The Outcasts of Poker Flat Questions and Answers
by Bret Harte

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What is the main message of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

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Jonathan Beutlich, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I think the main message to readers from "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" is a message about not making initial, snap judgments of people based on appearances. It is a story that teaches the classic "don't judge a book by its cover" message. We see this through most of the characters. Oakhurst, Mother Shipton, Duchess, and Uncle Billy are forcibly removed from the town of Poker Flat for presumably being miscreants and negative influences. Uncle Billy is a drunk, Oakhurst is a gambler, and the women are women of ill repute. Readers expect certain behaviors out of these people, and we are even rewarded with getting the expected result when Uncle Billy runs off in the night with all of the supplies; however, all of the other outcasts wind up being incredibly selfless, supporting, and caring characters. They strive to keep each other alive in various ways instead of selfishly acting to preserve their own lives. It's a great twist in the story that Harte accomplished because the townspeople that were so bent on being good and pure actually were the ones that were humbled by the selflessness of the supposedly immoral outcasts.

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," Bret Harte plays the irony of the supposedly righteous do-gooders of the town off against the sincerity revealed by the outcasts in their extremity as they are snowbound in the wilderness. While the townspeople show themselves to be unscrupulous hypocrites, thanks to Harte's witty irony, the snowstorm provides opportunity for the genuine humanity of the outcasts to show through.

Tom and Piney see the outcasts through innocent eyes and draw conclusions about their identities that no one bothers to correct. Tom finds out that Oakhurst is kind and gentlemanly; Piney perceives the women as ladies of elegance. While it is true that their unfamiliarity with the individuals in part gives rise to their conclusions, it is also true that there sincere, genuine humanity and concern seal the truthfulness of their conclusions.

Bret Harte finalizes the confirmation his main message, which is that humanity runs deeper than external appearances and can't be judged by lip-service and propriety, when Oakhurst selflessly offers himself as a sacrifice in the hope that the women might live.

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