The Scarlet Ibis, a tale of two brothers, is a short story by James Hurst, in which the narrator recounts the memories of his late brother ‘Doodle’. The story draws comparison between Doodle and a scarlet ibis that one day winds up at their home. The big red bird, which is commonly found in the tropical South American regions, dies in their yard, many miles away from his home. Doodle is to meet a similar end soon after the incident.
The story, published for the first time in the July 1960 edition of ‘Atlantic Monthly’, is being adapted for an Opera, and will premiere in January 2015 at the Prototype Opera Festival.
Doodle, named by his parents as William Armstrong, is the central character of the story. He is born with physical disabilities, and not expected to live long. He is taught to stand and walk by his brother. Doodle dies when he is pushed too hard by his brother after failing to become like normal boys.
He is the narrator of the story, and is referred to as ‘Brother’. He is seven years older than his brother, and names him Doodle. Out of shame of having a crippled brother, he teaches him to stand and walk.
The parents have a carpenter build a small casket for their younger son who is not supposed to live long. It is their father who says that the bird fallen in their yard is a scarlet ibis. They do not have a major part to play in the story.
The story starts with the narrator reminiscing about his brother on a day when the season is in transition from summer to autumn. He remembers his brother being a disappointment as he is born with physical disabilities. Doodle is not expected to live for long and the brother’s parents had also got a small casket made for him. They name their younger son ‘William Armstrong’, a name the narrator thinks would sound good on a tombstone. When he starts crawling, William crawled backwards like a Doodlebug, and hence Brother named him Doodle. The Brother recounts that this name had removed any burden of expectations from his disabled brother.
Brother used to take Doodle along with him in a cart that their father had made, to the Old Women Swamp. Brother, at the age of 13, decides to teach Doodle to walk. He had kept pushing him till they were successful, because he wanted at least one thing in Doodle that would make everyone proud. They decided to keep this a secret from the family to the time that Doodle was actually able to walk.
The parents were speechless when they saw their disabled son being able to walk. Doodle tells them that it was Brother who had taught him how to walk. The narrator begins to cry, as it was more out of embarrassment than love that he had taught his brother. When Doodle was able to walk properly, Brother decides to train him, so that before the start of school he would be more like other boys.
One Saturday afternoon, the family is seated at the dining room table, when they hear a croaking noise from the yard. Curious, Doodle goes in the yard and finds a big red bird on a tree. By the time the rest of them come in the yard, the bird tries to fly away, but lands at the feet of the tree, and dies. When Doodle asks which bird it was, the father tells them that it was a scarlet ibis.
Soon after, Brother takes Doodle to the Horsehead Landing to give him swimming lessons, where the weather turns stormy. Doodle, who is tired and frightened, slips and falls in the mud. Brother starts to run as it begins to rain, and gets ahead of Doodle. The narrator hears his brother call out to him to slow down. He, instead, starts to move as fast as he can, and stops after some distance to wait for Doodle, who never comes.
Brother finally goes back and finds Doodle curled up on the ground beside the road. He tries to lift up Doodle’s head, who falls back on the ground and is bleeding from his mouth. His neck and shirt have turned red because of the blood. Brother tries to wake him up, and starts weeping when he sees the red color on him. The narrator lay there for a long time, sheltering his ‘fallen scarlet ibis’.
The season at the start of the book is same as the day his brother and the bird had lost their lives, which is representation of the impact of natural factors in their lives.
The parents had kept the small casket built for Doodle, which represents his inability to evade death for a long time.
The bird and its death is symbolic to the death of Doodle, covered in blood and far away from home owing to a storm.
The color red can remind one of death, but here, it is also signifies the beauty of the scarlet ibis, and similarities in the death of the ibis and Doodle.
From the setting of the story, one may think of Doodle as a symbol of all the soldiers who had to die at a young age because of the Great War.
There are various themes that are included in this story. These range from guilt, pride, and embarrassment, to love. Brother is embarrassed for having a brother like Doodle. It is this pride of his that is the reason he wants to teach Doodle to live like a normal kid. He also wants Doodle to have at least one thing that everyone feels proud of. This stems out of the love that Brother has for Doodle. It is also the reason for Brother to be, at times, cruel to Doodle. The narrator is ridden with guilt, as he feels responsible for the accidental death of his brother.
The plot shows the change in emotions of the narrator for his own brother. He, at the beginning, is embarrassed to have a brother like Doodle. The narrator finds conflict in his emotions, that vary from time to time in the story. The story shows the changing nature of the relationship of the brothers, and the efforts one takes so that everyone is proud of the other. The author has used the incidence of the scarlet ibis and its death to draw similarities between both, Doodle and the bird, who find it difficult to survive in this world, and both die away from home. The bird is red because of its color, while Doodle from the blood stains. They are also similar in their existence, appearance, and innocence, along with their deaths. The story also shows us that memory can indeed be a helpful tool for the person to cope with painful experiences. It is also a representation of the guilt that the death of a child can bring along.
James Hurst was born on January 1, 1922, near Jacksonville, North Carolina, where he also breathed his last on October 24, 2013. ‘The Scarlet Ibis’ is his only creation that was able to garner widespread recognition.