Discussion: James Hurst’s “The Scarlet Ibis”

If there was ever a one-hit wonder when it comes to short stories, James Hurst’s “The Scarlet Ibis” is one. Published in 1960 in The Atlantic Monthly, it became a hit and appeared in countless text books. As an English teacher, it’s easy to see why. There’s a clear theme, tons of beautiful imagery, and, as any story in middle and high school would be remiss to be without, tragic death. Cue the question, “Mr. Chiappone, why are all the stories we read so sad?”

“Because happy stories wouldn’t be very interesting,” is the simple answer, but I do wonder why we’re drawn to such horrific stories. I remember being dissatisfied by William Shakespeare’s The Tempest because it felt like such a cop out. You’re telling me these people did all these horrible things to each other, and at the end, everyone’s forgiven? C’mon, man!

Then again, there are plenty of stories with happy endings that are satisfying. While To Kill a Mocking Bird is definitely not a happy ending book, there is a sense of closure, of justice being served at the death of Bob Ewell by the hand of Boo Radley. At the end of The Hate U Give, there, too, is a miscarriage of justice in the early part that escalates events beyond control. However, at the end, there seems to be some kind of self-discovery, self-empowering that is very satisfying. It’s awful, but in order for the evil that is Bob Ewell to be “taken care of,” Tom Robinson must die. Similarly, in order for Starr to find her purpose and strength, Khalil must die.

Maybe that’s what’s so unsatisfying sometimes about “The Scarlet Ibis.” I get it; it’s a short story, and I’m comparing it to novels. Its purpose and execution are different. However, this glimpse into the life of the narrator offers no kind of redemption. Maybe that’s what I want more out of it.

I generally enjoy this story and wonder why Hurst failed to reach such heights with other works. Maybe the ideas just weren’t there. Although he is clearly a skilled writer, perhaps he just didn’t have the stories in his head to keep going? I know he published other plays and stories, but they’re difficult to find, out of print, or absorbed into irrelevance.

The story is about a six year old boy whose brother is born with some kind of defect that makes it difficult for him to exert himself. Despite negative prognoses from doctors, he lives past three months, then up to six years, during which he learns to crawl, talk, walk, row a boat, and swim (though not passably). During lunch, an exotic bird, an ibis, perches on their tree, croaks, and falls to its death. Doodle is the only one who thinks to bury it. While stuck in a storm, the narrator fails to go back to save Doodle and he dies. The narrator finds him sitting against a bush, blood having spilled out of his mouth, dead. The narrator knows it’s his fault. End.

The story’s strengths are sometimes the things that bother me, however. At times, Hurst just says too much. For example, the statement, “…pride is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death” is so heavy-handed and obvious. It’s almost as if he wrote it exclusively for a text book section about theme. It’s a great sentence, but it’s one that I would much rather a critic of the text come up with than the author.

The last sentence of the text, too, similarly suffers. Hurst writes, “For a long time, it seemed forever, I lay there crying, sheltering my fallen scarlet ibis from the heresy of rain.” It’s such a beautiful sentence. I love the phrase, “the heresy of rain,” but if I were the editor of this story, I would omit it, or change it to something like, “For a long time, it seemed forever, I lay there crying, sheltering my brother from the heresy of rain.” The thing is, we know that Doodle parallels the ibis; that’s the whole point of the story! If he had called him his brother it would’ve been so much better because he is taking ownership of his relationship with Doodle. To call him, directly, “my scarlet ibis,” makes him sound like this exotic thing. Again, Hurst spells it out too clearly, but maybe this is why it’s appeared in so many text books.

I take issue, too, with the phrase, “the heresy of rain.” Similar to the theme statement that Hurst provided, I have to oppose it not just because it’s too easy, but it’s also not true. It opposes the entire point of the narrative. The rain didn’t kill Doodle; the narrator’s pride and callousness did. I would make another edit here, something to the effect of, “For a long time, it seemed forever, I lay there crying, sheltering my brother from the heresy of my own pride.” It’s not as lingually pleasing or interesting as “heresy of rain,” but it’s truer to the theme of the text. As it is, there is both an admission of guilt, as evidenced by the “seed that bears two vines” quote, and a denial of it when it’s most needed. Nobody knows why the scarlet ibis traveled so far to the point of exhaustion, but we do know why Doodle did–because his brother made him.

The text has lots of small moments in it that I love, too. Aunt Nicey is much more colorful than the parents are and has some great lines “Dead birds is bad luck! Specially red dead birds.” I wonder if she’s not actually the narrator’s aunt, but a Black houseworker. She’s much more religious than the rest of the family, and she always seems to be doing work, such as in the scene where the ibis arrives and dies, she’s in the kitchen making lunch while everyone else is eating. Her speech, too, is notably different from the rest of the family.

Another really well-written scene is the one where the narrator talks about how he and Doodle got really good at lying, which sounds a lot more like story-telling than lying.

His favorite lie was about a boy named Peter who had a pet peacock with a ten-foot tail. Peter wore a golden robe that glittered so brightly that when he walked through the sunflowers they turned away from the sun to face him. When Peter was ready to go to sleep, the peacock spread his magnificent tail, enfolding the boy gently like a closing go-to sleep flower, burying him in the gloriously iridescent, rustling vortex.

Hurst, 1960

This is such a revealing moment for Doodle and it drives me a little crazy that it’s so short and overshadowed by the rest of the narrative. Peacocks are often symbols of resurrection, as they shed their feathers each year. This speaks to Doodle’s inner-most desires, to be born again, to be new, to be fixed, to be beautiful. The gold robe and the way the sunflowers all turn toward him, too, represents his desire to be seen. The story is somewhat tarnished by the narrator’s application of the word, “lie,” to it. Maybe that’s the point.

Another scene that is particularly revealing, not just for Doodle, but for the whole family, is the scene where Doodle decides to bury the ibis.

Daddy, Mama, and I went back to the dining-room table, but we watched Doodle through the open door. He took out a piece of string from his pocket and, without touching the ibis, looped one end around its neck. Slowly, while singing softly “Shall We Gather at the River,” he carried the bird around to the front yard and dug a hole in the flower garden, next to the petunia bed. Now we were watching him through the front window, but he didn’t know it. His awkwardness at digging the hole with a shovel whose handle was twice as long as he was made us laugh, and we covered our mouths with our hands so he wouldn’t hear.

Hurst, 1960

This scene is just so sad and illustrates the family’s cruelty toward Doodle. They are literally laughing at a disfigured boy who has trouble holding the shovel as he digs a grave for a bird.

I looked up the song that Doodle sings and was surprised by how joyous it sounds. Here it is for your use:

I think that Doodle decides to sing this song at the burial of the bird is really interesting, but I haven’t wrapped my head around it entirely yet. I’m not an expert on hymns, and I’m not sure exactly what it’s saying. I do think, though, that Hurst’s decision to make Doodle sing this particular song is purposeful and revealing for his character. The song addresses the Christian idea of “restoration,” which, according to Reference.com, (I know, it’s not the best source), means “to receive back more than has been lost to the point of where the final state is better than the original condition.” This is sort of a mouthful, but I think I get it. The song is describing an ascent from Earthly conditions to Heavenly conditions, maybe?

After writing this piece, I find myself more unsatisfied with the story. Although I argue that Hurst gives too much in naming the theme and making the too obvious connection between Doodle and the scarlet ibis, there’s so much more to be developed. Doodle is a fascinating character and is so much deeper than the narrative reveals. Of course, the first person, recollective perspective is at fault here, but I still wish there were more to explore.

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