The Luck of Roaring Camp

by Bret Harte

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Which parts of "The Luck of Roaring Camp" exhibit realism?

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The setting, characters, and dialogue are all realistic. Themes of Realism:

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The literary movement of realism sought to move away from the trappings of the romanticism movement that preceded it; it promoted an objective and truthful, unvarnished look at life as it is. The setting of Bret Harte's "The Luck of Roaring Camp" is a nineteenth-century American mining camp in the west, with its rough-and-tumble lifestyle and characters.

In the story's opening scene, the narrator asserts that a crowd would not assemble for a fight because violence was so commonplace in mid-nineteenth century mining camps. The "rude cabin on the outer edge of the clearing" as a setting is accurate to what a hastily-constructed and temporary home would look like at this place and time.

The sole female occupant of Roaring Camp, Cherokee Sal, is described as "coarse" and "sinful." As the only woman in a camp of men, it is realistic that her function would be prostitution and that her life would be very difficult. The manner in which the men speak, with nonstandard grammar such as “Go in there, and see what you kin do. You've had experience in them things” is realistic to the type of men who inhabited mining camps.

The fact that Cherokee Sal dies in childbirth is realistic. Mortality rates for women in the 19th century were 600 women per 100,000 births. Given the primitive conditions of Roaring Camp, it is not far-fetched that she does not survive the birth of the boy who would come to be known as "Luck."

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This is a good question concerning this short story, and it is an interesting question because one could argue there are parts of the story that are much more in line with fantasy than realism. An entire camp being socially transformed because of the birth of a single child is quite miraculous; however, there are strong examples of realism in the story. Generally, realism literature makes use of an omniscient, third person narrator. That is true for this story. Harte's narrator is an all-knowing narrator that jumps from character to character in order to give readers a more in-depth look at the entire town. The third person narration lends itself to realism because it allows for the narrator to be a bit more cold and distant than a first person narrator. Realism tends to give a lot of detail about things, but it also doesn't try to be too poetic and flowery in its descriptions. Realism tends to state things in a matter-of-fact style, and that is true for this short story. For example, we get this great description of Sal early in the story:

Perhaps the less said of her the better. She was a coarse, and, it is to be feared, a very sinful woman.

Another characteristic of realism in literature is that the stories tend to be much more focused on character instead of action and plot. That is true in this short story. Not a lot actually happens in terms of actions, but a lot does happen in terms of how the characters change and develop in the story as a result of the child.

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Some characteristics of Realism in literature are that the characters resemble ordinary people in ordinary circumstances, the characters often meet unhappy ends, the dialogue resembles ordinary speech, and the settings are places that actually exist or could exist. "The Luck of Roaring Camp" meets all these criteria for realism.

The characters in the story resemble real people in ordinary circumstances. These rough miners and one prostitute are the type of people who actually populated the Western mining towns in the Gold Rush years. Certainly prostitutes were a common enough feature of such towns, and Stumpy, a polygamist who had come to the camp as a "city of refuge," also reflects events of the period. Although the characters of Kentuck and the other "roughs" are colorful, they are by no means unbelievable. Of course, these characters meet unhappy ends, especially Kentuck and Stumpy, who die in the flood. The others have their homes washed away and their baby, whom they have loved, taken from them in death. 

The dialect Harte uses for dialogue is realistic and gives the story some of its charm. For example, Kentuck says, "I crep' up the bank just now ... and dern my skin if he wasn't a-talking to a jaybird as was a-sittin' on his lap." Stumpy's speech is likewise ordinary for a man like him: "It ain't my style to spoil fun, boys, ... but it strikes me that this thing ain't exactly on the squar." 

Finally, the setting seems realistic as described; such mining camps did exist in California during the Gold Rush. Harte places the camp in "the Sierra foothills," and he describes at various points the river, the gulch, a "large redwood-tree," and the rude cabins the men live in. These are all believable, historical features of a mining camp. 

Harte's story definitely contains elements of realism because of its characters, the real-life dialect, and the concrete setting of a mining camp during the California Gold Rush.

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