The only work of James Hurst’s to gain widespread recognition, The Scarlet Ibis was originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in July 1960 and won the Atlantic First award that year. Rising quickly to the status of a classic, this story has been a standard feature of high school and college anthologies for more than 40 years. In 1988, and then again in 1998, the story was published in book format (only 36 pages) with illustrations by Philippe Dumas. It continues to be popular with students and is the subject of numerous Internet study guides.
“The Scarlet Ibis” is the story of two siblings, the narrator—known only as Brother—and his disabled younger brother, nicknamed Doodle. Told in retrospect by the now-adult Brother, the story seems to be at least partially confessional, describing the narrator’s childhood conflicts between love for his brother and his own pride, as well as the tragic consequences of discriminatory familial and societal expectations. Toward the end of the story, an exotic scarlet ibis appears and, as does Doodle himself, dies.
“The Scarlet Ibis” has received little or no serious critical analysis, but in those reviews that do exist various possible subthemes have been suggested, including the biblical story of Cain and Abel, Doodle as a divine or even Christ-like figure, and the specter of World War I with its loss of life and all the philosophical questions that it raised. It is clearly, however, the use of nature that guides the narrative and its metaphors. Hurst himself has said that there are three “characters” in the story: Doodle, Brother, and the setting. The story opens with Brother’s describing the Eden-like childhood that he shared with Doodle and comparing it with the sterility of his adult world. Over the course of the story, told in flashback, Brother is shown to have a country child’s awareness of and delight in nature; in fact, part of his disappointment at Doodle’s disability is that he had “wanted someone to perch with in the top fork of the great pine behind the barn, where across the fields and the swamp you could see the sea” (10). Doodle cries the first time Brother shows him the beauty of Old Woman Swamp (perhaps a pseudonym for Gaia?), the only place where the two brothers are really in harmony, where they make plans to live forever, and where societal expectations do not interfere. Even the narrative itself turns along with the cyclical movement of the seasons, Brother’s successes and failures with Doodle measured by nature’s changes.
When the scarlet ibis appears, both the psychological and the physical similarities to Doodle are made clear: It is alone—despite being a colonial nester— and has clearly strayed, or been blown, far from its natural environment (“Ibises”); it is a brilliant red, as Doodle was at birth, and has an awkward, ungainly body that takes on grace only in death. Doodle is the only one of the family moved enough by the bird’s demise to care about burying it, and when Doodle himself dies the following day, his body in death is described much as the bird’s, and Brother calls him “my fallen scarlet ibis” (36).
Hurst, James. The Scarlet Ibis. Hadley, Mass.: Creative Education, 1988.
“The Scarlet Ibis.” Short Stories for Students. Detroit: Gale, 2006.