The Scarlet Ibis
by James Hurst
Where It All Goes Down
1911-1918, on a cotton farm in North Carolina
The temporal setting, or where the story is set in time, isn't hard to figure out. We know that Doodle dies in 1918, shortly before his seventh birthday (4.3). If we subtract seven from 1918, we get 1911. This is when Doodle is born, and when the story begins.
Early in the story Brother says that from "the top fork of the great pine behind the barn […] across the fields and swamps you could see the sea" (1.4). This is good evidence that he and his family live in a rural area, near the coast. Some quick online research tells us there is some confusion about the setting. Readers tend to say it's set "somewhere in the south." This is because the story doesn't exactly say it's set in North Carolina. So how do we know? Is it our expert knowledge of the flora and fauna of the southeastern US? Nope. We are just obsessed with looking up unfamiliar words, terms, phrases, and, in this case, place names. Sometimes these unfamiliars hold important clues. Check it out:
Had anyone stopped to listen to us, we would have been sent of to Dix Hill. (20)
Dix Hill, it so happens, is the common name for Dorothea Dix Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina. It's not likely that Brother would be referencing a psychiatric hospital outside of his state, so we can be fairly certain the setting is North Carolina.
The quote is also significant in another way, which can't be understood unless we know that Dix Hill is a psychiatric hospital. Brother is saying that if people had heard their "crazy" stories, they would have thought they were crazy, too, and sent them for psychiatric treatment (3.21). Brother seems to be joking around, but he's also suggesting that his community isn't very accepting of wild forays into the imagination. Too much imagination would be a sign of difference, the thing Brother wants to avoid at all costs.
So that's the foundation of the setting. We had to dig around a little to find it. The surface setting is so rich and beautiful, no wonder Brother isn't overly concerned with time and geography. He is concerned with describing nature, in providing the name of every tree flower, or weed he comes across. He also describes the large and small shifts in the weather at each moment. He's very in tune with his natural surroundings. No wonder he loves Old Woman Swamp, the real centerpiece of the setting. It makes us feel so hopeful when Brother says,
Doodle was my brother and he was going to cling to me no matter what I did so I dragged him across the burning cotton field to share with him the only beauty I knew, Old Woman Swamp. (2.4)
Doodle thinks it's so beautiful he weeps when he sees it. Old Woman Swamp is where the two brothers get to know each other, tell stories, and where Doodle learns to walk. It's a dreamy green place, lush with "wild flowers, wild violets, honeysuckle, [and] and yellow jasmine" (2.4). While the swamp is the centerpiece, the entire place sounds gorgeous. To see things go so wrong in such a beautiful place is quite compelling. If you are interested in this aspect of the setting, you might also check out our discussion of "Writing Style."
Before we release you from the setting, there's one more aspect you might be wondering about. As you might expect of a story set during this time period, "The Scarlet Ibis" subtly references World War I (1914-1919 – the US entered the war in 1917). Brother says that in the summer of 1918 "strange names were heard through the house: Chateau Thierry, Amiens, Soissons" (4.4). Those are all World War I battle sites.
In the same paragraph, the only one we've found that references the war, Mama says a blessing for "the Pearsons, whose boy Joe was lost at Belleau Wood," another battle. This is the key line. By bringing this up, Brother is connecting Doodle's eventual death not only with the death of the ibis, but also with the deaths of the other young men during that time. Like the Pearsons, Brother's family would lose a son in the woods, but in a different kind of battle.
OK, and there's just one more thing. Although school is never mentioned, it's an important part of the setting. Fear of what Doodle will have to go through at school if he isn't "normal" drives Brother to push Doodle so hard. Brother doesn't talk much about his school days, but we gather that he sees school as a dangerous, difficult place, in sharp contrast to the warmth, comfort, and relative safety of the family home.
For even more setting, head on over to "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" where we talk about "Clove of the Seasons" and "Barn Loft."