illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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Why does Brother think Doodle is crazy at the start of "The Scarlet Ibis"?

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Brother considers Doodle crazy due to the fact that he's physically disabled and develops differently from other children.

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At the beginning of the story, Brother calls Doodle crazy, saying,

Doodle was about the craziest brother a boy ever had.

By crazy, Brother doesn't mean clinically insane. He is using it in the generic sense of the word, as unusual or inexplicable, the way we might say that a...

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tornado touching down and completely demolishing only half a house is "crazy."

Brother does go on to specify somewhat more clearly what he means, however, which is that Doodle was a disabled child whose parents thought he would die and even built him a little coffin. Doodle was "crazy" because he didn't develop in a "normal" way. For example, he would crawl backwards, not forwards. For a long time, he couldn't walk and had to be pulled around in a cart. Later, Brother was able to work with him near Old Lady Swamp so that he could learn to walk, but Brother finally has to come to terms with the fact that Doodle will never be exactly like other children. Brother notes that Doodle also has an unusual sensitivity to nature.

In calling Doodle "the craziest brother," the adult Brother is recalling and reproducing the cadences of his child's self. He was given too much responsibility too soon for caring for this disabled child and didn't have the maturity or perspective to sort out what was going on. Therefore, he used broad terms like crazy to describe behavior that was outside of his normal context.

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Near the beginning of "The Scarlet Ibis," the narrator and older brother of Doodle introduces him as "the craziest brother a boy ever had." Doodle appears

all head, with a tiny body that was red and shriveled like an old man's. Everybody thought he was going to die.

As others discussed below, Brother (as Doodle calls him) considers his younger brother to be crazy because of the boy's mental and physical disabilities. Interestingly, Brother also labels Doodle as crazy because Doodle develops and performs tasks backward.

Like F. Scott Fitzgerald's Benjamin Button, Doodle seems to age in reverse. As described above, he resembles an elderly man at birth. Although babies typically have large heads and are red at birth, their bodies tend to be smooth and unwrinkled. Doodle's wrinkled, withered body already looks like he is ready to die from old age. His parents even prepare for his death soon after his birth:

Daddy had the carpenter build a little coffin, and when he was three months old, Mama and Daddy named him William Armstrong. Such a name sounds good only on a tombstone.

Doodle's somber and unchildlike name of "William Armstrong" is ironic (after all, he is not strong). It is not appropriate for his personality but suited more to be printed on a gravestone.

When Doodle moves, he goes only in reverse. Brother says,

When he crawled on the rug, he crawled backward, as if he were in reverse and couldn't change gears.

Doodle cannot move forward physically and metaphorically; his development is arrested and he is never able to join peers at school.

Finally, Brother find Doodle crazy because Doodle is extremely sensitive; the boy appreciates and is touched by "the beauty of Old Woman Swamp" to the point of crying spontaneously. He also feels so mournful of the dead red ibis that he buries it.

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At the time when "The Scarlet Ibis" was first published, in 1960, understandings of physical and mental disabilities were not as advanced as they are today. As a consequence, it was widely considered acceptable to use words such as crazy in relation to the disabled, a practice that is generally frowned upon in this day and age.

As well as the cultural prejudices of the time, we need to take into account Brother's young age. He's too young to understand that it's not right to describe Doodle as crazy simply because he was born disabled.

To a certain extent, Brother is taking his lead from his mother, who proclaims that Doodle is "not all there," meaning that he's mentally as well as physically disabled. In any case, Doodle's perceived craziness is due to his disabilities, and Brother, for one, isn't very happy about it. He wants someone to play with, but can't really do so with Doodle on account of his having a weak heart.

In the event, Doodles isn't really crazy at all, however one wishes to define the word. Brother's unfair description says a lot more about him, and the social environment in which he's grown up, than it does about his brother.

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While the brother declares, "Doodle was about the craziest brother a boy ever had," the reader must determine the implied meaning of the word crazy.  For, rather than the customary denotation of insane, demented, or made, perhaps the alternate meaning of weak, infirm, shaky, tottering may better apply.

Here are some reasons why the brother considers Doodle this alternate definition:

  1. When Doodle is born, he is a "disappointment"; he has a shriveled, reddish body and appears too frail to live.
  2. When he learns to crawl, Doodle crawls backwards.
  3. He cries when struck by the beauty of Old Woman Swamp.
  4. He is frail and learns to walk only after the brother insists that he does, working long hours with Doodle.
  5. Even when the boys are outside in sunny weather, Doodle clings to his brother, begging him, "Don't leave me."
  6. Doodle is unable to accomplish other boyish activities such as swimming, climbing, and rowing a boat; he cannot "keep up" with his brother.
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