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 “Sabbath lull” in a community “unused to Sabbath influences.” Poker Flat is experiencing a “spasm of virtuous reaction” to the crimes that have been committed. The secret committee rids the town “permanently” of two alleged criminals, while it “sits in judgment” on the “impropriety” of the “professional ladies” it decides to banish. The gambler is saved from hanging caused by “local prejudice” only because of a “crude sentiment of equity” in the breasts of several townsmen who had been lucky enough to win from him.
For a brief period in the story, Uncle Billy serves as a foil to Oakhurst. When the “deported wickedness” of the town is abandoned by the vigilantes, Mother Shipton uses some bad language, but Uncle Billy explodes a “volley of expletives” at his tormentors in an attempt to gain revenge through the colorful use of words. Billy then directs his attention to his fellow expatriates and condemns them in a “sweeping anathema.” When Tom Simson arrives, Billy, at the threat of a kick from Oakhurst, stifles his laughter while listening to the youth talk about how he is going to Poker Flat to “seek his fortune.” He can barely restrain himself when Simson refers to the Duchess as Mrs. Oakhurst. Billy has to retreat from the group until he can “recover his gravity,” but not before he “confides his joke” to the trees with leg-slapping, face contortions, and the “usual profanity.” As he returns and surveys the “sylvan group,” Uncle Billy formulates his plan of desertion.
In contrast, Oakhurst sees the situation from the stoical viewpoint of a gambler who has not unexpectedly fallen on hard times but who has to make the best of it in an honorable way. He tries to hide Billy’s treachery from the others by suggesting that he and the mules only got lost in the blizzard, but their morale is damaged by the loss of the supplies. Only Simson enjoys the “prospect of their forced seclusion,” and he tries to entertain them with “square fun,” including tales about Homer’s “Ashheels” (or Achilles). Oakhurst, however, concerns himself with the “losing game before him.” When he sees that there is no hope left, he “hands in his checks” to conclude his “streak of bad luck.” His acceptance of death has been learned from his “pariah trade,” and his suicide note is written on the deuce of clubs, the lowest card, to symbolize that his luck and life have run out.
The tone of the story, though, is essentially humorous. Life is cheap in the Old West, where gold is more important than morality. However, with his objective method of telling the story, the author is able to make his social commentary unobtrusively. The story is, first of all, entertaining.