The Luck of Roaring Camp

by Bret Harte

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Themes

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Responsibility and Love

A major theme of “The Luck of Roaring Camp” is the idea of an unexpected sense of responsibility and love. The men in the camp are rough around the edges and have little experience caring for children. However, when Thomas Luck’s mother dies in childbirth, they know they have to care for the boy. They are unlikely parents and know they can’t provide the most conventional situation for the boy, but they do everything they can, including changing their behavior. No longer do the hardened, frequently dirty inhabitants of Roaring Camp curse and yell; instead, they sing the child lullabies and commit themselves to cleanliness. They so involve themselves in the mission of caring for Thomas that they reform the entire town to make it a safer and more beneficial place for the infant, showing a deep parental love that seems to have sprung up spontaneously upon Thomas’s birth.

Religion and Worship

Thomas is clearly a Christ figure in the story, and not only because he has no known father. As the town’s fortunes are reversed and improvements are made, the men claim that Thomas has brought them good fortune. They name him Thomas Luck because they believe him to be a bearer of luck. He is, in a sense, the newborn child savior of this prospecting town, and the miners treat him as such. Like the biblical three wise men, they humbly come to view the child just after he is born, bringing gifts humorously appropriate to the characters and setting—a tobacco box, a revolver, a stolen teaspoon—as well as gold and, significantly, a Bible. Their immediate awe of Thomas stands in sharp contrast to the relative indifference with which the men respond to the death of Thomas’s mother, the “sinful” Cherokee Sal; all their concern is for the miraculous boy to whom she has died giving birth. There is a strong religious component to the devotion the men feel toward Thomas: they continually bring him gifts from the natural world, which is described as loving Thomas as the men do, and they tell stories about him that cast the boy in a supernatural light. Outsiders even claim that the men of Roaring Camp “worship” the child. Like Christ, however, Thomas dies, perhaps taking “the luck of Roaring Camp” with him.

Hard Work versus Luck

Hard work, the story implies, is frequently brushed aside as luck. The men put in great effort to improve their town, but they are quick to dismiss their change in fortune as “luck” brought to them by the infant Thomas. Certainly, the success the men meet in prospecting is fortuitous, but the improvements to the town are all undertaken by the miners themselves, so they can’t give credit to the boy for what they have accomplished. Because Thomas serves as the impetus for their “work of regeneration,” however, the men of Roaring Camp regard the boy as the incarnation of their good fortune. In reality, it is Stumpy who cleans and renovates his cabin, the grocer who redecorates his store, and all of the men together who change their ways, improve their surroundings, and perform the hard work of mining, building, planning, surviving, and caring for their collective child.

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