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If the literary genre of symbolism had a second name, it would be The Scarlet Ibis. This seemingly unnoticeable tale about brotherly love and competition would be lost to history if not for its metaphors that are oozing with symbolic meaning. The author of the story James Hurst managed to create a clear and vivid picture of the events, thus, deeply immersing the reader into the story. That being said, The Scarlet Ibis is one of the richest short stories when it comes to symbolism, which is present on many levels throughout the piece.
James Hurst, the author of the wonderfully crafted Scarlet Ibis, lived, perhaps, the most unusual life as an author. Born in 1922 in Jacksonville, North Carolina, Hurst lived a very long life and switched an impressive number of careers and backgrounds. Initially, the future writer studied chemical engineering. World War II, however, disrupted his plans as he went helping the Allies in Europe. After coming back from the war, Hurst has reassessed his life views and goals, deciding to become an opera singer. That ambition, however, did not go through, and after three years of studying at Julliard School of Music, he left and began an over 30-year career at the bank in New York City (“James Hurst”). One might only be left to wonder how a person who never wrote professionally authored such a deep and rich story. Hurst’s secret relied largely on the absence of professional writing ambition, as well as his rich life experience.
One particular thing about James Hurst’s writing career is that he wrote plays and short stories mostly for his amusement and published some of them in small literary magazines. The author never pursued the idea of becoming a full-time author. At the same time, his rich life experience allowed him to write deep and philosophical stories that created a clear picture and delivered thoughts of the characters vividly (“James Hurst”). This is exactly the case of The Scarlet Ibis, in which a seemingly ordinary story is delivered in an extremely detailed and deeply intimate fashion. The compassion of the readers towards the protagonist of the story and his little brother is always sincere, largely because of the vividness of the characters’ thoughts as well as the extremely rich symbolism of the story overall.
Summary and Analysis
The Scarlet Ibis was published in 1960 in the Atlantic magazine and tells the story of two brothers with a special bond. The younger brother of the protagonist is born physically weak, with nobody believing that he would even live. Doodle, as the protagonist called him, had a weak “tiny body which was red and shriveled like an old man's.” The situation was so tragic that the local carpenter even built “a little mahogany coffin for him.” The two people who seemed to believe in Doodle’s survival were the protagonist and their aunt Nicey (Hurst para 3). This faith would later play a key role in the story and even play a tragic part as the story would develop further.
The protagonist would always believe that Doodle could do and be more than he was. Despite being “a burden in many ways,” the main character would treat his brother with respect and motivate him to reassess himself and try accomplishing more complex tasks that others would not allow (Hurst para 9). One particular example occurs when the protagonist decides to teach a wheelchair-ridden Doodle to walk. At first, the task seems impossible to accomplish, however, largely owed to the older brother’s persistence and Doodle’s mutual faith in him, the latter starts walking himself, initially shocking and awing the family (Hurst para 19; 34). This faith would, however, become corrupt from the distorted sense of competition that would turn the whole picture upside down.
As the protagonist would train Doodle even further, various obstacles would come in the way. One of them would be the death of an eponymous scarlet ibis, witnessed by the family one day during lunch. After that, Doodle becomes depressed and lowers his motivation, which disappoints and annoys the protagonist. As the heavy rain breaks out, the older brother leaves Doodle behind, only to find out that Doodle died of over-exhaustion while trying to keep up a few moments later (Hurst para 50-70; 84-88). The scarlet ibis in this context plays an extremely symbolic meaning. Scarlet, being a hue of red, symbolizes the overwhelming passion and pride of the protagonist for Doodle. By putting his brother on his feet and helping him achieve more, the protagonist, in fact, began pursuing a selfish need to feed his pride, which eventually led to tragic consequences.
James Hurst’s Scarlet Ibis is more than a short symbolic story. The richness of the plot, descriptions, and emotions present in the story make it rather a journey than a literary piece. The symbolic meaning of the hue of scarlet and its direct connection with faith in something or somebody teaches the reader an invaluable lesson. It is always important to remain humane and those we love and believe in with the highest degree of respect, forgetting about our selfish wants and pride.
“James Hurst.” Goodreads, 2022, https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/59410.James_Hurst.
Hurst, James. “The Scarlet Ibis.” The Atlantic, 1960, http://www.burkefocus.org/uploads/1/1/0/6/110610321/thescarletibistext.pdf
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