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The Outcasts of Poker Flat

by Bret Harte

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Discussion Topic

Analysis of the central themes and conflicts in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"

Summary:

The central themes in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" include redemption, sacrifice, and the arbitrary nature of justice. Conflicts arise between the outcasts and society's judgment, as well as internal struggles with morality and survival. The story highlights how extreme circumstances can lead to unexpected acts of heroism and humanity.

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What is the main message of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

I think the main message to readers from "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" is a message about not making initial, snap judgments of people based on appearances. It is a story that teaches the classic "don't judge a book by its cover" message. We see this through most of the characters. Oakhurst, Mother Shipton, Duchess, and Uncle Billy are forcibly removed from the town of Poker Flat for presumably being miscreants and negative influences. Uncle Billy is a drunk, Oakhurst is a gambler, and the women are women of ill repute. Readers expect certain behaviors out of these people, and we are even rewarded with getting the expected result when Uncle Billy runs off in the night with all of the supplies; however, all of the other outcasts wind up being incredibly selfless, supporting, and caring characters. They strive to keep each other alive in various ways instead of selfishly acting to preserve their own lives. It's a great twist in the story that Harte accomplished because the townspeople that were so bent on being good and pure actually were the ones that were humbled by the selflessness of the supposedly immoral outcasts.

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What is the main message of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

In "The Outcasts of Poker Flat," Bret Harte plays the irony of the supposedly righteous do-gooders of the town off against the sincerity revealed by the outcasts in their extremity as they are snowbound in the wilderness. While the townspeople show themselves to be unscrupulous hypocrites, thanks to Harte's witty irony, the snowstorm provides opportunity for the genuine humanity of the outcasts to show through.

Tom and Piney see the outcasts through innocent eyes and draw conclusions about their identities that no one bothers to correct. Tom finds out that Oakhurst is kind and gentlemanly; Piney perceives the women as ladies of elegance. While it is true that their unfamiliarity with the individuals in part gives rise to their conclusions, it is also true that there sincere, genuine humanity and concern seal the truthfulness of their conclusions.

Bret Harte finalizes the confirmation his main message, which is that humanity runs deeper than external appearances and can't be judged by lip-service and propriety, when Oakhurst selflessly offers himself as a sacrifice in the hope that the women might live.

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What is the main message of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

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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What is the main message of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

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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What is the main message of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

"The Outcasts of Poker Flat" could have more than a single thesis about it. A thesis is a statement that makes an argument about something. A thesis could make an argument about a writer's writing style or the effectiveness of a particular narrative point of view. It could make an argument about a theme or themes present in the story, and a thesis could make argument about one or more characters.

The thesis is entirely up to you, but it needs to make an argument that you intend to prove by using evidence from the story. It is not a statement of fact. For this reason, choose a thesis topic that is open to interpretation. I generally recommend writing a thesis that analyzes a particular theme or character(s). These two things generally overlap because often characters support a particular theme, or themes are illustrated by particular characters. For example, there is a strong theme present in this story that explores the difference between reality and appearance. When the story begins, the outcasts are described as "improper persons." They are being kicked out of town because they are supposedly the seedier and morally corrupt individuals of the town. Uncle Billy winds up typifying this description, as he leaves the other outcasts to fend for themselves. Readers have to wonder if they would have survived had Uncle Billy not taken everything with him. The rest of the characters, on the other hand, wind up being incredibly loving and caring for each other. They do not act like the gamblers and prostitutes that they are.

Once you have a general concept or argument in mind for the thesis, you have to word it. This can be a tricky thing because it needs to be detailed, but it also needs to be concise. In other words, it needs to make a clear argument without being overly wordy. Two formats tend to work well. The first format is a statement followed by a proof/examples statement. You make a statement and then tell your reader what you intend to use as evidence. Here is an example: "The theme of appearance versus reality is most clearly illustrated through the characters of Mother Shipton, Duchess, and Oakhurst." The other format that tends to work well is a point and counterpoint thesis format. Your main point is the second half of the statement. It would look something like the following statement: "Although the town of Poker Flat believes that the outcasts are the dregs of society, the outcasts more than prove their moral worth by the end of the story."

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What is the main message of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

There are several themes developed in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat." Perhaps the main theme is that of how fate--or, in Oakhurst's case, "a streak of bad luck"--can control a person's destiny. But, in regards to human behavior, the theme of heroism is dominant. Oakhurst at first appears to be the hero of the story, showing his leadership ability during the first days of the outcasts' journey. However, in the end, he takes the coward's way out, committing suicide rather than trying to ride our his streak of misfortune. The true heroes are the least likely pair: Mother Shipton and the Duchess. Mother Shipton starves herself to death, hording her food in the hopes that it will eventually help the others. The Duchess shows a motherly touch with Piney, keeping her spirits up to the end. Young Tom also shows a heroic streak, setting off in the blizzard alone in search of help for the others.

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What is the main conflict in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

All of those are types of conflicts in "The Outcasts of Poker Flats."  Probably the greatest one is man vs. society.  I make that case for one simple reason:  if the "fine," upstanding citizens of Poker Flats had not determined that these "outcasts" weren't fit for its town and ousted them from it, none of the rest would have happened. The irony, of course, is that none of the outcasts, with the possible exception of the drunkard, would ever have been so cruel as to send people out to fend for themselves without sufficient supplies as winter was approaching.  Their conflict with these people's morality actually exposes their own hypocrisy and immorality.

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What is the climax of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

When night falls after Mother Shipton's burial and Tom Simson's departure for Poker Flats, the point in the plot of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" that creates the greatest intensity and suspense develops. This climax begins with the storm as its swirling snow returns without Mr. Oakhurst, who has not been seen since he walked with Tom Simson.  

As the Duchess stokes the fire, she sees that someone has piled beside the hut enough logs to last for a few more days. With tears filling her eyes, she now realizes that Mr. Oakhurst has accompanied Tom Simson "as far as the canyon" with no intention of returning. With difficulty, the Duchess tries to hide her fear from Piney as she returns to bed. 

The women slept but little. In the morning, looking into each other's faces, they read their fate.

The look that Piney and the Duchess give each other marks the highest point of emotional intensity as the two women realize that death is imminent.

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What is the climax of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

The climax of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" comes during the final hours of the women's lives as Piney and the Duchess huddle together before freezing to death in the snow. Mother Shipton has already died, starving herself to death in the hope that her untouched provisions will extend the other women's lives until they can be rescued. Eventually, without the strength to keep the fire burning, the Duchess places her head upon Piney's shoulders and the two die in an angelic embrace. When Tom returns with the search party, he finds that the women have

... slept all that day and the next, nor did they waken when voices and footsteps broke the silence of the camp. And when pitying fingers brushed the snow from their wan faces, you could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them which was she that had sinned. Even the law of Poker Flat recognized this, and turned away, leaving them still locked in each other's arms.

Oakhurst's own death, described in the final paragraphs, serves as the denouement to the story.

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What is the central conflict in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

The central conflict in the short story revolves around the outcasts, who are escorted to the edge of town and warned not to return.  The town has decided to purify itself of undesirables, people who are a prostitute, the Duchess, a gambler, John Oakhurst, Mother Shipton who is a madam, the woman who is in charge of the prostitutes, and Uncle Billy a drunk.

After these four are expelled from Poker Flat, they encounter on the road out of town two innocent young people, Tom Simson and Piney Woods, the two young people are running away to elope.

The combination of the four undesirables and the two innocents makes for an interesting story.  The dynamic that develops with the addition of the two young people to the group of four changes the outcasts into people of character.

These four people were thrown out of town because they were considered unworthy by the townspeople, because of their habits or occupations, after they meet Tom and Piney, they redeem themselves through their sacrifices on behalf of others.

Except, maybe Uncle Billy, who steals a mule.  But Mother Shipton gives up her food share to help keep Piney nourished, John Oakhurst, sacrifices himself, but before he does, he collects firewood to help keep the women in the cabin warm.  After Mother Shipton dies from lack of food, the Duchess takes on the motherly role, protecting Piney, huddling with her to try to keep her warm.  In fact when the rescue party arrives, they find the two women huddled together, frozen to death.

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What is the central irony in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

Irony involves a statement or situation in which things are not as they seem to be. In Bret Harte's story, the outcasts are not what they seem to be and the "secret committee" is not what it seems to be. The central irony of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" revolves around the definition of outcast and the nature of the "secret committee." One of the principle meanings of outcast is one who is rejected by society. Mr. Oakhurst and the prostitutes were certainly rejected by society. But what was the nature of the secret society? The secret committee convened itself to sit in judgement on certain improprieties, but only improprieties of well "established standards" because that is all they could morally understand as their behavior clearly demonstrates. The committee was comprised of angry individuals who had gambled away their fortunes to Mr. Oakhurst and wanted revenge. Some thought the best revenge would be to hang Oakhurst, that way they could have their revenge and the return of their lost wealth too. By the definition of outcast, these people had attitudes (i.e., revenge) and engaged in behaviors (i.e., hangings and exiles) that were rejected by society too. Therefore the central irony that underlies "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" is that the outcast's behavior and kindness toward each other proves that they have qualities of mind and heart that society honors--even if their professions are on the less respectable side--while the morally guiding secret committee of Poker Flat is comprised of base and vengeful individuals: on two counts, things are not as they seem.

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What is the internal conflict in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

"The Outcasts of Poker Flat," told by an omniscient third-person narrator, relies more on external than internal conflict. However, in all cases but Uncle Billy, we see that the external conflict of having to deal with being snowed in with few provisions leads to internal self0-reflection and growing compassion.

Each of the characters except Uncle Billy is good at heart. We see evidence throughout the story that their adversity leads them to think about their lives—to attend to their interiority—and to grow into even better selves.

For example, Mr. Oakhurst, we are told, finds on reflection that

his very vices, for the first time seriously oppressed him.

Likewise, the Duchess, a prostitute, reacts with shame when the innocent Piney says to her,

“I reckon now you're used to fine things at Poker Flat,” said Piney. The Duchess turned away sharply to conceal something that reddened her cheeks

The Duchess, a good women at heart, having encountered the kindness of the other outcasts, has had time to reflect and feel remorse over how she once lived.

Each of them grows enough through their hardship to face death peacefully. We learn that

no one complained. The lovers turned from the dreary prospect and looked into each other's eyes, and were happy. Mr. Oakhurst settled himself coolly to the losing game before him. The Duchess, more cheerful than she had been, assumed the care of Piney.

The story plays on the difference or conflict between external appearances and internal worth. Because the outcasts are good inside, this provides them with a strong platform of character from which to face adversity with patience and self-sacrifice.

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What is the main problem to be solved in The Outcasts of Poker Flat?

Poker Flat is a small town in California. On November 23, 1850, a secret town council had decided to get rid of the people they considered immoral. John Oakhurst, who is a great poker player, the Duchess who is a saloon girl, Mother Shipton, a madam and Uncle Billy, the town drunk and thief, are all kicked out of the town. The group of four make their way out of town. They meet up with a young couple, who are on their way to Poker Flat to get married. Tom Simson and Piney, want to go with the foursome. Tom had played poker once against John, so he feels like he knows the man. They all go off together and get stranded at a cabin in a snow storm. Uncle Billy leaves in the night taking the mules and horses with him. Mother Shipton ends up dying, because she didn't eat so Piney could have more food. John and Tom realize they will have to make their way back to town to get provisions for the rest of them. They only had enough food for ten days. The two men leave for town and Piney and the Duchess stay at the cabin. The two women end up freezing to death and die in an embrace in each others arms. When members from the town find them, they can't tell which one was the innocent one and which was the sinner. They find John's body on Dec 7, 1850. He had been shot through the heart. It is never said where Tom is or what happened to him.

There are several problems the group must overcome. First is the town itself. The town feels it is losing its morality. They judge good people and kick them out of town. The second thing they have to overcome is the weather and the elements. The group has to try to survive the snow storm that is threatening them. The third, and I think the most important problem they have to overcome is each other. John and the Duchess and Mother Shipton are all good people. They have good hearts and take in the young couple. What a tragedy that falls on them. What really happened between John and Tom? Was John murdered or did he kill himself? Where did Tom go? These are all questions that the short story makes you ask yourself. The problems they have to overcome are many and the final outcome is a mystery.

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What is the main problem that must be solved or overcome in the "Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

Bret Harte's western story is certainly not a typical one. His experiences provided the material for many of his stories and helped to form the unsentimental and often cynical and even pessimistic views expressed in his writing. "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" represents these views of Harte as the citizens of Poker Flat expel Harte's main characters only after they lose money to them, not because of any justifiable moral outrage.

Once the disreputable madam Mother Shipton, the bargirl Duchess, the gambler Mr. Oakhurst, and the swindler Uncle Billy are expelled from Poker Flat, they must make their way to the next town of Sandy Bar, which is over a rather treacherous mountain range and is a "day's severe travel." Added to this challenge, the Sierras have a cold air and even snow. And, herein lies the main problem:

Mr. Oakhurst knew there was scarcely half the journey to Sandy Bar was accomplished, and the party were not equipped or provisioned for delay.

However, the Duchess rolls drunkenly out of her saddle, declaring that she will go no further; the others are also inebriated. Then, when a young man and his naive little wife arrive, he suggests that they all make camp, and against the admonitions of Mr. Oakhurst, they stay. Unfortunately, during the night there is a snowstorm and, most unfortunately, Uncle Billy has absconded with most of the supplies and the mules. The group of outcasts are stranded without the provisions they need for any more than ten days; furthermore, the snow does not abate and the outcasts are surrounded by "drifted wall of dazzling white that towered twenty feet above their heads. Without mules, they have no way of traveling to Sandy Bar. Without supplies, they cannot live long.

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