illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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What techniques does the author use to establish mood in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

Expert Answers

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Mood is the way the reader feels while reading the story and the author's word choice, portrayal of imagery and descriptive language all help to create it. First, Hurst's chooses to open his story with words and phrases associated with nature and death, such as: "summer was dead," "rotting brown magnolia petals," "the last graveyard flowers were blooming," and "speaking softly the names of our dead." These examples all seem to create a mood of death and gloom as the narrator notices such things and chooses to point them out for the reader.

Next, imagery is the presentation of mental images using one or more of the five senses. Hurst uses many concrete, visual images to create an intense and depressing mood in the following passage:

"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. 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."

The above passage makes the scene feel disgusting and creepy seeing a baby's casket "sprinkled" with powdered poison and an owl's nest inside. It's also very depressing and sad.

Finally, the use of descriptive language not only encompasses imagery, but figures of speech as well. Hurst uses similes and metaphors to help drive home the feeling of gloom and doom behind the idea he is presenting. For example, when Brother tells about Doodle's real name, he compares it to a kite:

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

The connection between Doodle's real name and the kite helps the reader to feel the discrepancy between a big name for a little boy to live up to. And the possibility of Doodle's death makes the name seem too big for the boy to ever completely grasp with a long or eventful life. Then Brother ties the name to a tombstone which leaves no question as to the boy's eventual doom and a feeling of sadness dominates the scene.

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