The Outcasts of Poker Flat Questions and Answers
by Bret Harte

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In "The Outcasts of Poker Flat", are there any heroes or heroines in the story? If so, who are they and what make them heroic?

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David Morrison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The heroism displayed by a number of characters in the story often surprises us. The protagonist, John Oakhurst, appears to have all the characteristics of a conventional hero, and yet when the chips are down he doesn't demonstrate anything like the kind of self-sacrifice of some of the other members of the party. That's not to say he's a coward; he shows himself to be incredibly calm, cool, and collected in the face of his imminent death. He also wants to protect his companions and keep their spirits up, hence his lies about Uncle Billy's going for provisions when in actual fact he'd stolen what few provisions the party had left.

At the same time, he doesn't undergo quite the same kind of transformation as, say, Mother Shipton, who literally sacrifices her own life to save Piney Woods. Mother Shipton is a prostitute, and as such, one of society's outcasts. Yet in the midst of great hardship, she shows just how artificial society's evaluation of individual character can often be. Her heroism is dynamic, going above and beyond what is expected of her, whereas the quiet, philosophical Oakhurst, consciously set apart from the rest of the group, acts as he always has.

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luannw eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In this story by Bret Harte, there are definitely heroes and heroines.  The main character, John Oakhurst, is a hero. He had once won $40 from Tom Simson and then returned it because Simson was so young and naive.  When he realizes the dire situation they are in after waking and realizing that most of their provisions have been stolen and the snows have begun, he doesn't want to tell Simson and his fiancee, Piney, because he doesn't want them to be frightened.  Later, he persuades Simson to hike to Poker Flat for help and then he gathers firewood for the group.  He works to save the group both physically and spiritually.  The prostitutes, the Duchess and Mother Shipton, are also heroic.  Mother Shipton saved her food rations for Piney and died of starvation.  The Duchess held Piney in her arms as the two froze to death.  Neither woman told Piney that they were prostitutes, allowing the young girl to keep her innocent ideas about people.  That sort of self-sacrifice is heroic.  In the end, Oakhurst is not a hero because he chose to end his life rather than endure a slower death while hoping for a chance to be rescued.

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