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The Outcasts of Poker Flat

by Bret Harte

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Who is the most admirable character in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

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While all of the characters of Bret Harte's "Outcasts of Poker Flat" easily engage the reader's sympathy, with the exception of the treacherous Uncle Billy, it's difficult not to feel that the heroic self-sacrifice of Mother Shipton makes her the most admirable of the group.

In a story with redemption as a prominent theme, the gambler John Oakhurst can surely lay claim to redeeming qualities. He displays a calm grace under pressure, treats the women with unexpected chivalry, and treats the young couple with kind solicitude. But young Tom Simpson is yet more admirable in sharing his provisions and shelter with the group of pariahs, although unwisely, as it turns out.

But, it's the cantankerous town madam, Mother Shipton, who makes the brave decision to sacrifice her life by donating her unconsumed weekly ration of food to the young girl Piney, so that she might survive the ordeal. When the amazed Oakhurst says, "You've starved yourself." Mother Shipton querulously replies, "That's what they call it," turns her face to the wall, and dies.

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The wonderful thing about literature is that it is subjective.  Opinion questions like these illustrate this truth.  Here's what I mean:  If you think Mr. Oakhurst is admirable because he is so level-headed and you can prove your claim with quotes from the story, then you are right.  If one of your classmates thinks Oakhurst is a jerk for leaving the women at the end and instead thinks Piney is the most admirable because of her innocence and can prove her claim with quotes from the story, then she is right, too.  So what I'm offering you is ONLY an opinion. 

I admire Mother Shipton the most.  Just as her name implies, she is a mother-figure to Piney in their dire time.  She selflessly saved her rations for Piney even though it cost her her own life.  She didn't even want the credit for doing so, saying

I'm going . . . but don't say anything about it.  Don't waken the kids.  Take the bundle from under my head and open it. . . .Give 'em to the child.

It's hard to believe such a woman just a few days earlier was banished from a town.  Of course, as a single woman on the frontier, her career options were limited; and when the town "experienc[ed] a spasm of virtuous[ness]," she was banished because of her profession of "impropriety."  It seems to me that she, like everyone else on the frontier, just did what she had to do to survive.  While Mother Shipton could have been bitter toward the judgmental attitudes of society, she instead embraced her maternal instincts and tried to provide hope for the younger Piney.

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