The Scarlet Ibis
by James Hurst
Take a story's temperature by studying its tone. Is it hopeful? Cynical? Snarky? Playful?
When we talk about tone, we're talking about the way the story feels when we read it. We're also talking about the tone of the author's voice when he or she is telling the story. The tone refers to the kinds of feelings, emotions, and judgments the author conveys. Different readers will detect different tones in "The Scarlet Ibis." But, most readers will notice that the tone is often sounds serious, or grave. Death is always floating around in the air.
Grave, comes from the word gravity which means heavy. Things that are grave and serious are heavy. While there are some happy moments in "The Scarlet Ibis," they are all burdened with a tones of guilt and love. Happy moments can be just as heavy as sad ones. For example, when Doodle shows the family he can walk, on his birthday.
It's a happy moment, but it's heavy. Doodle is six years old. They thought he would never walk. Hurst does actually insert some lightheartedness into this scene. Bother grabs Aunt Nicey and makes her dance. But even this moment is abruptly marred by heaviness when Nicey steps on his foot with he big, heavy shoes. The inclusion of this little detail works to convey the tone of heaviness, suggesting that for Brother, life will rarely be light and free.
However, the tone isn't burdened by heaviness to the point of being too heavy for the reader to stand. The fresh tone that comes from the beautiful descriptions of nature breaks up the heaviness and makes the story vivid and alive. The following passage is from the tragic scene where Brother has stopped running away from Doodle and is waiting for him:
The sound of rain was everywhere, but the wind had died, and it fell straight down in parallel paths like ropes hanging from the sky. As I waited, I peered through the downpour, but no one came. (4.48)
We can almost see, hear, feel, and smell the rain. The tone is alive, and in the moment. For Brother, this is part of the heaviness. It's all too fresh and "clear" in his mind (1.1). It's fresh, but heavy at the same time. The rain is fresh and in motion, but it's also heavy. It is, after all, falling. The final clause of the second sentence is extremely heavily toned – "no one came." It sounds like somebody just dropped a ton of brocks on brother's heart. This moment will weigh heavy on Brother's heart, and will always be fresh in his mind. Hurst's captures the tones of guilt and sadness that his narrator will always feel. He does this with humility, and without seeming to judge his characters too harshly. Rather, he shows that they are kind, loving people in a difficult situation.