illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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What are three metaphors in "The Scarlet Ibis" by James Hurst?

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"The Scarlet Ibis" by James Hurst employs various metaphors. The first metaphor is found in the opening sentence, where the changing seasons are portrayed as being born and dying. The second metaphor compares love to a stream, and the narrator's cruelty as a knot within it. The third metaphor describes pride as a seed that sprouts two vines, life and death. Additional metaphors include Doodle being compared to a burden, and a song turning into silvery dust.

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James Hurst's "The Scarlet Ibis" contains many different metaphors. We encounter this form of figurative language in the very first sentence, when Hurst writes:

It was in the clove of seasons, summer was dead but autumn had not yet been born, that the ibis lit in the...

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bleeding tree.

Here, the narrator is metaphorically treating the seasons not just as markers of time which pass through the natural world, but as things which are born and which die, almost in a human capacity. The "clove"--which in its literal use is a dried red flower bud--is a metaphor for being a late bloomer (as we will soon learn Doodle is) and an examination of the divide between two time periods.

When the narrator speaks of his relationship with Doodle, he comments:

There is within me (and with sadness I have watched it in others) a knot of cruelty borne by the stream love...

The narrator is comparing love to a stream (a body of water which flows through a landscape), suggesting that love is an organic part of being human; at the same time, he is also viewing his tendency toward unkindness as a knot (the tangling of something), which is also part of nature. Both capabilities--love and cruelty--exist intrinsically within the narrator. 

The narrator goes on to say:

I did not know then that pride is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death.

Again, we encounter a metaphorical examination of a human quality as a component of the natural world. In this case, pride is a seed which yields (in an echoing of the open passage) both life and death as growing extensions of it.

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Of course, the controlling metaphor of James Hurst's short story is the beautiful red bird named in the title, "The Scarlet Ibis"; this bird becomes a metaphor, an unstated comparison for Doodle, whose nickname is also a metaphor as the brother has donned him after the doodlebug that walks backwards because as a baby he crawled that direction.

Here are three other metaphors employed by Hurst.

  • In the second paragraph, the brother narrates that a grindstone now stands where the bleeding tree in which the ibis had landed once was, replaced now with an elm. If an oriole lands there momentarily with a song, "its song seems to die up in the leaves, a silvery dust."  This is a metaphor as "song" is compared to "silvery dust."
  • In the ninth paragraph, "He was a burden in many ways." This is an expressed metaphor as Doodle = a burden.
  • In the thirtieth paragraph, the brother tries to teach Doodle to walk because he is embarrassed that his brother cannot do this. He realizes that now at this point Doodle has become someone he must make worthy of his pride. 

I did not know then that pride is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death. 

This metaphor, too, is expressed one as pride is equated to the seed; another metaphor is that [it] bears two vines, life and death. Life and death are compared to two vines.

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    The narrator's little brother, Doodle, receives several complimentary comparisons in the James Hurst short story, "The Scarlet Ibis." Three different examples of metaphorical useage (the comparison of two unlike things without using the words "like" or "as") are listed below.
    The big brother compares himself to a slave in his desire to help Doodle learn to walk:

    ... that pride, whose slave I was, spoke to me louder than all their voices... 

Later, the final storm's elements are compared to a child's game--of hide-and-go-seek, perhaps?

... lightning was playing across half the sky and thunder roared out, hiding even the sound of the sea. 

In the story's final line, the dead Doodle is compared with the fallen ibis, and the rainstorm is likened to an irreligious act.

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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What are some similes in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

A simile is a comparison using the words "like" or "as." Hurst uses many of these in "The Scarlet Ibis." A few of them are listed below.

The very young Doodle, struggling for mobility, would "collapse back onto the bed like an old worn-out doll."

A favorite haunt of Doodle and the narrator is Old Woman Swamp. On the day that the narrator decides Doodle will learn to walk, the two are sitting by the swamp, where "the sick- sweet smell of bay flowers hung everywhere like a mournful song."

The narrator describes Doodle's struggles to stand and walk as follows: "He collapsed onto the grass like a half-empty flour sack."

In contrast to the mournful smell of the bay flowers, when it becomes clear that Doodle can learn to walk, "our laughter pealing through the swamp like a ringing bell."

Two lines later, Hurst uses another simile, comparing the abstract concept of hope to a bird in a tree: "Hope no longer hid in the dark palmetto thicket but perched like a cardinal in the lacy toothbrush tree, brilliantly visible."

When the narrator is about to show off Doodle's walking to the family, he thinks: "Keeping a nice secret is very hard to do, like holding your breath."

Hurst's use of similes helps develop the narrator's distinctive voice and helps the reader to develop a sensory picture of what is going in the story that adds to its emotional impact.

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What are some similes in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

There are many of figures of speech like similes and metaphors in "The Scarlet Ibis."  Here is a list of some of them.  I've bolded the similes, but have also included metaphors used by Hurst in the story.

  • "It was in the clove of seasons . . ." (metaphor)
  •  ". . . the oriole nest in the elm was untenanted and rocked back and forth like an empty cradle."
  • "They named him William Armstrong, which is like tying a big tail on a small kite."
  • "Crawling backward made him look like a doodlebug."
  • "I did not know then that pride is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death. (metaphor)
  • . . . the peacock spread his magnificent tail, enfolding the boy gently like a closing go-to-sleep flower."
  • "Promise hung about us like the leaves . . ."
  • "Even death did not mar its grace, for it lay on the earth like a broken vase of red flowers."

I hope this helps!  Hurst's imagery in "The Scarlet Ibis" shows his wonderful ability to paint a picture for the reader by using figures of speech like similes and metaphors.  

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What are some similes in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

Remember that a simile is a form of literary comparison where one object is compared to another object using the word "like" or "as". Normally the two objects are dissimilar - we would not normally think of associating or linking them, but the author normally makes a point or forces us to see the object they are describing in a new and surprising way because of the comparison.

Looking at "The Scarlet Ibis", therefore, there are some great examples of similes. To me, one of the most important in the text is the description of the dead Scarlet Ibis after it has just fallen from the tree:

Even death did not mar its grace, for it lay on the earth like a broken vase of red flowers, and we stood around it, awed by its exotic beauty.

Here the dead scarlet ibis is compared to a broken vase of red flowers. Note how this reflects both its fragile, broken state as a dead bird, but it also conveys its incredible beauty - it is compared to red flowers, even though they are in a broken vase.

What is key to realise, however, is how the mention of red links the scarlet ibis to Doodle. Remember the simile that is used to describe him at birth:

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

Here of course the comparison is less than flattering, emphasising as it does the unnatural appearance of Doodle, but it serves to link the character of Doodle with the scarlet ibis - a comparison that becomes very important at the end of the novel.

So, there are two important similes for you from this excellent story. Have a go and looking back at it and finding some more now. Good luck!

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Give an example of a metaphor from the short story, "The Scarlet Ibis." 

Metaphors compare unlike things without using the words "like" or "as," such as saying summer was dead or that the narrator had a knot of cruelty in him.

A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things.  Metaphors are a type of figurative language that are used to add description to writing.  They might be used to describe the setting or characterize.  An example of a metaphor follows:

It was in the clove of seasons, summer was dead but autumn had not yet been born, that the ibis lit in the bleeding tree.

This is a metaphor because, of course, summer is not alive, and therefore cannot die.  It is also personification, because it describes summer and autumn as if they were human. This sets the tone while also giving important symbolic information for the story and telling you details of the setting.  The ibis, which is mentioned in this first sentence, is a symbol of fragility to which the narrator compares his brother. 

Metaphor contrasts with simile, which is another type of comparison that uses “like” or “as” in the comparison.  Consider the description of Doodle trying to learn to crawl.

Trembling, he'd push himself up, turning first red, then a soft purple, and finally collapse back onto the bed like an old worn-out doll.

Notice that this is different from a metaphor because it does not say that Doodle is a worn-out doll, it says that he is like a worn-out doll.  Similes are still useful figurative language in that they also add detail and help the reader create pictures in his or her mind.

Although the story is full of simile, there are also other metaphors.

There is within me (and with sadness I have watched it in others) a knot of cruelty borne by the stream of love, much as our blood sometimes bears the seed of our destruction, and at times I was mean to Doodle.

This metaphor is used to compare the narrator’s feelings with a knot.  It is a powerful metaphor which can be used to characterize him, because it demonstrates his guilt over how he treated his brother and also his reflective nature.  Of course, it also shows that he does not have the tendency to be cruel to his brother. He admits it.  The narrator admits that he wanted his brother to be like other kids, grew frustrated with him, and pushed him too hard.

This story is full of imagery and figurative language.  These descriptions create a tone, add detail, and characterize the narrator and Doodle or describing the setting.  Authors use these elements to make their stories richer and help the reader see what they are seeing.

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