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The Scarlet Ibis

The Scarlet Ibis

by James Hurst

The Scarlet Ibis Part 1 Summary

  • As the story opens, we learn that at some point in the past, in between the death of summer and the birth of winter – "the clove of seasons" – an ibis flew into "the bleeding tree" (1.1).
  • Now, because so many readers get hung up on this first sentence, we'll clear up some possibly unfamiliar terms. In this case "clove" means "split" – the time the narrator is remembering is in the split between the two seasons. Ibises are tropical birds. A "bleeding tree" is a tree oozing sap. Depending on the tree and the tree's health and circumstances, the bleeding could be normal, or because the tree is ill, or because humans have tapped it to capture the sap.
  • Now, on with the story.
  • There are "rotting" and overgrown flowers in the garden (1.1).
  • The bird's nest is empty of birds. ("Untenanted" means "without a tenant" or inhabitant.)
  • "The last of the grave yard flowers" (probably frangipani) are in bloom (1.1). The fragrance of these flowers crosses over the cotton fields and wafts through the house, telling the people who live there "the names of [their] dead" (1.1).
  • The narrator thinks "[i]t's strange that the memory of that long ago scene is "still so clear" now that time has passed (1.2).
  • Now, "[a] grindstone" is outside the kitchen door, has taken the place of the "bleeding tree" (1.2).
  • (A grindstone is used to sharpen tools.)
  • Now the garden is neat and tidy.
  • But from time to time "(like right now)" the grindstone revolves and takes the narrator back to the past (1.2). When that happens the narrator thinks of Doodle (1.2).
  • Doodle is "the craziest brother" ever. Not "crazy crazy," like a woman named Miss Leedie who is in love with President Wilson. (Wilson was the 28th president, from 1913-1921. This gives us some idea of when the narrator's memory is set.)
  • Doodle is "nice crazy, like someone you meet in your dreams" (1.3).
  • Now we jump back in time to learn the story of Doodle.
  • The narrator, six years old when Doodle is born, isn't impressed with the big-headed, old-man-looking newborn baby. Most of his family thinks Doodle won't live.
  • The narrator's Aunt Nicey delivered Doodle. Aunt Nicey is probably a midwife. Midwives aren't doctors, but deliver babies, often in people's homes.
  • In rural areas like the one in which Doodle's family lives, midwives would definitely have performed deliveries in people's homes.
  • Anyhow, Aunt Nicey doesn't think Doodle will die.
  • Doodle "was born in a caul" (1.3). (When a woman is pregnant, her baby is enclosed in a membrane filled with fluid. This membrane is sometimes called a "caul." When a baby is about to be born, the membrane usually breaks, releasing the fluid. Sometimes the membrane doesn't break on its own, and the doctor or midwife breaks it. When a baby is born in his/her caul, or with a piece of the caul on his/her body, the baby is sometimes known as a caul baby.)
  • Aunt Nicey claims that "cauls were made from Jesus' nightgown" (1.3). That's why she's sure Doodle won't die. (Click here for a photo that might help explain Aunt Nicey's comment.)
  • The narrator's Daddy goes as far as to have a coffin made for little Doodle.
  • But Doodle doesn't die, and so they give him a name – William Armstrong. The narrator thinks this is too big and heavy for the kid, that it's the kind of name that "sounds good only on a tombstone" (1.3).
  • The narrator is an active boy. Some of his interests are "holding [his] breath, running, jumping" and "climbing vines in Old Woman Swamp" (1.4).
  • He wants a brother to play with him.
  • In tears, his mother tells him that Doodle can never be his playmate, and suggests that Doodle's brain function might not be very high.
  • The narrator thinks that having a brother who is both physically and mentally disabled is horrible. He decides "to kill him by smothering him with a pillow" (5).
  • Luckily, one day Doodle smiles at the narrator. Extremely excited, the narrator tells his mother that Doodle is, in fact, smart.

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