Brotherly Injury: The Scarlet Ibis
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 pushed him to a breaking point, since he was selfishly embarrassed. Greed was also a factor in this situation. The narrator yearned for a brother he could run and play with, someone like himself. Doodle, however, was the opposite. “I wanted more than anything else…someone to box with, someone to perch with in the top fork of the great pine behind the barn. I wanted a brother” (143). Since Doodle was not the brother the narrator had in mind, he decided he would “fix” him. The narrator’s longing for an ordinary sibling, combined with with the shame he felt toward Doodle, resulted in him trying to force Doodle to be someone he was not.
The narrator’s sense of pride also drove Doodle to do things that were not in his best interest. The narrator states that he needed something to be proud of, and that Doodle was, potentially, it. Brother would galvanize Doodle into doing things to make him stronger, make him an object of pride: “…all of us must have something or someone to be proud of, and Doodle had become mine” (147). It is natural to be proud of people we care about, but an overabundance of pride can be dangerous to them if you force them into things. After Doodle learned to walk with the narrator’s help, Brother felt something inside his chest that would greatly affect both his and Doodle’s life forever: pride. After that moment, he started thinking he was invincible, that he would succeed at everything. “I began to believe in my own infallibility…I would teach him to run, to swim, to climb trees, and to fight” (150). The narrator felt his first burst of pride, and this glorious feeling is addicting to those who are not humble. Brother needed more of it, this emotion that made him feel powerful and flawless. To have pride wash over him again, he must push Doodle even harder.
However heartlessly the narrator finally acts toward Doodle, there is love that can be discerned in his actions. The narrator himself describes this peculiar way of loving Doodle. Inside all of us is the ability to hurt those we love, and Brother’s ability is just more profound. “There is within me…a knot of cruelty borne by the stream of love…and at times I was mean to Doodle” (146). The narrator does have affection for Doodle, even though there seem to be patches of sadism in his strange fondness. Even though Brother may be ashamed of Doodle, his fears are not only for himself: he is afraid for Doodle. People would have been cruel to Doodle at school since he was different, and Brother doesn’t want that. When Doodle dies, the narrator falls to his knees and weeps for his dead brother, knowing it was his doing. “I threw my body to the earth above his…I lay there crying, sheltering my fallen scarlet ibis from the heresy of the rain” (157). The narrator has rarely openly expressed his love for Doodle, but it bursts though as his brother’s death registers. Brother obviously regrets never showing Doodle more warmth and mercy, and the guilt will haunt him for the test of his life. It may have seemed hidden, but the narrator sincerely cared for Doodle, and his love for his brother additionally pushed Doodle to work harder.
Brother never realized how intensely he had pushed Doodle until it was much too late. His shame and pride overtook his ability to reason, they rooted themselves into his brain and heart. When he finally drove these impulses away, his brother lay broken and lifeless. The narrator’s deplorable pride, which made him feel invincible, his shameful, selfish desire for a normal brother, and his sincere love and concern all contributed to him causing an end to Doodle’s life. Brother’s experiences can serve as a warning to not let your personal desires or emotions overwhelm how you behave toward those who have a special place in your heart.
Hurst, James. “The Scarlet Ibis.” Holt Literature and Language Arts. Kylene Beers and Carol Jago,st al. Austin, Texas: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 2009. 140-159. Print.
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