illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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What examples of figurative language are in "The Scarlet Ibis" by James Hurst?

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James Hurst's "The Scarlet Ibis" is filled with rich imagery and figurative language. One of the best similes found therein reads as follows:

They named him William Armstrong, which was like tying a big tail on a small kite.

A simile uses "like" or "as" to compare...

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two unlike things in order to make a strong point. In the above passage, the little brother's full name is compared to a large kite tail. The kite itself could represent how small Doodle's body is. The kite could also represent Doodle's predictably short life and the fact that his name has a longer life-expectancy than he does. The imagery, simile, and implied message of this sentence is quite powerful.

The next example provides a look at an oxymoron and a metaphor as follows:

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

First, two contrasting words describe the word "pride": wonderful and terrible. The juxtaposition of two opposing words often creates oxymorons that help the reader understand the internal conflict a character is experiencing. Pride is then compared to "a seed that bears two vines," which creates another comparison called a metaphor. Simply take out the preceding clause and the sentence creates a metaphor that would read as follows: "pride is a seed that bears two vines." 

Finally, there is an allusion to the tale of Hansel and Gretel:

It was too late to turn back, for we had both wandered too far into a net of expectations and had left no crumbs behind.

When an author refers to a story that readers are likely to recognize, an allusion is created that draws upon past experience. As a result, a meaningful connection between the two stories or characters deepens the understanding of how the story is read.

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The following are some examples of figurative language used in "The Scarlet Ibis":


Simile involves the comparison of two things that are essentially different. In “The Scarlet Ibis”, in the first paragraph, the writer, James Hurst, uses this type of figurative language. He writes that:

…but the oriole nest in the elm was untenanted and rocked back and forth like an empty cradle.

The author is using simile to show that the empty oriole nest, although rustically made of twigs, paper, and such, is akin to (in its present state) an empty cradle. Simile here conveys the message of emptiness as concerns fragile birds and their nests and fragile babies and their cradles.


Metaphor involves comparing people, places and/or things that are unalike. This is shown quite clearly in the last paragraph of “The Scarlet Ibis” when the brother falls on the dead younger brother (Doodle) and relates that:

I lay there crying, sheltering my fallen scarlet ibis from the heresy of rain.

In this passage, the boy Doodle is compared to the fiery red bird the scarlet ibis. Doodle has bled to death. His body violently broke down as he tried to run with all his heart to keep up with his brother who chose to run away from him.


Hyperbole is when a writer uses exaggeration as a literary tool. This exaggeration is meant to convey deep feelings. A writer uses hyperbole to make a point in a more dramatic way. In “The Scarlet Ibis”, hyperbole is evident in this line:

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

Here, Hurst does not simply write that we can be mean to those we love. He uses the above line to show this sentiment more intensely, with the heightened language employed. This hyperbole allows the reader to really understand what Doodle’s brother is feeling.

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When you're looking for figurative language, you're usually searching for it in a poem. The author of the short story "The Scarlet Ibis" does use such literary devices as personification, symbolism, simile, and foreshadowing to tell the story of Doodle and his brother.

Let me give you a few examples:

personification: In the very first sentence, the seasons are personified, given human characteristics, with summer being dead and autumn not yet born.

simile: When his brother tries to teach him to walk, Doodle collapses "on to the grass like a half-empty flour sack." When Doodle manages to stand alone for a few seconds, the brothers' laughter rang "through the swamp like a bell."

symbolism: The scarlet ibis comes to symbolize Doodle. Just as the bird flew many miles just to fall at their feet dead, so also Doodle accomplished what many thought was impossible by learning to walk, only to die when he couldn't keep up with his brother.

foreshadowing: The fate of the scarlet ibis foreshadows Doodle's fate.

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James Hurst uses imagery and metaphors to create visual impressions that connect humans to the natural world. These impressions frequently support the symbolism of the scarlet ibis to stand for Doodle.

The color red figures prominently in many of the images and comparisons, and it becomes especially strong in relation to Doodle’s death. Similarly, the author uses the bird as a symbol of Doodle, and in the narrator’s description of his brother’s body, their similarity is emphasized. In the end, he specifically refers to his dead brother as the ibis.

Earlier in the story, the bird’s incongruous appearance and its death serve to foreshadow Doodle’s demise. A related image that evokes the color red and the deaths to come is that of the “bleeding tree” in which the ibis perches. The entire first paragraph includes numerous mentions of death in relation to different natural phenomena. The narrator also uses personification: “summer was dead." He mentions “graveyard flowers” and uses personification in saying that they were “speaking the names of our dead.” Further comparisons with the natural world, evoking life as well as death, apply to the narrator’s analysis of emotion as he considers the role of pride, which he calls “a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death.”

Because the narrator is remembering his childhood, he often uses figurative language appropriate to a child. Much of this is simile. He describes the curtains as “rustling like palmetto fronds.” In a simile combined with synesthesia (the mixing or combining of senses), he mentions hearing a smell and evokes death through mourning: “the sick-sweet smell of bay flowers hung everywhere like a mournful song.” When Doodle cannot walk when the narrator teaches him, he collapses “like an empty flour sack.” The narrator also compares his optimism to another red bird: “Hope…perched like a cardinal in the lacy toothbrush tree.” This is also an allusion to an Emily Dickinson poem that begins, “Hope is the thing with feathers.”

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What is an example of figurative language in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

The author uses figurative language to characterize Doodle.

Figurative language is non-literal description. That means it does not describe something as it is, but in comparison to something else. The most common types of figurative language are similes and metaphors. Writers like to use figurative language to add depth and interest to a story, including characterizing (describing) important characters.

A simile is an indirect comparison, where the author is saying that something is like something else. An example from the story is the description of Doodle’s name.

They named him William Armstrong, which is like tying a big tail on a small kite. Such a name sounds good only on a tombstone.

It means that name is too big for him. The author could have just said the name seemed foolish because Doodle was so tiny and the name seemed serious and grown-up, but the author makes the point, instead, with this wonderful comparison of tying a big tail on a small kite. We imagine it, and it helps us picture Doodle.

A metaphor is another type of figurative language, when you say one thing but mean something else. Here is the narrator’s description of what he hoped for when Doodle was born.

… I wanted more than anything else someone to race to Horsehead Landing, someone to box with, and someone to perch with in the top fork of the great pine behind the barn, where across the fields and swamps you could see the sea. I wanted a brother.

When the narrator says he wanted a brother, he means it metaphorically and not literally. He means that he wants someone to do all of these things with. He wants a friend.  Doodle is too weak and small to be able to do these things, so while he is literally the narrator’s brother, he is not metaphorically. He does not live up to the image that the narrator had of what a brother should be able to do.

Figurative language is like helping the reader see what is in the author’s mind. It makes a story richer, and makes details of characterization and setting clearer. In this story, we see how the similes and metaphors describe Doodle in a much more complex way than just saying he was small and could not do much.

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