Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Bret Harte is usually labeled a local colorist. The local-color, or regional-realism, movement hit its peak in American literature between 1870 and 1890. It was fiction that emphasized the speech, dress, mannerisms, and values of a particular region. Literature of this type was usually more concerned with surface presentation of the characters than with probing their psychological motivations. The characters are more likely to be representatives of a specific place than clearly defined individuals, and the stories often descend to the facile conventions of hack writing. Harte never quite transcended this genre, but he became one of the most famous practitioners of local color, along with the early Mark Twain, Hamlin Garland, Kate Chopin, Sarah Orne Jewett, George Washington Cable, and Joel Chandler Harris.
Two aspects of local color that help illustrate the attributes of a locale and its people are humor and hyperbole. Harte uses comic scenes, dialogue, and descriptions to offset the tragedy of the story and to keep it from turning into melodrama. Much of the humor is based on hyperbole—language that is exaggerated or overstated for the situation. Sometimes this is reversed to understatement, in which the words seem too insignificant for the occasion. The language is often a parody of romantic or sentimental fiction. Also involved in balancing the tragedy is the gambler’s stoical approach to life. Outwardly impervious to pain or anger, Oakhurst faces life as if it were a game of cards, and his attitude is defined in language associated with gambling. The ridiculous or pathetic aspects of the others are contrasted with the dignity of Oakhurst.
The opening pages are filled with language that seems too grand for the events. Oakhurst notices that there is a change in the “moral atmosphere” of the town. There is a...
(The entire section is 755 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
The Outcasts of Poker Flat (Magill Book Reviews)
The simplicity of the story is a result of the too-easy transformation of such characters as “the Duchess,” a prostitute who reveals a “heart of gold,” and “Mother Shipton,” an old reprobate who gives up her food, and thus her life, so that the innocent Piney Woods can live. The unlikely combination of the innocence of the young couple and the “sin” of the outcasts forms a sympathetic human community.
The story’s sentimentality reaches its climax when Piney and the Duchess are found frozen to death and all “human stain, all trace of earthly travail, was hidden beneath the spotless mantle mercifully flung from above.” One cannot tell which is the innocent virgin and which is the sinful prostitute.
The gambler, John Oakhurst, is the most interesting and complex character in the story, even though he too, in his philosophic attitude toward reality, is more a cliche than a fully embodied person. Although he stoically accepts his fate throughout the story and reveals his basically noble nature, at the tale’s conclusion he takes his own life rather than await death by freezing and starvation. Thus he is called the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat.
Oakhurst approaches life as his profession dictates, basing his actions on his awareness of luck; knowing when it will change is what makes a man, he says. His suicide at the end can thus be attributed to his knowledge that he has “hit a streak of bad luck"; he “cashes in his chips” before he “loses the game” of life.
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Barnett, Linda D. Bret Harte: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.
Duckett, Margaret. Mark Twain and Bret Harte. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.
Morrow, Patrick. Bret Harte. Boise, Idaho: Boise State College Press, 1972.
Morrow, Patrick. Bret Harte, Literary Critic. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1979.
Nissen, Axel. Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.
O’Connor, Richard. Bret Harte: A Biography. Boston:...
(The entire section is 115 words.)