"The Scarlet Ibis" is a short story by American author James Hurst. It was first published in 1960 in The Atlantic Monthly. After that, it found its way into middle and high school anthologies, and is frequently taught today. "The Scarlet Ibis" is a troubling tale of two brothers. One brother, called Doodle, has physical disabilities and serious health problems. The other brother, known only as Brother, is desperate to turn Doodle into a "normal" kid in time to face the harsh world of school.
The interesting thing is that "The Scarlet Ibis" seems to be the only work Hurst is known for. So, there is precious little reliable information on him, and not much in the way of critical material available on this story. His obituary says "he wrote a play and short stories, some of which were published in literary magazines," and most of which you'll have some trouble tracking down. If you want to read more of Hurst's work, you're probably out of luck unless you plan on doing some serious detective work.
In fact, the most solid sources we have to go on in terms of biographical information are his obit and the brief bio published with this story in The Atlantic. Apparently, Hurst first studied chemical engineering, took a break for Army duty in WWII, and then later "studied singing at the Julliard School of Music in Rome." Hurst's career as an opera singer didn't pan out and he "settled down as a bank clerk at night and a writer by day."
What he did since and until his death at the age of 91 in 2013 is a big mystery. And he's probably okay with that. Check out this brief passage from his brief obituary:
When asked about the meaning of ["The Scarlet Ibis"], Hurst answered: "I hesitate to respond, since authors seldom understand what they write. That is why we have critics. I venture to say, however, that it comments on the tenacity and the splendor of the human spirit." A key passage form the story is the following sentence: I did not know then that pride is a wonderful, terrible, thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death. (Source)
Until new information emerges, we'll just have to let Hurst remain a mystery man.
Here's a snippet of conversation from "The Scarlet Ibis":
"Do you want to be different from everybody else when you start school?"
"Does it make any difference?"
"It certainly does."
Here, an older brother is coaching his younger brother, who has physical disabilities, on how to fit in while in school. This story raises all sorts of important questions: Why is it that we sometimes fear people who are different? Why do many people think it's so important to fit in? If someone doesn't mind being different, why do we often still pressure them to conform? This story shows that pushing others too hard to fit in can end in tragedy.
Being selfishly consumed with shame and pride over a loved one can cause one to treat that beloved individual in cruel ways. In James Hurst’s fictitious short story "The Scarlet Ibis," the narrator realizes exactly these truths through brutal experience. The story is a flashback told in the antagonist’s point of view; it is about a boy whose internal conflicts toward his brother, Doodle, motivated him to push his brother until he broke. Pride, love, and shame battle with the narrator’s desire to help Doodle: his love encourages the need to help, but he ultimately gives way to the cruelty that killed his brother.
The narrator urges Doodle past his physical boundaries due to the shame he felt in Doodle’s failures, and because of his selfish desire for a brother who was normal. But more deeply, the narrator was afraid of what other people would think of him when he was in Doodle’s company. He was ashamed of his sweet, guileless, and jovial brother, who looked up to him (Brother) and did not even have the ability to walk. “It was bad enough having an invalid brother...I was ashamed of having a crippled brother” (146, 149). Because he was ashamed of Doodle, the narrator tried to transform him into something he could be proud of. He...
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