The Scarlet Ibis
by James Hurst
Brother is a very driven person. He's driven by love, family, friendship, intelligence, physical strength endurance, and by deep connections with nature. He's also driven by some difficult emotions, like shame, guilt, and insecurity. He's an intense kid. Like most intense characters in tragic stories, his intensity contributes to the tragedy. As you know, the big tragedy in "The Scarlet Ibis" is the death of seven-year-old Doodle, which occurs when Brother is about thirteen.
Brother's memory of Doodle, from birth to death, is the focus of the "The Scarlet Ibis." The fact that this story is framed as a memory complicates any analysis of Brother. As we discuss in "Narrator Point of View" and "Writing Style," it's important to recognize that his memory is colored by his grief and guilt. Because Brother highlights all the things he did wrong, we might leave the story with a negative impression of him, and forget that he was just a child when all this happened. We should be careful of judging him by the same standards we would an adult in the same situation. Brother, whether he admits it or not, shares the blame for Doodle's death with the other characters.
Since Brother analyzes himself only in terms of his relationship with Doodle, it's hard to see him as a person in his own right. For example we don't even know his name. "Brother" is what Doodle calls him. By omitting his own name, Brother's identity seems intimately connected to his role as Doodle's brother. We also don't know how old he is now, or whether he still lives on the family farm or is just there for a visit. We don't know what he does living or, or if he has his own family and children. This kind of information would probably help us understand how the 1918 tragedy impacted his life. But, by leaving out this information, Brother emphasizes that he lives in the past. No matter what his present life is like he will always be back in the Doodle years, reliving every moment.
Conformist or Nonconformist?
Regardless or where you live, or when, you'll probably encounter conflicts between fitting in and doing your own thing. Some communities and groups encourage diversity and individuality. Other communities and groups focus on sameness and group identity. Although we don't hear much about Brother's community, we can infer that there is lots of pressure to not be seen as different. At the very least, tell that Brother feels lots of pressure not to be seen as different.
Brother says he's "embarrassed at having a brother that age [five] who [can't] walk" (3.1). He claims that his interest in seeing Doodle walk is "only because [he's] ashamed of having a crippled brother" (3.18). We can also consider the chilling moment where Brother decides to "kill [Doodle] by smothering him with a pillow" because he's so ashamed of having a brother with physical disabilities and possibly mental disabilities (1.5).
This suggests that Brother, at the ripe age of six, believes that Doodle's deficiencies place the entire family in a shadow of shame. This is incredibly sad. When a six-year-old boy wants to kill his brother to fit in, something is horribly wrong. From that perspective, the story can be seen as an indictment, or strong accusation, against the community. It also suggests that Brother is an extreme conformist, a person willing to do anything to fit in, even if it means getting rid of the brother who can never fit in.
But why is Brother so terrified of not fitting in? If you've ever been to school, you know the answer to that question. He might be excluded from certain activities and social events. He might be picked on, made fun of, and even beat up. It's likely that Brother has already seen, heard, or even experienced what happens to people who are different. We think that's what's going on in the following passage:
"Aw, come on, Doodle. […] You can do it. Do you want to be different from everybody else when you start school?"
"Does it make any difference?"
"It certainly does."(4.6, 7, 8)
Brother isn't just afraid for himself. He's also afraid for Doodle. He doesn't want Doodle to be hurt. He's trying to protect Doodle from the cruel world. We all know, school can be a pretty rough place.
Doodle's comment in this passage is most interesting. Brother has just asked him if he wants to be different. Doodle's reply (in the form of a question) has at least two possible meanings. On the one hand, Doodle's asking if it matters to Brother what Doodle wants. If Doodle says he doesn't care about fitting in, it probably wouldn't matter to Brother. But Brother doesn't take it that way. He seems to think Doodle is asking if it's important to fit it. And Doodle might well be asking either one or both of those questions. He might also be saying that he doesn't think he can fit in at all, period. He might be suggesting that the whole project is futile. Nothing Brother can do will make him normal.
In any case, the exchange does seem to paint Brother as believing in doing what ever it takes to fit it in with the majority. This is rather ironic when we consider that the act of teaching Doodle to walk, and then to row, swim, etc. is an act of rebellion, and an act of nonconformity.
As we discuss in the doctor's "Character Analysis," bed rest and extremely restricted activity were the standard medical prescriptions for kids like Doodle. Brother refuses to accept limitations, even when they come from experts and authority figures, like his parents and the doctor. He sees past Doodle's difference, and realizes that Doodle is capable of much, much more than anyone believes. He intuits what future medical science would state as fact – that exercise is good for the heart.
So is Brother a conformist or a nonconformist? What do you think?
Ace Athlete, Nature Lover Extraordinaire, and Big Brother
As we mention in Brother's intro, he is one driven young man, and he has tons of physical stamina. Just try and find a place in the story where he complains about being tired or sick. He's all about enjoying his environment in a very physical way, including "running, jumping, […] climbing vines," climbing trees, etc (1.4).
Brother not only wants to explore his surrounding physically, but with all of his senses as well. He's constantly telling us how the natural world looks, feels, and smells. Think of the "graveyard flowers" which communicate through their smell "the names of [the] dead" (1.1). Consider the way he talks about the "green dimness where the palmetto fronds whispered by the stream" at Old Woman Swamp (3.4). He can tell you the name of every bird, flower, tree he sees. Whatever is going on with Brother, he always connects it back to nature.
The natural world is his world and he's in harmony with it. He claims his motivations for encouraging Doodle's physical development are based only in selfish shame and pride. But an earlier statement suggests it goes much deeper:
[…] I wanted more than anything else someone to race to Horsehead Landing, someone to box with […]. I wanted a brother. (1.4)
Sure, this can be considered a selfish desire. He wants a brother, but only if said brother is able do the things Brother likes to do. On the other hand, is it so selfish? Probably not. We all yearn for a companion with whom we can share the things we love. Of course, if we force somebody into a role that doesn't suit them, and ignore the other person's interests, selfishness becomes a big issue.
Even though some of Brother's motivations come from pride and shame, he really does forge a genuine connection with Doodle. The bond between Doodle and Brother is largely based in a mutual appreciation for natural beauty. Doodle wants to be with Brother and he wants to share Brother's life. It's not all one-sided either. The story-telling is a good example. Storytelling is something Doodle teaches Brother. It fits in naturally with Brother's interests, and allows Doodle to bring something tangible to the table.
So, the problem isn't really that Brother tries to turn Doodle into something he isn't. Doodle and Brother share a lot of interests. The real problem comes up when Brother learns that Doodle will have to leave the natural world of home for what can be a pretty unnatural world – the world of school.
In school, from Brother's point of view, nobody is going to care that Brother and Doodle love nature. Nope, brains and body are what matter there. Brother doesn't seem to be worried about Doodle's brain. He knows Doodle is a smart kid. It's the body that's the issue. Brother is afraid of what might happen to both of them if Doodle isn't physically on the same level as the majority of the other children. He knows from his experience in Doodle's early years that Doodle's physical issues can easily be misinterpreted as mental disabilities.
Some reader's see the death of the ibis as a warning to Brother, a warning that he doesn't understand until it's too late. As we discuss in "What's Up With the Ending?" Brother seems to be suggesting this as well, at least on some level. If you subscribe to this view, you might interpret Brother's failure to read the warning as a symptom of his loss of connection with the natural world during that time in the story.
Or, we could say that because Brother sees that the ibis dies as a result of natural processes, he can put Doodle's death in some sort of perspective. For him, Doodle's death is the worst thing in the world. He feels like a murderer. He might find some solace in watching the continual cycles of birth and death so vivid in nature. Imagining Doodle as part of that cycle might give him enough comfort to keep from driving himself mad with guilt.
Even though Brother is tied tragically to Doodle for life, he also has a right to a life of his own. Everything doesn't have to be about Doodle. It's OK for him to enjoy the things he loves even though Doodle can't. This is why "Guilt and Blame" is such a big theme here. Too much guilt can keep a person from living and enjoying his life. Hopefully, by remembering Doodle, and staying connected to the natural world, Brother can find a way to live beyond his guilt.
Brother Then, Brother Now
Brother doesn't reveal the details of his present life. We don't know how old he is, what he does for work, or even where he lives. We know he's remembering Doodle while he's in the family home, though we don't know if he still lives there. We also know that Brother is racked with guilt, and his memories weigh heavily on him. Still, we can see that Brother has changed since his experience. In this section we don't want to tell you how we think Brother has changed, but want to ask how you think Brother has changed. Or, for that matter, if you think Brother has changed. Has he learned anything? If so, what, and how do you know? If you were Brother, what are some ways you could use your experience to help others?Brother Timeline