The Scarlet Ibis
by James Hurst
Analysis: Writing Style
Framed, Composed, Artsy
When we talk about writing style we're talking about the way the author uses grammar, punctuation, literary devices (like flashbacks and symbols for example), and even spelling to create effects. Style includes the length, structure, and arrangement of sentences and paragraphs. It can include word choice. Here we'll focus on some of the broad elements of style in "The Scarlet Ibis."
"The Scarlet Ibis" contains a frame story, or a story within a story. The main story of Brother and Doodle's time together is framed as a memory. Most stories told in the past tense are implied memories. The narrator has to be remembering them to tell them. But here Brother explicitly states that the story he's telling is a memory. The idea of memory is the frame for his point of view, but the ibis itself functions as the story's literal frame.
The title, the first sentence, and the last sentence all refer to the ibis. Does this strike you as a tad too neat and tidy? Brother's memory seems more like a carefully composed painting than an accurate description of a series of events. The best example of what we mean is probably this line:
Finally I went back and found him huddled beneath a red nightshade bush beside the road. (4.48)
Remember, the ibis is found in "the bleeding tree." A bleeding tree is any tree that is giving off sap, either of its own accord, or because a person has tapped it. The sap might be reddish, but it's not likely that it's red like blood. Still, it gives us an image of red, and of blood. It's almost annoying Doodle would die underneath a red bush in addition to physically resembling the ibis in death. We don't want to feel like we're being beaten over the head with symbols when we read. But, there are some positive ways of looking at this aspect of Hurst's style here in the "Ibis."
Brother could be suggesting that memory is a creative act, an art form. To deal with the pain of his experience, to maintain some control over his intense emotions (guilt, love, etc.) Brother needs to arrange the memory artfully. He can't change what happened but he can, to some extent, control how it looks in his mind. If he has to look at it every day, he might as well add some beauty to the horror.
Or maybe he can't control it. Maybe he isn't doing it deliberately. Maybe the key to all this red lies in the final paragraph of the story:
I began to weep, and the tear blurred vision in red before me looked very familiar. (4.54)
From the moment Brother begins to weep, when he realizes Doodle is dead, and that he'd "been bleeding from the mouth" he will remember those events with "tear blurred vision in red" (4.49). This could mean that everything he's told us up to that point has been remembered with, we can't help repeating, "tear blurred vision in red." It doesn't really matter if the bush was 'really' red or not.
If you've spent anytime looking at the natural world, you know that it, like Brother's descriptions, seems almost too perfect, too beautiful, too artfully constructed. In addition to expressing his guilt and grief, Brother is expressing his vision of people, nature, and animals as intimately connected in mysterious ways.
It's also a way for him to at least try to put Doodle's death into perspective, at least try not to think of himself as a murderer. While he knows Doodle's death was avoidable (or he wouldn't be feeling so guilty) he can still take cold comfort in the fact that the forces of nature kill on a much grander scale every day.
Before we let you out of this section, we should say a few words on foreshadowing. As you know, foreshadowing is technique writers use to prepare the reader for important events that will happen in the story. Foreshadowings are hints or clues about what is to come. Many readers note that "The Scarlet Letter Ibis" foreshadows Doodle's death in quite a few ways.
Most obviously, the death of the ibis foreshadows Doodle's death. The interesting thing is that, according to Brother, Doodle's death isn't just being foreshadowed in his telling of the story, but in real life. According to him, nature, from the smell of "graveyard flowers" in the first paragraph, to the dying of the ibis, was foreshadowing Doodle's death on that fateful afternoon. What do you think of this? Does nature foreshadow what will happen to us as if life is just one big novel? Or is does it only look like foreshadowing in hindsight?