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What Is the Symbolism of a Bleeding Tree in "The Scarlet Ibis"?


James Hurst, author of the short story "The Scarlet Ibis," once said, "authors seldom understand what they write." Hurst never revealed the symbolism behind the bleeding tree, but a close reading of the story leads one to conclude the tree represents the life and eventual death of Hurst's character Doodle.

Doodle as Bleeding Tree

One citation suggests the "bleeding tree" references a "Dracaena draco palm, recognizable because of its red, weeping sap." However, those palms, indigenous to the Canary Islands, thrive in dry climates. Hurst's story takes place in the humid southern United States. More likely, the bleeding tree comes from the prunus genus -- short-lived trees which weep sap under stress from environmental conditions. This genus includes almond, cherry and peach trees, all commonly found in the South. Consequently, the bleeding tree, while not a specific species, connotes an ailing tree, losing sap and eventually dying. Readers learn Doodle, at birth, "seemed all head, with a tiny body which was red and shriveled like an old man's. Everybody thought he was going to die." The narrator, Doodle's older sibling, doesn't want an "invalid" brother, so he sets about to toughen Doodle up. The narrator becomes the environmental condition causing a fragile Doodle more stress. The narrator expects Doodle to swim, row and run. Like short-lived, stressed trees of the prunus species, Doodle eventually bleeds to his death.

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