Conflict As a Main Motive Of The Scarlet Ibis By James Hurst

Categories: The Scarlet Ibis

Usually, people’s expectations are higher than attainable, whether it be for themselves or others. James Hurst displays the same in “The Scarlet Ibis”. The narrator’s younger brother, Doodle, is born handicapped and weak. Society pampers him, but once his brother teaches him to walk, he feels the pressure to grow and achieve more. Doodle desperately strives to meet the expectations of his brother, his parents, and himself. As he struggles to achieve his goal, Doodle overworks himself to the point of death.

Hurst uses the literary elements of conflict and symbolism to illustrate that harm is possible while trying to fulfill the wishes of others or yourself.

Born disabled, Doodle must work harder than the average person to meet society’s standards. In this short story, the external conflict between Doodle and his brother helps show the main theme. Harsh and unyielding, the brother threatens menacingly: “‘Then I'll leave you here by yourself’... Doodle was frightened of being left… [Doodle’s] hand.

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.. reached out, and when he touched the casket he screamed” (Hurst). Doodle is willing to overcome his fears to please his brother. Since school is starting soon, the siblings decide to increase their efforts and teach Doodle “to run, to swim, to climb trees, and to fight” (Hurst). The brother, believing that Doodle’s disabilities embarrass and shame the two of them, forces Doodle to work until he collapses: “I made him swim until he turned blue and row until he couldn’t lift an oar. Wherever we went, I purposefully walked fast… his face turned red and his eyes became glazed.

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Once, he could go no further, so he collapsed on the ground and began to cry” (Hurst). To appease his brother’s selfish desires, Doodle sacrifices his health. External conflict between Doodle and his brother helps show the theme of trying to meet the expectations of others and yourself can harm oneself.

Additionally, Doodle struggles internally with his own expectations. He hopes to become more able for himself and others, but his body cannot keep up. Born “... all head, with a tiny body which was red and shriveled like an old man’s” (Hurst 384) Doodle must work harder than the average person to complete even the simplest tasks, like walking. The first time he tries to walk, “he [collapses] onto the grass like a half-empty flour sack” (Hurst 388). As he grows and overworks himself, his body slowly fades away, becoming weaker. In the end, Doodle’s body simply cannot continue, and fails to function. While running home, Doodle’s brother leaves him behind. Before his brother finds him, Doodle has “...[fallen] backwards onto the earth... [and is] bleeding from the mouth and his neck... [He lies] very awkwardly… [throwing his head] far back, making his vermilion neck appear unusually long and slim” (Hurst). His body withers away and he dies from exhaustion and overexertion. When Doodle attempts to satisfy others, he sacrifices himself.

Furthermore, Hurst uses symbolism to express the theme. In “The Scarlet Ibis”, an ibis dies in front of Doodle’s family. This ibis represents Doodle; both exhausting themselves to death. The ibis “lives in the tropics-- South America to Florida. A storm must have brought it here” (Hurst 10). North Carolina, a completely different climate is impossible for its exhausted body to survive in. Leaving its expectation of withstanding exhaustion unfulfilled, it dies. Like the ibis, Doodle also dies of exhaustion: “...[Doodle falls] backwards onto the earth... [and is] bleeding from the mouth and his neck” (Hurst 395). He could not become “normal” before his death, also not meeting his expectations. Using the ibis to symbolize Doodle, Hurst further shows the theme of harm is possible while trying to fulfill the wishes of others or yourself.

External conflict, internal conflict and symbolism are used powerfully in “The Scarlet Ibis” to show the theme of harm is possible while trying to meet the expectations of others or yourself. Doodle struggles externally with the expectations of his brother; he struggles internally with his own hopes. The ibis symbolizes Doodle and his failed expectations. James Hurst clearly uses the elements of external conflict, internal conflict and symbolism to express the main theme of “The Scarlet Ibis”.

Works cited

  1. Hurst, J. (1960). The Scarlet Ibis. The Atlantic Monthly, 206(2), 38-42.
  2. Abcarian, R., & Klotz, M. (2017). Literature: The Human Experience. Bedford/St. Martin's.
  3. Berman, R. (2018). Approaches to Teaching Hurst's The Scarlet Ibis. The Modern Language Association of America.
  4. Clugston, R. W. (2014). Journey into Literature. Bridgepoint Education.
  5. Evans, R. C. (2001). Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History: A Psychoanalytic Inquiry. Psychoanalytic Review, 88(3), 405-423.
  6. Gardner, R. (1998). The Story and Its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Bedford Books.
  7. Haytock, J. (2014). Compassionate Authority: Democracy and the Representation of Handicapped Individuals in "The Scarlet Ibis" and "A Place Apart". Mississippi Quarterly, 67(1-2), 97-120.
  8. Kirby, D. G., & Bickford, S. (2015). From Inquiry to Academic Writing: A Text and Reader. Macmillan Higher Education.
  9. Levine, L. W. (2013). Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Harvard University Press.
  10. Perrine, L., & Arp, T. R. (2015). Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. Wadsworth Publishing.
Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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Conflict As a Main Motive Of The Scarlet Ibis By James Hurst. (2024, Feb 04). Retrieved from

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