The Scarlet Ibis Themes
by James Hurst

The Scarlet Ibis book cover
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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.  

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“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...

(The entire section is 2,165 words.)