that we often associate with other concepts, such as peace or freedom. When an author uses symbols in his work he or she is adding deeper levels of meaning.

Thus when we examine the short story, we see that repeated reference is made to the colour red. The tree is described as "bleeding" with its blossom. Doodle is born "red and shrivelled" and the scarlet ibis is of course red. Therefore the repeated references to red perhaps symbolise the death of Doodle and act as a kind of foreshadowing. Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, as it makes the link between the scarlet ibis and Doodle clear, note how Doodle's body is described:

He lay very awkwardly, with his head thrown far back, making his vermilion neck appear unusually long and slim.

Vermilion of course is a bright red colour and the description of Doodle links him in our mind with the description of the dead scarlet ibis, making it clear that the colour red symbolises death in this moving short story.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on