Back To Course9th Grade English: Credit Recovery
20 chapters | 189 lessons
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Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.
'The Scarlet Ibis' is a short story published in 1960 by James Hurst. The story first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, and in the years since it has become a staple in high school literature anthologies. If you like the story and want to read more by the same author, you may be out of luck. 'The Scarlet Ibis' was Hurst's one-hit wonder.
Stories about brothers are supposed to have happy endings, right? Brothers are supposed to stick together through thick and thin, but the more you think about famous brother stories, the more you find terrible endings. Sibling rivalry can get pretty bad. The Norse gods Thor and Loki aren't exactly on the same page, and when you go back to the oldest brother stories, like Cain and Abel, it only gets worse.
'The Scarlet Ibis' takes the classic story of sibling rivalry and adds an extra dose of creepy sadness. Enjoy!
The narrator of 'The Scarlet Ibis' is a kid who is never named. We only know that he lives in the country, near a swamp and the ocean, and that he's six when his little brother is born. Now, the kid brother, William Armstrong, is born with some disabilities. They fear that his mind is as damaged as his body. His family is so down on the little guy that they build a kid-sized coffin for him, just, you know, planning ahead.
Older brother has high hopes that William will fulfill his fantasies of a ball-throwing, rope-jumping, swamp-swimming, boat-rowing, sporty little brother. However, while Doodle's body doesn't work all that well, the kid turns out to have a fine brain. So, rather than smothering him with a pillow, which was the brother's first plan, he decides to keep him around. That's what you call brotherly love!
Eventually, little William learns to crawl, but the only way he can manage it is by scooting around backwards, so his brother sticks him with a nickname, Doodle, after the doodlebug. Now that he's equipped with a less-weighty name, big brother sets out on a campaign to teach him to be a regular kid despite the doctor's warning about Doodle's heart condition.
Sometimes our narrator is really sweet to Doodle, like when he encourages Doodle to keep trying until he can eventually stand on his own. Other times, a cruel streak comes out, like when he drags Doodle to the barn where the family has stowed the tiny coffin they had built for him. The sweet older brother won't let Doodle leave until he touches his own coffin.
Doodle grows up under the hot and cold affection of his brother, learns to walk, and impresses the family with a natural knack for telling stories. He's an imaginative, sensitive child, but our narrator will be happy with nothing less than his fantasy athletic brother. When Doodle gets the go-ahead to attend school for the first time, his brother embarks on a plan to get Doodle's fitness up to par so he won't be an embarrassment in the schoolyard. The narrator has his little brother trying to climb ropes, row boats, and swim distances.
One day, the brothers see something strange in their yard, a tropical bird that has no business being in their neck of the woods: the scarlet ibis. While they gawk at it, the bird drops dead. The narrator is briefly interested, but something about this beautiful bird touches Doodle, who buries it and then walks around in a funk.
Soon after that, following a failed training session, the brothers are caught in the rain. Doodle, who is exhausted, can't run fast enough to keep up with his brother, and even though he pleads for his brother to wait for him, he's soon left alone in the woods. Big brother, touched by some flicker of decency, goes back to find Doodle, and there he is, curled under a bush with blood running down his neck, looking just like the dead scarlet ibis. The story ends with brother sheltering Doodle's lifeless body from the downpour.
'The Scarlet Ibis' is set in Eastern North Carolina in the early 1900s. While the story never gives the specific location, the reference to Dix Hill, another name for Dorothea Dix Hospital, places the story somewhere east of Raleigh. It's also important to note that Old Woman Swamp, the setting of much of the interaction between the brothers, is so beautiful that it moves Doodle to tears when he sees it.
What's really interesting is the way the setting serves to foreshadow the eventual death of Doodle, the climactic moment of the story. That running motif of death is unmistakable in the story. We start the action at the 'clove of seasons.' In other words, we begin our story in the moment between two states. One is ending and the other is about to begin. Like life and death!
To make it clear, the author states, 'summer was dead...' at that time of year when the scarlet ibis came to their farm. By the way, the tree where the ibis landed is called the 'bleeding tree.' In the opening paragraph the writer mentions a bird's nest, but it's empty, and he references 'graveyard flowers.' And the death symbols keep coming!
Doodle has to touch his coffin, an obvious symbol of death, but even worse - the coffin has been coated in Paris Green, which is an insecticide and a preservative, and it's also very poisonous. Later, the scarlet ibis draws an obvious symbolic connection to Doodle; it's out-of-place, unusual, and fragile, just like our sickly imaginative kid. There's even more subtle symbolism when Doodle can't spend too much time in the sun (a symbol of life).
All this death symbolism foreshadows Doodle's demise in the final moments of the story, and the symbolism is obvious for a purpose. The story is all about pride. The narrator states, '...pride is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death.' Pride is what motivates him to teach Doodle to walk and to even have hope that his brother will live. But a more selfish pride is what drives the narrator to push his little brother beyond his physical limits. The reader should see Doodle's death looming, almost from his first mention in the story, and that lets the reader focus attention on what causes that death - pride.
'The Scarlet Ibis,' a short story by James Hurst that was published in 1960, is a sad story of a child born with a serious medical condition who overcomes some of his challenges only to be run to death by his well-meaning but self-absorbed older brother. The story, set in North Carolina in the early 1900s, hits the reader with a wave of death symbolism starting at sentence one and ending with the final line of the story. While Doodle's death is the climax of the story, the ultimate point of it all is an analysis of the positive and negative effects of pride.
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Back To Course9th Grade English: Credit Recovery
20 chapters | 189 lessons