The Outcasts of Poker Flat Analysis

Bret Harte

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Bret Harte is usually labeled a local colorist. The local-color, or regional-realism, movement hit its peak in American literature between 1870 and 1890. It was fiction that emphasized the speech, dress, mannerisms, and values of a particular region. Literature of this type was usually more concerned with surface presentation of the characters than with probing their psychological motivations. The characters are more likely to be representatives of a specific place than clearly defined individuals, and the stories often descend to the facile conventions of hack writing. Harte never quite transcended this genre, but he became one of the most famous practitioners of local color, along with the early Mark Twain, Hamlin Garland, Kate Chopin, Sarah Orne Jewett, George Washington Cable, and Joel Chandler Harris.

Two aspects of local color that help illustrate the attributes of a locale and its people are humor and hyperbole. Harte uses comic scenes, dialogue, and descriptions to offset the tragedy of the story and to keep it from turning into melodrama. Much of the humor is based on hyperbole—language that is exaggerated or overstated for the situation. Sometimes this is reversed to understatement, in which the words seem too insignificant for the occasion. The language is often a parody of romantic or sentimental fiction. Also involved in balancing the tragedy is the gambler’s stoical approach to life. Outwardly impervious to pain or anger, Oakhurst faces life as if it were a game of cards, and his attitude is defined in language associated with gambling. The ridiculous or pathetic aspects of the others are contrasted with the dignity of Oakhurst.

The opening pages are filled with language that seems too grand for the events. Oakhurst notices that there is a change in the “moral atmosphere” of the town. There is a “Sabbath lull” in a community “unused to Sabbath influences.” Poker Flat is experiencing a “spasm of virtuous reaction” to the crimes that have been committed. The secret committee rids the town “permanently” of two alleged criminals, while it “sits in judgment” on the “impropriety” of the “professional ladies” it decides to banish. The gambler is saved from hanging caused by “local prejudice” only because of a “crude sentiment of equity” in the breasts of several townsmen who had been lucky enough to win from him.

For a brief period in the story, Uncle Billy serves as a foil to Oakhurst. When the “deported wickedness” of the town is abandoned by the vigilantes, Mother Shipton uses some bad language, but Uncle Billy explodes a “volley of expletives” at his tormentors in an attempt to gain revenge through the colorful use of words. Billy then directs his attention to his fellow expatriates and condemns them in a “sweeping anathema.” When Tom Simson arrives, Billy, at the threat of a kick from Oakhurst, stifles his laughter while listening to the youth talk about how he is going to Poker Flat to “seek his fortune.” He can barely restrain himself when Simson refers to the Duchess as Mrs. Oakhurst. Billy has to retreat from the group until he can “recover his gravity,” but not before he “confides his joke” to the trees with leg-slapping, face contortions, and the “usual profanity.” As he returns and surveys the “sylvan group,” Uncle Billy formulates his plan of desertion.

In contrast, Oakhurst sees the situation from the stoical viewpoint of a gambler who has not unexpectedly fallen on hard times but who has to make the best of it in an honorable way. He tries to hide Billy’s treachery from the others by suggesting that he and the mules only got lost in the blizzard, but their morale is damaged by the loss of the supplies. Only Simson enjoys the “prospect of their forced seclusion,” and he tries to entertain them with “square fun,” including tales about Homer’s “Ashheels” (or Achilles). Oakhurst, however, concerns himself with the “losing game before him.” When he sees that there is no hope left, he “hands in his checks” to conclude his “streak of bad luck.” His acceptance of death has been learned from his “pariah trade,” and his suicide note is written on the deuce of clubs, the lowest card, to symbolize that his luck and life have run out.

The tone of the story, though, is essentially humorous. Life is cheap in the Old West, where gold is more important than morality. However, with his objective method of telling the story, the author is able to make his social commentary unobtrusively. The story is, first of all, entertaining.

The Outcasts of Poker Flat

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The simplicity of the story is a result of the too-easy transformation of such characters as “the Duchess,” a prostitute who reveals a “heart of gold,” and “Mother Shipton,” an old reprobate who gives up her food, and thus her life, so that the innocent Piney Woods can live. The unlikely combination of the innocence of the young couple and the “sin” of the outcasts forms a sympathetic human community.

The story’s sentimentality reaches its climax when Piney and the Duchess are found frozen to death and all “human stain, all trace of earthly travail, was hidden beneath the spotless mantle mercifully flung from above.” One cannot tell which is the innocent virgin and which is the sinful prostitute.

The gambler, John Oakhurst, is the most interesting and complex character in the story, even though he too, in his philosophic attitude toward reality, is more a cliche than a fully embodied person. Although he stoically accepts his fate throughout the story and reveals his basically noble nature, at the tale’s conclusion he takes his own life rather than await death by freezing and starvation. Thus he is called the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat.

Oakhurst approaches life as his profession dictates, basing his actions on his awareness of luck; knowing when it will change is what makes a man, he says. His suicide at the end can thus be attributed to his knowledge that he has “hit a streak of bad luck"; he “cashes in his chips” before he “loses the game” of life.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Gold Fever and the Manifest Destiny
During the late 1860s, Harte's tales of the California Gold Rush elevated him to a position...

(The entire section is 639 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

The setting of” The Outcasts of Poker Flat'' is of major importance. The story occurs in November, 1850,...

(The entire section is 395 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1850s: The United States embraces the concept of "Manifest Destiny," a phrase coined in an article in the July-August, 1845, issue of...

(The entire section is 189 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Harte explains that the outcasts are expelled from Poker Flat by a "secret committee." Research the prevalence of vigilante justice in the...

(The entire section is 178 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

Several film versions of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" have been made. The earliest adaptation was a 1919 silent film produced by Universal...

(The entire section is 164 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

The Best of Bret Harte, edited by Wilhelmina Harper in 1947, contains the author's most famous short stories, including "The Luck of...

(The entire section is 192 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Brooks, Cleanth, Jr. and Robert Penn Warren. "Tennessee's Partner,'' In Understanding Fiction, pp. 219-20. New...

(The entire section is 219 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Barnett, Linda D. Bret Harte: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980.

Duckett, Margaret. Mark Twain and Bret Harte. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.

Morrow, Patrick. Bret Harte. Boise, Idaho: Boise State College Press, 1972.

Morrow, Patrick. Bret Harte, Literary Critic. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1979.

Nissen, Axel. Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

O’Connor, Richard. Bret Harte: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1966.

Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: A Bibliography. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1995.

Scharnhorst, Gary. Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.

Stewart, George R. Bret Harte, Argonaut and Exile. 1931. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1979.