illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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What larger message was Hurst trying to convey in "The Scarlet Ibis"?

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In addition to Hurst's message about the destructive nature of excessive pride, "The Scarlet Ibis" also suggests that people who are different or unusual should be appreciated, even celebrated, for the wonder and care that they can bring to others.

Doodle far surpasses his family's expectations (they are so certain he is going to die shortly after birth that they build a tiny coffin for him and do not name him until he is three months old), yet his being born in a caul marks him as special. Doodle is physically disabled, but emotionally, he is exceptionally empathetic, attuned to the feelings of those he loves. He persists through many challenges in learning to walk because he knows it will please his brother, and indeed, his family is delighted in his achievement.

When the strange scarlet ibis dies in the family's backyard, Doodle resolves that he will give it a proper burial. The bird is a symbol for Doodle; both are physically weak and both are clearly "different." Doodle demonstrates respect for the bird despite its strange qualities, and in turn, Hurst is indicating that Doodle deserves the respect of others. Doodle's empathy toward the scarlet ibis is meant to indicate that a person's value is determined not by his physical strength or appearance, but by the way he treats others. The narrator's guilt over his role in Doodle's death further supports this value system; he views himself as irresponsible and selfish for caring more about himself than about Doodle, and Doodle as someone who is truly worthy of the respect and admiration of others. 

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Hurst wrote "The Scarlet Ibis" as a means of warning readers against excessive pride. The character of Brother in the story is motivated to help Doodle become like other children simply because he is embarrassed to have a brother who is so different. When Doodle is young, Brother is even motivated to kill him. However, he eventually helps Doodle learn how to walk. Brother is motivated by pride and his desire to have Doodle resemble other children rather than by true altruism. In the end, Brother's desire to force Doodle to be like other children and to learn to row kills Doodle. 

Doodle is a rare creature who is compared to the exotic scarlet ibis who shows up after a storm. Doodle is unusual and delicate, and Brother never quite understands who Doodle is or why he is special. Instead, Brother's embarrassment and pride compel him to make his brother like everyone else, killing him in the process. Brother's pride prevents him from appreciating the unique qualities that make his brother special. 

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In "The Scarlet Ibis," James Hurst points to the polarities of life and demonstrates how even certain feelings can be both valuable and destructive. These polarities are at the heart of Hurst's message.

At one point in the narrative, the brother realizes that his pride, like Nature, "is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death." This statement is thematic. Like Nature, which affords the father his livelihood but also brings blight to his cotton fields and terrible thunderstorms, the brother's pride prompts Doodle to learn to walk--an accomplishment that thrills his parents and Aunt Nicey--but it also urges the brother, with this success, to push Doodle on to mastering more difficult feats, such as rowing a boat and running. These actions prove to be tragic as the delicate boy cannot sustain the stress of so much exercise, especially as a thunderstorm bears down upon him.

At the end of the story, the narrator/brother holds Doodle, comparing him to the dead scarlet ibis, blown in from a stranger place. This comparison is fitting since Doodle, born in a caul and recognized by his Aunty Nicey as unique and spiritually blessed, has always been a delicate creature who has not been able to survive the tempests of life like the scarlet ibis. Indeed, it has been the tempest of the narrator's "second vine" of pride that has killed Doodle. 

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Why did James Hurst write "The Scarlet Ibis"?

One of the more disturbing themes that can be attached to this excellent short story is the danger that there is of not accepting somebody for who they are and desiring to make them into what another person thinks they should be. This is shown through the narrator's stubborn refusal to allow Doodle, his younger brother, to remain weak and unable to participate in life through his disabilities. As a result, he teaches him how to walk, sucessfully. Then, buoyed by this success, he moves on to create a more elaborate training program to remake Doodle in the way that he would like him to be:

Once I had succeeded in teaching Doodle to walk, I began to believe in my own infallibility, and I prepared a terrific development program for him, unknown to Mama and Daddy, of course. I would teach him to run, to swim, to climb trees, and to fight. He, too, now believed in my infallibility, so we set the deadline for these accomplishments less than a year away, when, it had been decided, Doodle could start school.

In the end, of course, is the narrator's inability to accept Doodle and to value him for who he is that ends in Doodle's early death, as he is not able to live up to his brother's great expectations and hopes for him. The fact that the story is set against the backdrop of the Great War heightens this theme, as it focuses on the conflict that existed between them and makes a link to the conflict that so many young men at that time were engaged in. One of the reasons that the author wrote this short story therefore was to explore the dangers of seeking to transform another and change them into the person that you think they should be, rather than being able to accept them for who they are.

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Why does James Hurst set "The Scarlet Ibis" during the war?

James Hurst's "The Scarlet Ibis" is the story of two brothers growing up in coastal North Carolina in the early part of the 20th century. The mention of war at a midway point in the story is symbolic of the war which is going on between the brothers. During the story, Hurst makes reference to the battles of World War I and the boys' mother prays for a fallen soldier who was a neighbor. The allusion comes at a point in the story when the brothers are at a crossroads in their lives. The older brother wants Doodle to become physically vigorous and has designed a regiment of activity which he hopes will make Doodle the equal of the other boys at school. Above all, the brother doesn't want Doodle to embarrass him. Their relationship during this time is antagonistic and stormy (the weather is also a symbol of this struggle). Doodle questions why he needs to be as physically strong as his brother. His inclination is to be more sensitive and to simply appreciate the wonders of nature. The brother, however, is not to be dissuaded and he eventually pushes Doodle too far. His pride and stubbornness in remaking Doodle ends in tragic circumstances as Doodle dies of internal bleeding by exhausting himself after chasing his brother during a rainstorm.

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