How does the Duchess change during the course of the story in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?
The Duchess begins the story as a prostitute who is ejected from Poker Flat along with her pimp, Mother Shipton. As such, she is crude and garish, obviously having been corrupted in life. However, what transforms her and other characters is the arrival of Tom Simson with Piney Woods, who both of them, in their naivety, do not realise the kind of backgrounds that the Duchess and Mother Shipton come from, and thus treat them as equals with love and respect. The effect of this is staggering. Note how, from Piney's first conversation to the Duchess, there is a change that is registered:
Piney was actually talking in an impulsive girlish fashion to the Duchess, who was listening with an interest and animation she had not shown for many days.
The love and the care that the Duchess begins to feel towards Piney is what transforms her from a prostitute to being just as innocent and sinless as Piney herself. Note the touching and rather poignant discovery that is made of their bodies, which embrace each other, after their deaths:
And when the pitying fingers brushed the snow from their wan faces, you could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them which was she that had sinned.
The character of the Duchess, among others, is one example of how natures can be transformed and innocence and love, when freely offered, can impact even the hardest heart.
The Duchess matures as a person during her ordeal, digging deep to find reserves of courage in facing extreme adversity. This is quite some transformation. Initially, The Duchess is an immature young woman with a flair for the dramatic. She also has a flair for annoying people with her penchant for melodrama and theatrical gestures. But when the threat of death becomes real, her true self—her hidden goodness—starts to emerge. Along with Mother Shipton, another prostitute, The Duchess acts in the role of surrogate mother to Piney Woods.
In the depths of extreme hardship, it's noticeable that The Duchess is much better able to control her emotions. While she's tending the fire, she notices that someone has taken the trouble to pile up enough wood to keep the fire going for much longer. Tears well up in her eyes, but she doesn't want Piney to see her crying. She's trying to be strong for him; she's taking her self-appointed role as mother seriously.