The Scarlet Ibis
by James Hurst
William "Doodle" Armstrong
Doodle is born on October 8, 1911, and named William Armstrong, Armstrong being his middle name, not his last name. When he learns to crawl backwards, reminding Brother of a doodle-bug, brother names him Doodle. He dies in 1918, just before his seventh birthday, the Saturday before his first day of school. Doodle is born with a heart condition and is expected to die as an infant. According to his doctor, he'll never be able to walk. If the doctor had his way, Doodle would live a sheltered life, cut off from experiencing the physical and sensory joys of the outdoors. Luckily, Brother, takes matters into his own hands and breaks Doodle out of his prison of bed rest. But, Brother takes things too far and contributes to Doodle's death.
"The Scarlet Ibis" is told through the eyes of adoring, grief-stricken, and guilt ridden Brother. We see Doodle through Brother's eyes and from Brother's perspective. It's possible that Doodle would seem very different if Mama or Papa or Aunt Nicey were telling the story. Doodle might seem different if he were telling his own story. Luckily, Brother gives us lots of material to work with, and clues through which we can get a sense of Doodle's point of view. While Doodle's point of view is important, it might be equally important to look at some of the fascinating ways that others see him. In the following sections we hope to do both.
Though his parents fear that Doodle will be both physically and mentally disabled, Brother quickly realizes that Doodle is "all there," and then some (1.5). Brother wants us to understand that Doodle is of above average in intelligence. For example, he says that Doodle "talked so much that we all quit listening to what he said" (1.3). Since Doodle is so talkative, we can guess that his brain is probably working on overtime.
Another big clue is Doodle's imaginative storytelling, or what Brother calls "lying" (3.21). If you haven't already, you might want to closely read Brother's description of Doodle's "favorite lie" (4.21). This story seems like advanced stuff for a six-year-old kid, though it's simple enough to still be believable. Check out one of our favorite parts, featuring Doodle's character, Peter, a guy in a shiny gold robe:
When Peter was ready to go to sleep, the peacock spread his magnificent tail, enfolding the boy gently like a closing go-to-sleep flower, burying him in the gloriously iridescent, rustling vortex (3.21).
OK, "gloriously iridescent, rustling vortex" is probably Brother-the-narrator talking, not Brother the kid or Doodle. But, Doodle describes something that Brother now recognizes as this vortex. Speaking of vocabulary, something "iridescent" is something sparkly, shiny. As far as a "vortex," think of a whirlpool or a whirlwind.
Now, try to visualize the image. Doodle is deep.
Even though the text seems to affirm Doodle's intelligence, lots of readers miss it. This may be because people often have a tendency to judge the mind by the body. This is part of why Brother is so intent on getting Doodle physically ready for school. He's sure that people will think Doodle's mind is "slow" if they see that his body is slow. Readers who make this mistake prove Brother's point. If you are one of those readers, don't feel bad. This text is great at making us examine assumptions we didn't even know we had.
There are several passages that suggest that in Brother's mind, Doodle is some kind of saint. Aunt Nicey lays the groundwork for this by telling Brother that Doodle "would live because he was born in a caul and cauls were made from Jesus' nightgown" (1.3).
Now, whatever you think of Jesus' nightgown, you might be wondering what a "caul" is. 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 during labor, 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, he/she is sometimes known as a caul baby. Click here for a photo that shows that a dried caul can looks like wings, which, as we all know, angels are known to have. This is probably the root of Aunt Nicey's comment, and what leads to her more explicit comment about Doodle's potential for sainthood:
She said caul babies should be treated with special respect since they might turn out to be saints (2.2).
But wait, what exactly is a saint? We all have a general idea of what a saint is – a saint is somebody who is pure good. Various religions feature saints, and saints often give their lives, or at least their liberty, to spread a message of truth and justice, often as directed by a higher power. In the Catholic religion, saints are often misunderstood in their own times, and, as a result, killed or harmed by their own people. Future generations recognize and benefit from their saintly acts, often more than the people in their own times.
In any case, Doodle doesn't seem to be spreading a religious message. If he's a saint it's because he's a sweet kid who brought joy into the lives of his relatives, who didn't understand him until he was dead. Like the saints, he is "different" from those around him. While his differences are seen as largely negative when he's alive, Brother now sees the differences as positive. Obviously, having a heart problem isn't positive, but Brother now sees that Doodle's metaphorical heart was big, and that he was a kind boy, to the point of saintliness.
Thinking of Doodle as a saint is kind of like thinking of Doodle as a scarlet ibis. (We talk about this in "What's Up With the Title?") It's a way for Brother to deal with his grief, to get a handle on his guilt while honoring Doodle's memory.
We promised to try to see things from Doodle's point of view, so here goes. On the one hand, he's willing to do anything to hang out with Brother. But, by the end of the story this is becoming harder and harder to do. By Brother's admission, Doodle is having "nightmares," falling down a lot, and bending under the strain. He's beginning to question the workout routine. So why didn't Doodle say no? Why didn't he complain to his parents? Did he contribute to his own death by failing to stick up for himself against Brother?
One answer to that last question is "yes." If Doodle had said "no," he would probably still be alive. But, again, we have to remember that Doodle is only six. He is still extremely sensitive and vulnerable, like most six year olds. His physical disabilities and traumatic early days might make this even more the case. Plus, he's desperately "frightened of being left," as we learn in the touch-the coffin-or-I'll leave-you-in-the-barn-loft scene. Obviously he doesn't want Brother to leave him alone in a scary place, or in a storm. But he also doesn't want Brother to leave him behind in general. Brother is his everything. The only way Doodle can defy him is by not leaving the house with him. And since that conflicts with his fear of being left, you can see what a spot he's in.
Nonetheless, Doodle seems to have been building toward taking a stand against his big brother. Just before they see the ibis on that tragic afternoon, Brother contradicts Doodle's claim of having heard "a rain frog" (frog Mama believes signals the approach of rain) (4.12-13).
Doodle says, "'I certainly did,' scowling at [Brother] over the top of his ice tea glass" (4.16). It's not much, we know, but it suggests that Doodle is coming into his own, and will eventually learn to deal with Brother. This is typical big brother-little brother relationship stuff. If we remove the tragic ending, things seem normal. Because things went wrong, the brotherly relationship was stopped short. Neither brother was able to fulfill his potential. So, being Doodle wasn't too bad, after Brother takes him under his wing, and before Brother goes completely off the deep end. He has a loving, supporting family, for all their shortcomings. Given enough time, he might have been able to manage Brother, and learn to make his own path in the world.