illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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What are some examples of death imagery in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

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There are several examples of death imagery in James Hurst's short story "The Scarlet Ibis" about two brothers growing up in North Carolina in the first part of the 20th century. The very first paragraph is full of words which suggest death, including "dead," "rotting," "untenanted," "empty," and "graveyard." The narrator is telling this story from many years after the events and so he knows how the story will turn out. He knows that his brother Doodle will die at a very young age. 

Throughout the story there are references and images of death. From the beginning the family thought Doodle would die and the narrator says,

Daddy had Mr. Heath, the carpenter, build a little mahogany coffin for him. 

The narrator admits that he was sometimes cruel to Doodle because his brother was disabled and even shows Doodle the coffin in the barn:

One day I took him up to the barn loft and showed him his casket, telling him how we all had believed he would die. It was covered with a film of Paris green sprinkled to kill the rats, and screech owls had built a nest inside it.

Death is mentioned again when the boys' mother talks about World War I:

And during that summer, strange names were heard through the house: Chateau-Thierry, Amiens, Soissons, and in her blessing at the supper table, Mama once said, "And bless the Pearsons, whose boy Joe was lost at Belleau Wood."

The war is mentioned because, in many ways, the two brothers are at war with each other as the narrator pushes Doodle to do things he is not physically capable of doing.

Hurst uses more death imagery when the ibis arrives in the family's yard. The bird has been blown off course by tumultuous weather (another symbol for the boys' relationship) and landed in the "bleeding tree." Hurst describes the death of the bird:

Its long, graceful neck jerked twice into an S, then straightened out, and the bird was still. A white veil came over the eyes and the long white beak unhinged. Its legs were crossed and its clawlike feet were delicately curved at rest. 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.

When Doodle dies at the end of the story, Hurst uses imagery quite similar to the description he used when describing the death of the ibis:

He lay very awkwardly, with his head thrown far back, making his vermilion neck appear unusually long and slim. His little legs, bent sharply at the knees, had never before seemed so fragile, so thin. 

Just as the bird died under the "bleeding tree," Doodle dies under a "nightshade bush." The ibis, of course, is meant to be a symbol for Doodle.

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What are some words associated with death in the first two paragraphs of "The Scarlet Ibis"?

These bold-faced words are all directly from the text, the words behind them are an analysis of how or why they can be associated with death.

summer was dead - So summer was over, it had stopped or ceased.

bleeding tree (x2)- Often before death, people bleed. Watch throughout the story for references to RED!

rotting brown magnolia petals - When something is rotting it is in a state of decay. This is after death has occured.

five o'clocks by the chimney still marked time - Many references to time will occur in this story, but to associate time with death, I think you could take this from the perspective that every living thing will die and has a set TIME that they will endure life before that moment of death occurs.

graveyard flowers - Graveyards are places where dead people are buried, and flowers are used to celebrate their lives. In these lines, the flowers are still blooming and celebrating life.

names of our dead - We remember lives of those who have gone on before us.

die up in the leaves - Die is in this phrase.

grindstone (x2) - This is another allusion to time.

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What are some words associated with death in the first two paragraphs of "The Scarlet Ibis"?

When examining the first sentence, you can see that death is mentioned right away: "Summer was dead..." However, in this case Hurst isn't referring to a person, but is instead personifying a season. Next, Hurst mentions how the ibis came to the "bleeding tree" which also indicates death.

In the next paragraph, the speaker is describing Doodle's infant body as "red and shriveled like an old man's," which also conveys death. Finally, the last sentence itself, "Everybody thought he was going to die," is the final example of how Hurst emphasizes death in the first two paragraphs.

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