What is the central irony in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Irony involves a statement or situation in which things are not as they seem to be. In Bret Harte's story, the outcasts are not what they seem to be and the "secret committee" is not what it seems to be. The central irony of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" revolves around the definition of outcast and the nature of the "secret committee." One of the principle meanings of outcast is one who is rejected by society. Mr. Oakhurst and the prostitutes were certainly rejected by society. But what was the nature of the secret society? The secret committee convened itself to sit in judgement on certain improprieties, but only improprieties of well "established standards" because that is all they could morally understand as their behavior clearly demonstrates. The committee was comprised of angry individuals who had gambled away their fortunes to Mr. Oakhurst and wanted revenge. Some thought the best revenge would be to hang Oakhurst, that way they could have their revenge and the return of their lost wealth too. By the definition of outcast, these people had attitudes (i.e., revenge) and engaged in behaviors (i.e., hangings and exiles) that were rejected by society too. Therefore the central irony that underlies "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" is that the outcast's behavior and kindness toward each other proves that they have qualities of mind and heart that society honors--even if their professions are on the less respectable side--while the morally guiding secret committee of Poker Flat is comprised of base and vengeful individuals: on two counts, things are not as they seem.

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