The Outcasts of Poker Flat Questions and Answers
by Bret Harte

The Outcasts of Poker Flat book cover
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What are the themes of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

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David Morrison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Redemption is an important theme in the story. As the title implies, the characters are outcasts, expelled from so-called respectable society by its self-appointed moral guardians. Yet in the midst of extreme adversity they show themselves to be more moral than those who banished them. Oakhurst, the professional poker player, shows kindness in trading his horse for the Duchess's mule; he also redeems himself by giving Tom back the money that he cheated him out of years before and telling him not to gamble anymore.

As for the Duchess, a notorious prostitute, she achieves redemption in a number of ways. The Duchess, along with another prostitute, Mother Shipton, spares Tom and Piney considerable fear and anxiety by not telling them about Uncle Billy's making off with the mules and provisions, which has left the party of outcasts in serious danger. Even more astonishing is the behavior of Mother Shipton, who sacrifices her life by giving her few remaining rations to young Piney.

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bullgatortail eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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There are several themes explored in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat." Fate is a condition over which the characters have little control. The outcasts are subject to a "spasm of virtuous reaction" from the town that no one could have expected, and the unexpected blizzard that hits them just after they begin their journey leads to their deaths. Heroism is another theme, seen best in the character of John Oakhurst. A soft-hearted gambler, he shows heroic qualities throughout the outcasts' ordeal, but in the end, he takes the coward's way out. The theme of appearance vs. reality is seen mostly in the Duchess and Mother Shipton. A pair of prostitutes, they are transformed into almost angelic characters by the story's end. This theme is closely related to another, that of change and transformation. The women faithfully tackle the responsibility of keeping up the spirit of the innocent Piney Woods, changing from angry and bickering harlots into motherly figures at the end.

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