Are there any religious overtones in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

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Yes, there are a few religious overtones in the story. At the beginning of the story, when the outcasts are first leaving town due to their banishment, the street is described as feeling "Sabbath"-like, something that the town is "unused to." The Sabbath is a religious day of worship, so the fact that it was rare for the town to have that type of atmosphere tells readers that Poker Flat is not a town known for its religious or moral propriety. Readers can assume it is more of a Wild West town characterized by lawlessness.

Next, when the outcasts are snowed in at the cabin in the woods, they listen to Tom and Piney, who are not outcasts, but other travelers, sing a Christian hymn. At first, the outcasts do not join in singing, but eventually, they do sing as well. It is likely the outcasts hesitated to join in singing the Christian hymn because they are literally banished from society for not being "good" citizens. As a gambler, a prostitute, a witch, and a robber they are not traditional religious types. However, the fact that they sing the hymn indicates that they possess Christian traits of kindness and community, despite what the town may think of them.

The manner in which the outcasts treat one another, sharing rations and being kind and loving to each other as they are dying in the snowstorm, shows that they are moral despite being the fallen of society. Their personality traits, combined with the fact that the town itself is not religious, suggests that the truly religious or morally upright group was the outcasts, not the townspeople themselves.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on March 3, 2020
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In "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" Bret Harte explores notions of religion and morality. In the opening paragraph, the narrator mentions "a Sabbath lull in the air, which, in a settlement unused to Sabbath influences, looked ominous." Mining camps such as the setting that opens the story were notoriously rough and tumble and not inclined to have heavy Christian influences guiding people's behavior. It is only when Oakhurst has been a little too successful in winning at poker does "a secret committee" take action to "rid the town of all improper persons." This act is in itself hypocritical. The prostitutes had been accepted and patronized in Poker Flat. Oakhurst won his money fair and square. Uncle Billy, though a drunk, was only a "suspected sluice robber." Bret Harte may be suggesting that judging and expelling people from the mining camp was arbitrary and not based on genuine moral outrage or offense at unchristian behavior.

When Piney Woods and Tom Simson join the outcasts in their camp, they earnestly sing a hymn. The others are said to join in only because of the "defiant tone and Covenanter’s swing" of the music. Harte may be suggesting that this might be true of others who call themselves Christians.

Ultimately, it is Mother Shipton and John Oakhurst who behave the most morally, and neither of them claim to be Christian. Each sacrifices their life to try to save the others, particularly the young couple. It may be that Harte is drawing a distinction between moral behavior and false Christianity, and how it takes a mortal crisis for people to show their true goodness and concern for others.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on March 3, 2020
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The theme of redemption is an important one in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat." It's notable that it's the most disreputable characters who go above and beyond the call of duty in sacrificing themselves for the good of others. For example, Mother Shipton, a prostitute, sacrifices her life for Piney by giving the young lady her rations. Mother Shipton isn't what we might call a conventional Christian; in that, she is by no means an outlier in this wild, unruly mining town. For as John Oakhurst makes clear

There was a Sabbath lull in the air which, in a settlement unused to Sabbath influences, looked ominous.

This is a community which pays only lip-service to Christian teaching. That's not to say that the town has no religious life whatsoever—it isn't some kind of haven for atheists. But the townsfolk are breathtaking in their hypocrisy. They banish the so-called fallen women, The Duchess and Mother Shipton, for their alleged immorality. Yet neither The Duchess nor Mother Shipton would be able to ply their trade without a steady supply of paying customers. The women are indeed sinners, along with the rest of the outcasts, but the difference is that they find redemption before they expire in the snow-bound cabin.

Christ himself was an outcast and befriended all manner of other outcasts, including prostitutes. He was also judged and condemned by Caiaphas and the other high priests. Here as elsewhere in the story, the religious symbolism may seem obvious, but it's no less effective for that.

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