"The Scarlet Ibis" Analysis Paper
In the early 1900's, people with disabilities were considered a burden to society, and were often segregated from the rest of the general population; even their own families often deemed them invaluable. In James Hurst's story "The Scarlet Ibis", the author tells the tale of two brothers, one of which is disabled, and of their six short years of growing up together. "The Scarlet Ibis" was a well-written story that brought its characters to life through theme and symbolism, making it a tragic and heartbreaking tale.
The two main characters in "The Scarlet Ibis" had a huge part in the story. One of the main characters in this publication is named Doodle, which was a name given to him by his older brother: "It was I who renamed [William Armstrong]... I began to call him Doodle" (335). Brother also tells us that "nobody expects much from someone called Doodle" (335). This shows us that the narrator was ashamed of Doodle and wanted to keep him lowkey and out of the way, making Doodle's death more heartbreaking, knowing that his own brother had been ashamed of him especially when he was little. The narrator, Doodle's brother, is the other main character in "The Scarlet Ibis". He played a part in shaping Doodle's personality, what he could and couldn't do, and possibly even his death. For instance, the narrator decided to teach Doodle to walk, and eventually to climb, run, swim, and fight: "'I'm going to teach you to walk… All you got to do is try'" (337). If Doodle didn't have an older brother, he probably may not have ever learned those things. The narrator ended up pushing Doodle too much in the end; Doodle had already been pushed so hard by both the burial of the ibis and then his training at Old Woman Swamp, and the strain from it on top of trying to keep up with his brother while going home had ultimately killed him. The narrator's cruelty had led him to leave Doodle behind when leaving Old Woman Swamp, running faster when Doodle called for him to stop and wait for him: "... I heard Doodle, who had fallen behind, cry out… that streak of cruelty within me awakened. I ran as fast as I could, leaving [Doodle] far behind" (343). Characters, though, however important they are, are only one part of the many aspects of "The Scarlet Ibis" that make this story one to remember.
Theme is another important aspect of this story that has an important message for us: Don't try to make anyone into someone you (or society) want (or wants) them to be, because it will only end badly. When people try to do this, bad things usually happen. Invalidity was considered a very bad thing in the early 1900's. As Doodle's brother said, "It was bad enough having an invalid brother, but having one who possibly not all there was unbearable, so I began to make plans to kill him" (334). Knowing that Doodle's brother wanted to kill him when he was a baby, just because he wasn't a normal kid, shows that the narrator was kind of a cruel and slightly reckless person. Doodle could have ended up being murdered as an infant, but as fate would have it, he died later, at six years of age. Because Doodle's brother wanted to make him more like the other kids, he made an entire plan to help Doodle learn to do things like swimming and running, as well as rowing a boat. Because Doodle looked up to his brother so much, he followed along and they both decided to finish the plan by the time school started: "...I prepared a terrific development program for him… I would teach him to run, to swim, to climb trees, and to fight… we set the deadline for these accomplishments less than a year away when… Doodle could start to school" (338). This plan, no matter how good it was and what it would accomplish, was one that would help Doodle become a regular part of society, one that would make him normal. Although theme has a large role in "The Scarlet Ibis", it is not the most prominent part of this story.
Symbolism is one of the biggest parts of "The Scarlet Ibis" that makes this tale different from any other. One symbol that is very prominent in "The Scarlet Ibis" is, of course, the scarlet ibis. The ibis represents Doodle in the way that they both died and how the ibis was so much like Doodle, even though the family only saw it alive for a few moments: "...a bird the size of a chicken, with scarlet feathers… Its long, graceful neck jerked" (344). Doodle died similarly: "He sat very awkwardly, with his head thrown far back, making his vermillion neck appear unusually long and slim" (344). The scarlet ibis the family saw in the bleeding tree had possibly died because of the stress it had gone through when flying such a long way, trying to get home. In the same fashion, Doodle had died when his heart burst due to the stress he had gone through by digging the hole for the ibis, and then doing his training he had in Old Woman Swamp. His heart had burst from the amount of work he had done that day.
Another symbol in "The Scarlet Ibis" is Doodle's brother, who represents the aspects of life. Life can be good to you and life can be cruel to you, just like Brother was to Doodle: "I dragged him across the burning cotton field to share with him the only beauty I knew" (335). He also told Doodle at one point that he was "going to have to touch" his own coffin if he didn't want to be left alone in the barn loft (336). The narrator was a very selfish and prideful person. When Doodle, then called William Armstrong, had been an infant, the narrator had started to make plans to smother him with a pillow so he wouldn't have to live with the embarrassment of a disabled sibling. All of these parallels represent the aspects of life. When Doodle was very young, the narrator often tried to deter him from wanting to come along to wherever he was going: "[Brother would] run with [Doodle] across the ends of the cotton rows and careen him around corners on two wheels. Sometimes [Brother] accidentally turned him over" (335). However, Doodle never wanted to stay home without his brother there, as if the narrator "so much as picked up [his] cap, [Doodle would] start crying to go with me" (335). He also only taught Doodle to walk because he didn't want to have a crippled brother. Even on the last day, the narrator had made Doodle work hard in his training and didn't stop running when Doodle had fallen behind. In the end, that strain had killed Doodle.
One more important symbol in this story is the color red, which stands for death. There are many cases of red things in "The Scarlet Ibis", including the ibis itself: "[The ibis] lay on the earth like a broken base of red flowers" (341). Doodle's coffin is another example as well: "...built a little mahogany coffin for [Doodle]" (333). The bush the narrator had found Doodle under when his heart had burst is yet another: "...found [Doodle] huddled beneath a red nightshade bush" (344). Death is inevitable if you have life. In this particular tale, red is the symbol for it. For example, Doodle's coffin was made of mahogany, a red-colored wood. Doodle also died under a red bush, and so did the scarlet ibis (under the bleeding tree). Because "The Scarlet Ibis" had so many different parts to it, this tale was full of love, heartbreak, and sadness that made it a very emotionally powerful piece.
Doodle and his brother (the narrator) were the two main characters in "The Scarlet Ibis". The narrator, though he learned to love his brother, was a very selfish boy and did things to help himself and his pride, such as teaching Doodle to walk. Doodle, formally named William Armstrong, was a happy kid who, though he had a weak heart and wasn't expected to live long, was someone who always wanted to learn. The theme of this story was a powerful and tragic lesson for the narrator and taught him not to try and make a person who happens to be different into someone that fits society's standards. There are several symbols in "The Scarlet Ibis" as well; many of them represent much deeper things, such as life and death. A beautifully written work of art, "The Scarlet Ibis" used theme and symbolism to bring its characters to life in this tragic and heart-shattering tale.