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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
If you're looking for information about how the scarlet ibis, the bird, works symbolically, check out "What's Up With the Title?" where we discuss the ibis in detail.
Quick, what's the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of red? For many, the answer is, blood. When it's spilled, somebody is hurt, or even dead. Blood is scary, even horrifying. But, it can also be beautiful, as we see in "The Scarlet Ibis."
There is lots of red going on here. The ibis itself is red. The "bleeding tree" makes us think of red. The bush beneath which Doodle dies is red. When Doodle is born his body is "red." Then there's this line:
He had been bleeding from the mouth, and his neck and the front of his shirt were stained a brilliant red. (4.49)
This is disturbing. It means Doodle is dead. It means he died alone, suffering. But, it's also beautiful – probably not if we actually looked at it, but because of the word "brilliant." "Brilliant" is usually used in a positive way. Great ideas are brilliant. Bright colors and sparkling jewels are brilliant. The moon and the stars are brilliant. Blood on the neck and shirt of a young boy are not brilliant. In fact, without the word brilliant, it's completely horrible.
The word tricks us into visualizing a somewhat sanitized image. There is a conflict between what we know to be something horrible, something we probably would have trouble looking at, and the beautiful way its presented. Such effects often "wake-up" the viewer or reader. Since we are responding to the image on seemingly conflicting levels, we, simply, aren't bored.
For Brother, finding beauty in the image of Doodle's bloodstained neck and t-shirt is probably a kind of defense mechanism. The image is too horrible for him to look at it, so he finds beauty in it. After the ibis dies, Brother thinks:
Even death did not mar its grace, for it lay on the earth like a broken vase of red flowers, and we stood around it, awed by its beauty. (4.25)
In this case, Brother sees the ibis as he might a painting. It is dead, but beautiful. Since Brother isn't emotionally attached to the bird, he isn't finding beauty in order to cope. He's simply observing. He carries that image of beauty with him, and calls on it to help him face his brother's body. In the final lines of the story he visually transforms Doodle into a scarlet ibis; he transforms blood into red feathers.
The barn loft is small, cramped, confining, and dark. It's the home of Doodle's baby sized coffin. The cramped loft probably comments on or reflects the minds of the characters inside it. If a character is trapped in a tiny space, he likely feels trapped for other reasons too.
It's interesting to note that eight-year-old Brother shows Doodle the coffin before he teaches Doodle to walk. He loves Doodle and is developing a sweet relationship with him, but he's still trapped by Doodle. Doodle still isn't quite the brother he has in mind. He needs special care and has to be carried around. Brother is caught between loving Doodle, and wishing he didn't have to deal with him, and be embarrassed by him.
These feelings are normal, but Brother doesn't have anyone he can talk to about it. It doesn't sound like something he could bring up to Mama or Daddy. So, Brother expresses his feelings to Doodle by taking him to the barn loft trapping him in it. He wants to show Doodle how it feels to be trapped or scared. He does it, as he admits, in a mean way, that isn't productive or healthy for either of them. Still, is it that big a deal? If Doodle had lived it wouldn't be, but since he didn't, it is. A piece of Brother will always remain trapped in the barn loft, being mean to Doodle.
Brother is in tune with nature. He notices how these elements of the natural world impact his life and the lives of the people around him. The events in his memory of Doodle are linked to a marked by weather and the seasons. The story actually opens with a discussion of the seasons:
It was in the clove of the seasons, summer was dead but autumn had not yet been born, that the ibis lit in the bleeding tree. (1.1)
Brother is talking about the ibis, but we know he's really talking about what happened after the ibis, the death of Doodle. We could translate the quote to say, "Doodle died in the clove of the seasons, after the ibis fell out of the bleeding tree and died." But that's no way to start a story. Brother takes the subtle, mysterious approach.
In what season do Doodle and the ibis die? This is kind of a trick question. They die in a kind of no-season season, according to Brother anyway. The word "clove" as it's used here means "split." Think of a mountain that splits down the center. The space in between the two pieces is the "clove." Sounds a bit dangerous, doesn't it? Brother finds meaning in the fact that Doodle's death occurred "in the clove." It's not that bad things are more or less likely to happen in the clove. It's that the clove is symbolically compatible with the way Brother feels about Doodle's death.
Have you heard the phrase "fall through the cracks"? If someone is "improperly or inadvertently ignored or left out," especially a child, they are said to have fallen through the cracks, or broken places in the system. This is what happens to Doodle. He falls through the cracks, or the clove. His needs are "improperly or inadvertently ignored." He's "left out" on a number of levels. Ironically, Brother is trying desperately to keep Doodle from being left out.
If Brother can toughen him up and teach him to fit in, maybe Doodle won't fall through the cracks. Brother is acutely aware that Doodle is in danger of doing just that. Unfortunately, he doesn't know that too much of a good thing can be deadly. Like a doctor who gives a patient too much medicine, Brother kills Doodle with the medicine that was saving his life.
A grindstone is used for sharpening tools. On a farm it would be used to sharpen plow blades, axes, etc.
Maybe you've heard the phrase "nose to the grindstone." Putting your own nose to the grindstone means to focus and work really hard. The result, hopefully, will be a polished or sharpened product. If you put someone else's nose to the grindstone you force them to do the hard work that you want them to do.
The grindstone is only mentioned at the beginning of "The Scarlet Ibis," but it's a rather important symbol. Here is the first grindstone quote:
A grindstone stands where the bleeding tree stood, just outside the kitchen door. (1.2)
Wow. So what happened to the bleeding tree, the tree where the ibis was found? (A "bleeding tree" is a tree giving off sap, which is sometimes reddish in color.) Unless it was removed and planted elsewhere, then it died, like the ibis, and like Doodle. OK, so that's interesting but not necessarily significant yet. We need another quote:
But sometimes (like right now), as I sit in the cool, green-draped parlor, the grindstone begins to turn, and time with all its changes is ground away – and I remember Doodle. (1.2)
Ah-ha. Now we're getting somewhere. As we discuss in "What's Up With the Title?" Brother sees a parallel between the ibis dying in the bleeding tree, and Doodle dying "beneath a red nightshade bush beside the road" (4.48). Since the tree used to be "just outside the kitchen door" it would have reminded Brother of Doodle every time he saw it. The grindstone doesn't simply take the tree's physical place, but also its function as a reminder of Doodle, because it stands where the tree stood.
This second quote also suggests that Brother thinks of his mind as a grindstone. When he starts thinking, "time with all its changes is ground away." Brother is also suggesting that memory and forgetting are linked. He has to forget "time with all its changes" to live in the past with Doodle.
The grindstone of his mind polishes and sharpens Brother's memory. And Brother's memory seems polished, indeed. Everything is carefully arranged, sharp, and vivid. There are no moments of confusion, moments where Brother doesn't remember exactly what happened, or what the sky looks like. Literally speaking, the grindstone can't grind away "time with all its changes." In other words, Brother's memory is colored by his grief. He is going to remember his time with Doodle differently if Doodle wasn't dead.
At the same time, his mind does grind away time, because it places Brother back in that time. In his mind, he is reliving that experience. The grindstone analogy works nicely because for Brother, the act of remembering is hard work, and it's painful. The more his mind revolves, the sharper the memory becomes. Like the knives and blades the grindstone is used to sharpen, Brother's memory has the ability to cut him, metaphorically. At the same time, remembering is productive. It produces emotions and feelings in Brother, and allows him to deal with and order his guilt and grief.
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