From the short story "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," how could you analyze John Oakhurst's character?

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sciftw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One way to begin an analysis of a character is to start with the way that an author characterizes a particular character. Most authors will use a mixture of direct and indirect characterization. Direct characterization happens when the narrator expressly tells readers a detail about a character. For example, the opening paragraphs of the story tell readers that Oakhurst is a gambler with a calm and handsome face. Indirect characterization happens when readers have to infer characteristics of a character based on how that character acts and/or speaks. The brunt of Oakhurst's characterization is done this way. For example, Oakhurst is not an easily angered or upset kind of guy. He's not someone who makes rash and heated decisions. He accepts the facts as they are presented to him, and he remains cool, calm, and collected as he makes decisions. The narrator doesn't tell readers that Oakhurst is this way. The narrator shows readers these character traits of Oakhurst.

Mr. Oakhurst received his sentence with philosophic calmness, none the less coolly that he was aware of the hesitation of his judges. He was too much of a gambler not to accept Fate. With him life was at best an uncertain game, and he recognized the usual percentage in favor of the dealer.

The end of the story has the narrator telling readers that Oakhurst was both the strongest and the weakest of all of the outcasts, and by that point in the story, it makes perfect sense. Oakhurst correctly recognized the group's predicament, and he actively worked toward figuring out ways to get the most people to survive for the longest time. Unfortunately, Oakhurst couldn't bring himself to fight for his own life in the same way that everybody else was fighting. While the other people cling to each other and life until they can't any longer, John Oakhurst kills himself. He may have been a good leader up until that point, but readers can't help but see his act as perhaps a coward's way out.

Rebecca Owens eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Oakhurst is an interesting character. He is called both the strongest and the weakest of the outcasts. Although he had great leadership qualities, it was he who committed suicide and gave up without saving himself or the party.

Throughout the story, he is depicted as a man of strong moral character. Despite his career as a gambler, he is an honest and fair man. These traits are evident in the way he handled Tom's loss to him. Rather than just taking the Innocent's money, he gave it back and warned him against gambling in the future.

Oakhurst shows leadership and intelligence. It is he who first understands the party's terrible predicament. So he does everything he can to protect Tom and Piney: He suggests they move on alone, and when that fails, he rations the food and keeps the order and assumes the largest part of the responsibilities, including the major part of night watch. He is the one who fashions the snow shoes so that Tom can get help. But he knows this is too late. Perhaps if he had sent Tom a day or two earlier, they all might have lived. When he realizes his error and knows that he will not survive until the rescue party arrives, he cuts the firewood for the women.

But he does kill himself. He is too afraid/weak to face a slow death.

So in short, he seems to be a series of contradictions. He is intelligent but too cautious, shrewd but fair, a good leader but a failed leader, strong but weak.

Check the links below for more information on the themes and characters.

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The Outcasts of Poker Flat

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