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The Scarlet Ibis: Summary, Setting & Themes

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  • 0:01 James Hurst's Most…
  • 0:21 My Brother's Keeper
  • 0:53 Summary: A Doodle Is Born
  • 3:53 Setting
  • 4:21 Deep Stuff - When…
  • 6:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jason Lineberger

Jason has 20 years of education experience including 14 years of teaching college literature.

This story is a dark and beautiful tale of brotherly love. In this lesson you'll learn the major events and ideas in the story and how the setting makes it both sad and lovely.

James Hurst's Most Popular Story

'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.

My Brother's Keeper

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!

Summary: A Doodle Is Born

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.

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