playing card, a two of clubs, in the center next to a hunting knife

The Outcasts of Poker Flat

by Bret Harte

Start Free Trial

Describe the setting in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat."

The setting of the story is the most important element.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The classic short story "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" by Bret Harte tells of four people who are exiled from the town of Poker Flat because of their supposed immorality. On their journey to safety they meet a sweet eloping couple, and they all take refuge together in...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

an abandoned cabin in the face of a fierce snowstorm.

The historical time period is given at the beginning of the tale as November 1850. The town of Poker Flat is located in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in northeastern California.

The story describes Poker Flat as lying in the foothills where the temperature is more temperate. The travelers must make their way up and over a "narrow and difficult" trail to the far side of the mountains. The air is dry and cold. Before they reach the cabin, they arrive at a spot with a beautiful vista. This is where they meet Tom Simmons and Piney Woods, the runaway lovers.

The spot was singularly wild and impressive. A wooded amphitheater, surrounded on three sides by precipitous cliffs of naked granite, sloped gently towards the crest of another precipice that overlooked the valley.

The cabin where the group takes shelter is described as "a rude attempt at a log house near the trail." Since the cabin doesn't have a roof, they thatch it with pine boughs. Inside they build a blazing fire to mitigate the outside cold. Most of the rest of the story takes place in this desolate snowbound setting, either within the cabin or in the forest just outside it.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"The Outcasts of Poker Flat" is set in a typical Western town that sprang up during the Gold Rush of 1849.  Physically, Bret Harte describes "the red dust of Poker Flat" that Mr. Oakhurst wipes from his boots.  There are also are mentions of gulches and a steep mountain range (the Sierra Madres) that the group of outcasts must travel through to get to the next settlement, Sandy Bar.

Besides the physical setting that is described, Harte also mentions that Poker Flat is "a settlement unused to Sabbath influences," meaning it is a lawless town that is used to having the types of people which it outcasts: gamblers, prostitutes, thieves and drunks.  However, as the story begins, Harte mentions that because of some recent crimes, there has recently been "a change in its moral atmosphere."  They cast out Mr. Oakhurst and the rest in hopes of changing the reputation of this typical Western town.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does the setting affect the story "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

The settings of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" have a decided affect upon the plot and characterization; in fact, it is the most important element of the short story.

1. Poker Flat is a town that is quickly loses its "virtue" and its money because of the presence of certain individuals. Therefore, a committee of the major losers is formed and 

[T]here was a Sabbath lull in the air which, in a settlement unused to Sabbath influences, looked ominous.

This committee casts out the Duchess and Mother Shipton, a madam; Uncle Billy, a drunkard and a thief; and Mr. Oakhurst, a gambler. Ostracized, the party heads for Sandy Bar, a camp that has not yet "experienced the regenerating influences of Poker Flat." The outcasts take the difficult path to Poker Flat which is on an elevated territory whose climate is dry, but there is a cold, bracing air as they near the Sierras mountain range.

In this naturalistic story, the outcasts are subjected to the elements. After the Duchess decides that she will go no farther despite Oakhurst's warnings that in this "singularly wild and impressive" spot they may delay too much in crossing the mountain range. Consequently, after Uncle Billy steals the mules, the group becomes snowbound and the turn of events are directly connected to the setting of the unforgiving rugged terrain:

The wind lulled as if it feared to waken them.  Feathery drifts of snow, shaken from the long pine boughs, flew like white-winged birds, and setlled about them as they slept. The moon through the rifted clouds looked down upon what had been the camp. But all human stain, all trace of earthly travail, was hidden beneath the spotless mantle mercifully flung from above.

With wry humor, Harte describes the indifferent nature "as if it feared to waken" the frozen women, the Duchess and Piney, while in the gulch the gambler Oakhurst lies dead of his self-inflicted bullet wound.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on