In "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," the author states: "It is but due to the sex, however, to state that their impropriety was professional...."
A) What does Harte mean by professional?
B) What is their impropriety?
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This statement is characteristic of Bret Harte's tongue-in-cheek, facetious writing. He is referring to the two female "outcasts" of Poker Flat who are called Duchess and Mother Shipton. Both of these women are members of what has often been called "the oldest profession," which is prostitution. Their "impropriety" is that they are sexually promiscuous, which is why they are being exiled from the hamlet of Poker Flat. Bret Harte pretends to excuse this impropriety on the grounds that they are rendering a "professional" service and are not, therefore, being wild, wanton, and dissolute. Harte does not really mean what he is saying. He is just being humorous.
Bret Harte, like so many professional writers of his time, seems to have been strongly influenced by the great Charles Dickens. One notable feature of Dickens' style was the way in which he treated grim and pitiful subjects with a touch of humor. A good example is to be found in Pip's encounter with the escaped convict Magwitch in Chapter 1. Nothing could be more frightening to such a young boy, but he describes it amusingly throughout the chapter, as in these lines:
"If you would kindly please to let me keep upright, sir, perhaps I shouldn't be sick, and perhaps I could attend more."
He gave me a most tremendous dip and rool, so that the church jumped over its own weather cock.
Harte was also like Dickens in showing sympathy for the lowest members of society. Dickens creates a memorable character of the prostitute named Nancy in his novel Oliver Twist (1838).
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