illustration of a scarlet ibis cradling a boy's body

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

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The Scarlet Ibis Themes

The main themes in "The Scarlet Ibis" are love versus pride, acceptance versus expectation, and martyrdom.

  • Love versus pride: Brother’s motivations to help Doodle alternate between love and shame; his love encourages kindness, but his shame over Doodle’s failings results in Doodle's death.

  • Acceptance versus expectation: Doodle’s parents accept him despite his limitations, but Brother tries to force Doodle to conform to his expectations, at the cost of Doodle’s life.

  • Martyrdom: Doodle becomes an almost Christ-like figure; his love of nature and general goodness make his death all the more impactful, and Brother's apparent repentance suggests that Doodle's death has redeemed him.  

Themes

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Pride

“The Scarlet Ibis” takes a hard look at the consequences of pride. The knowledge that his baby brother may be not only physically weak but also cognitively disabled is such a blow to the six-year-old narrator’s pride that he contemplates smothering the infant with a pillow. Only a smile of recognition from the prone baby convinces him the child’s intellectual development is progressing normally and halts thoughts of murder. For the first years of Doodle’s life, the narrator attempts to dissociate himself from his brother. To avoid having to continue publicly chauffeuring his sibling, who he says is “a sight” with a too-big sunhat in a go-cart, he intentionally oversets the vehicle, injuring Doodle. When rough treatment fails to keep Doodle from clinging to him, the narrator accepts that he will be associated with his brother. As a result, he begins working to eliminate the sources of shame he identifies in Doodle. The narrator insists Doodle continue his program of exercise despite the spell of fevers and nightmares the younger boy begins to experience. The narrator appears motivated by both fear of shame (he is aware that Doodle’s first day of school is coming) and a prideful admiration of his younger brother’s growth and determination, which have overcome all the doctor’s predictions. Ultimately, it is this pride that causes him to push Doodle too far. The younger boy, exhausted from weeks of exercise, can’t keep up and dies in the attempt. Though the narrator has clearly come to love his brother, his pride blinds him to Doodle’s limitations, and his fear of shame seals Doodle’s fate.

Expectations and Acceptance

The narrator, six years old at the time of Doodle’s birth, has pinned his hopes on a brother who will be a playmate and companion in his adventures. He cannot conceive of anything less than the brother he envisions—and when presented with Doodle, whom he sees as a poor substitute, he contemplates murder. He is inflexible; he prefers no brother to one that doesn’t meet his expectations, and he spends the next few years trying to dissociate himself from his sibling. When this fails, he attempts against all odds to mold Doodle into something closer to the brother he hoped for. Blinded by the vision of who Doodle could be, the narrator pushes his brother too hard. In the end, he unintentionally brings about the death he contemplated at the beginning of the story; he trades a brother who doesn’t meet his expectations for no brother at all.

Doodle’s parents, though better intentioned, also burden their son with their expectations from the moment he is born. They are so certain he won’t live that they have a coffin built for him and don’t even bother to name him for the first three months of his life. Eventually they christen him “William Armstrong,” which the narrator reflects is “like tying a big tail on a small kite”—he thinks it is a name that “sounds good only on a tombstone.” Little by little, Doodle casts off his family’s and the doctor’s expectations; the coffin they built for him gathers dust in the attic next to the go-cart he once relied on to move. Yet even as Doodle proves himself much stronger than anyone anticipated, his mother continues to saddle him with a long list of “dos and don’ts” that involve avoiding heat, cold, and excitement.

Alone among the characters in the story, Doodle has no expectations of himself or of anyone. He develops his own personality, which the other characters, blinded by their own expectations, often fail to acknowledge. He spins fantastic stories and displays unguarded love and admiration for all living things he encounters, including the beautiful scarlet ibis that dies in his backyard. When his brother reminds him that he will be different from his peers at school if he doesn’t improve, Doodle asks, “Does it matter?” Doodle is a model of acceptance and compassion, yet he dies because the people around him fail to accept him for who he is.

Martyrdom: Doodle as Christ Figure

“The Scarlet Ibis” features subtle religious symbolism. Aunt Nicey identifies the caul (or amniotic membrane) in which Doodle is born as a holy symbol, since cauls are made from “Jesus’s nightgown.” As Doodle grows, his character takes on some of the qualities of a Christ figure. He displays a compassion for living things and a oneness with nature. On his first visit to Old Woman Swamp, his eyes light with wonder and he begins to cry, moved and delighted by the beauty of the place where he and his brother weave wire grass into crowns. He tells fantastic stories of colorful wings and a paradisiacal world, and despite his brother’s cruelty, Doodle always treats the narrator with love and affection. Like Jesus, Doodle is a model of tolerance, a visionary with compelling ideas about a better world, and an advocate for the weak (as illustrated by his compassionate burial of the scarlet ibis). The bird is clearly linked with Doodle in the narrator’s mind, and thus its symbolic death, perhaps echoing Jesus’s death on the cross (with the “bleeding” tree and the scarlet and white colors traditionally associated with the Passion of Christ), foreshadows Doodle’s demise. Finally, Doodle is a transformative force in his brother’s life. As the narrator weeps over his brother’s body, he seems to recognize his error: Doodle has died for his sins. Just as Jesus died to redeem mankind, Doodle dies and redeems his brother.

Themes

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Conflict between Love and Pride

"The Scarlet Ibis" explores the conflict between love and pride in Brother's relationship with his physically and mentally disabled brother, Doodle. Brother loves and appreciates Doodle, as can be seen in the incident when the brothers fantasize about living in Old Woman Swamp, when Brother is overwhelmed by the beauty of the images that Doodle conjures up.

Love is accepting and compassionate in its nature. But Brother's love for Doodle is challenged by two very human failings: pride, and the cruelty that results from it. Brother feels embarrassed and ashamed of Doodle's limitations and obvious differences from other people. They threaten his sense of pride. He decides to make Doodle do all the things that other people do in spite of the fact that Doodle himself sees no need to conform. Teaching Doodle to walk is Brother's first success. When Brother's family congratulates him on his success, he cries with shame, because he knows that he acted not out of love but out of pride, "whose slave [he] was." Brother's pride again triumphs over love when he continues to push Doodle to harder physical feats in spite of Doodle's obviously declining health. In the end, Doodle's heart fails under the strain, a victim of Brother's insistence. Well might Brother reflect, "I did not know then that pride is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death." In this case, the "life" aspect is the undoubted progress that Doodle makes under Brother's demanding tutelage, and the "death" aspect refers to the fate of the fragile boy.

The Desire to Make over Others in One's Own Image

All of the family, except Brother, accepts Doodle as he is. However, their acceptance is not portrayed as entirely positive, as it comes with a heavy dose of resignation and hopelessness about Doodle's prospects. Mama and Daddy are so convinced that he will die soon after birth that Daddy orders a coffin for him. When Doodle does not die, Daddy makes the go-cart, accepting that Doodle will never walk. The consignment of coffin and go-cart to the loft are signs of the progress that Doodle makes in being like his older brother.

Brother's impatience with Doodle's limitations is as ambiguous as the rest of the family's acceptance of them. But Brother's attitude is the more dangerous because it forces change on a body that is not equipped to deal with it and on a mind that does not desire it. Brother's success in re-making Doodle in his own image is greeted as wonderful progress by everyone except Doodle. When Brother tells him that he must learn to walk, Doodle asks, "'Why?'" Neither does Doodle understand why he should struggle to avoid being different from everybody else at school. Because the story is told from the point of view of Brother and not Doodle, it is not clear how much Doodle's life is improved by his new skills. But it is certain that after the initial success of the walking project, Brother's attempts to push Doodle further are destructive to Doodle's health and eventually contribute to his death.

Brother tells us several times that his efforts with Doodle are motivated by pride: he is ashamed of having a disabled brother. There is a suggested parallel here with the background theme of World War I (1914–18), and many readers see an implied critique of the war in the story of Doodle and Brother. Significant numbers of American troops were sent to fight in Europe in the summer of 1918, when "The Scarlet Ibis" is set. Anti-war movements, like those gaining ground in 1960 when the story was written, point out that wars fought against other nations necessarily involve attempts to make over other nations in the aggressor's image. Prerequisites to such attempts, say these movements, are pride and arrogance: the aggressor nation has a conviction that it is in some way better than the victim nation and has a right to re-make the victim nation in its own image. This is generally as destructive and pointless in the long term as Brother's attempts to remake Doodle. World War I, far from being the "war to end all wars," as was claimed at the time, was soon followed by World War II (1939–45). Though leaders claimed at the time that war was the only option, many modern scholars question this view. Hurst does not shy away from emphasizing that the war's main legacy in the United States was the deaths of many men, a fact that he drives home in his references to American war graves and deaths.

People Who Are Different

Both Doodle and the scarlet ibis stand out as different; indeed, they are unique in the environment in which they find themselves. "The Scarlet Ibis" dramatizes the ways in which people respond to those who are different or disabled. At one end of the spectrum, Doodle's family believes that any meaningful quality of life is impossible and expects the boy to die. At the other end, Brother is determined to re-make Doodle so that he conforms to the norm and no longer embarrasses Brother. Doodle fails to identify with either expectation, refusing to die or admit that the coffin made for him is his, and remaining oblivious to Brother's insistence that he should not be different from the other children at school. In a sense, Doodle floats above the expectations of others like the winged beings of his fantasies. But finally, he succumbs in the face of the pressure of Brother to try to become the same as everyone else.

Brotherhood

It is significant that the lead protagonist of the story is known only by his relationship to Doodle: "Brother." This detail alerts readers to the fact that brotherhood is a major theme. Brother's love for Doodle is bound up with cruelty and shame. Doodle, for his part, is strongly attached to, and reliant upon, Brother and his main fear is of being left alone by him. He is terrified at Brother's threat to leave him in the barn loft if he does not touch the coffin, and cries, "'Don't leave me.'" He echoes these words with greater intensity on the day he dies, as Brother, bitter at Doodle's failure to perform the physical feats he has set for him, runs ahead of him in the rain. This time, Doodle cries, "Brother, Brother, don't leave me! Don't leave me!" Brother does leave him, if only temporarily, and the result is Doodle's death.

Because the story takes place against the background of World War I, Doodle's words and the theme of brotherhood suggest a wider resonance. Brotherhood among soldiers fighting in appalling conditions in mud-filled trenches was a frequent theme in war literature and even on war memorials. Loyalty to one's fellow soldiers was seen as vital; if a soldier was injured, the loyalty or betrayal of his colleagues could mean the difference between his living or dying. There are many stories of heroism involving men risking their own lives to save a fallen colleague and equally stories of horror involving wounded men being left to die. In a more universal sense, the carnage of the war brought home the need to embrace the ideal of the brotherhood of all mankind regardless of differences in nation of origin, race, or religion.

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