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The Outcasts of Poker Flat

by Bret Harte

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John Oakhurst's Heroic and Redeeming Qualities in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"


John Oakhurst's heroic and redeeming qualities in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" include his stoic leadership and selflessness. Despite his reputation as a gambler, he displays courage and responsibility, particularly in guiding and supporting the group of outcasts through their ordeal. His ultimate sacrifice to save others highlights his inherent nobility and compassion.

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What makes John Oakhurst a hero in The Outcasts of Poker Flat?

I would generally argue against John Oakhurst being considered heroic; however, if you have to give support to him being a hero character, I would concentrate on his ability to quickly analyze a dire situation and prioritize what must be done in order to save lives. Oakhurst knows that the group should not stop for their overnight stay, but he decides to stick with the group. He absolutely could have done what Uncle Billy did and leave the group to fend for itself. Oakhurst doesn't do that. His actions at this point are quite selfless. That is a heroic trait because he works for the good and benefit of people other than himself. He also decides that Tom should be the one to return for help instead of himself. This keeps Oakhurst in a dangerous situation that he knows he isn't likely to survive. These actions can be used to support the idea that Oakhurst is a heroic character in the story, but his giving up and killing himself is hardly heroic in my opinion.

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What makes John Oakhurst a hero in The Outcasts of Poker Flat?

John Oakhurst is a hero, because out of all the outcasts he alone is able to face the reality of his death even though he could have saved himself. After days of snow, Oakhurst realizes that the snow would not let up as they had initially forecast. He therefore makes snowshoes out of a saddle and gives these to Tom Simson with the hope that he can use them to reach Poker Flat to get help for Piney, his fiancé. Afterwards, he makes a kind of epitaph for himself on a “deuce of clubs,” which he pins on a tall pine tree by the gulch, before committing suicide.

Throughout the ill-fated journey, Oakhurst remains the most clearheaded person in the group of Poker Flat deportees. When the rest of the outcasts insist on camping less than halfway through their journey, Oakhurst tries to explain to them the perils of doing this. He says that they lacked the provisions needed for such a rest. However, his advice falls on deaf ears, as his colleagues take to drinking liquor, thereby rendering further travel impossible. Even though he observes “the ominously clouded skies,” he does not desert his fellow outcasts to save his own skin.

Also, Oakhurst displays great maturity during the snow storm that helps to bring the group of people together during their “forced seclusion”. Even when he discovers that Uncle Billy has deserted the travelers in the night, he does not tell this to their new colleagues, Tom Simson and Piney Woods. Though traveling in an opposite direction, they are also “snowed in”.

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What makes John Oakhurst a hero in The Outcasts of Poker Flat?

Even though Oakhearst is a gambler, he is an honorable man. He shows his noble side when he returns money to Tom "the innocent" after he wins from him in what the gamble considers and unfair match, since Tom has so little experience with gambling. He takes on the leadership role in the party of outcasts. He does everything he can to protect Tom and Piney: He suggests they move on alone, and when that fails, he rations the food and keeps the order and assumes the largest part of the responsibilites, including the major part of night watch. And even though he takes the cowardly way out of life by killing himself (which proves him the weakest), before he takes his life, he does everything he can to ensure the survival of the remaining outcasts. He makes the snowshoes for Tom and sends him for help. He cuts and stacks firewood for the Duchess and Piney. So he is heroic in those ways.

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What makes John Oakhurst a hero in The Outcasts of Poker Flat?

When the outcasts are trapped by a snowstorm, Oakhurst assumes leadership of the group. After putting together a makeshift pair of snowshoes, he gives them to Simson, instructing him to go to Poker Flat and bring help. When the rescue party finally arrives, Oakhurst has killed himself, revealing himself to be "the strongest and yet the weakest of the
outcasts of Poker Flat."


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In The Outcast of Poker Flat, what are three redeeming qualities of John Oakhurst?

Bret Harte’s short story, The Outcasts of Poker Flat, displays the good, the bad, and the exceedingly judgmental within the confines of its seven pages.  In much literature of the Western genre, as well as in films depicting the “old West,” gamblers are generally a breed best left to their own devices, morally ambivalent at best and unscrupulous at worst.  In Harte’s story, however, the gambler, John Oakhurst, is the story’s conscience, and its most reliable determinant of what constitutes the best action under unfavorable circumstances.  The opening sentences of The Outcasts of Poker Flat reveal an individual of particular perceptiveness regarding transformations developing around him:

“As Mr. John Oakhurst, gambler, stepped into the main street of Poker Flat on the morning of the twenty-third of November, 1850, he was conscious of a change in its moral atmosphere since the preceding night.”

Poker Flat, Harte points out, is changing; it is becoming dominated by those who profess to moral righteousness, but who are, in practice, the least tolerant and the least prone to follow the spirit, if not the words, of “the Good Book.”  That Oakhurst is forcibly removed from the town’s borders, along with two prostitutes and a thief (or, more precisely, “a suspected sluice-robber and confirmed drunkard”), is testament to the Puritan sentiments that have enveloped this mining town.  Noting that the town’s reaction to a number of troubling developments was the decision by a secretive committee to expel the ‘undesirables,’ Oakhurst actually considers himself somewhat fortunate.  As the following passage describes the town’s transition, and the lengths to which these God-fearing people would go in defense of their property, Harte makes clear that Oakhurst and the others could have had it worse:

“A secret committee had determined to rid the town of all improper persons.  This was done permanently in regard of two men who were then hanging from the boughs of a sycamore in the gulch, and temporarily in the banishment of certain other objectionable characters. I regret to say that some of these were ladies. It is but due to the sex, however, to state that their impropriety was professional, and it was only in such easily established standards of evil that Poker Flat ventured to sit in judgment.”

Oakhurst’s most redeeming quality, however, is his level-headed approach to adversity, and the calmness with which he responds to attacks upon his character and person, as exemplified in the following quotes, the first from early in the story, the second from a little later:

“Mr. Oakhurst's calm, handsome face betrayed small concern in these indications. Whether he was conscious of any predisposing cause was another question. "I reckon they're after somebody," he reflected; "likely it's me."

“Mr. Oakhurst received his sentence with philosophic calmness, none the less coolly that he was aware of the hesitation of his judges. He was too much of a gambler not to accept Fate. With him life was at best an uncertain game, and he recognized the usual percentage in favor of the dealer.”

Gambling during an era when the slightest hint of impropriety, or the resentments of one’s victims, could result in death has instilled in Oakhurst the calm demeanor of one who has faced multiple adverse contingencies.  Harte’s protagonist, though, is clearly the morally and intellectually superior figure, as, even having experienced the indignity of being forced out of town at gunpoint for the crime of being good at playing poker, he is still the personification of moral propriety, as when he offers his horse to one of the prostitutes: “With the easy good humor characteristic of his class, he insisted upon exchanging his own riding horse, "Five Spot," for the sorry mule which the Duchess rode.”

Beyond his moral compass, Oakhurst is also distinguished by his intelligence and common sense, as when he expresses his reservations about the small group’s desire to stop for the day and rest:

“But Mr. Oakhurst knew that scarcely half the journey to Sandy Bar was accomplished, and the party were not equipped or provisioned for delay. This fact he pointed out to his companions curtly, with a philosophic commentary on the folly of "throwing up their hand before the game was played out."

Finally, and most importantly, John Oakhurst exemplified the finest of attributes – the willingness to sacrifice one’s own life for that of others.  Their situation dire, with the option of returning to Poker Flat the only viable one, he sends the young Tom Simson instead:

When the body of Mother Shipton had been committed to the snow, Mr. Oakhurst took the Innocent aside, and showed him a pair of snowshoes, which he had fashioned from the old pack saddle. "There's one chance in a hundred to save her yet," he said, pointing to Piney; "but it's there," he added, pointing toward Poker Flat. "If you can reach there in two days she's safe." "And you?" asked Tom Simson. "I'll stay here," was the curt reply.

Oakhurst, of course, shoots himself rather than either die from exposure and starvation or from the lynching that would almost certainly accompany a return to Poker Flat.  He represents the kind of individual one hopes for under the direst of circumstances, and his death, both unnecessary and tragic, is the story’s final denouement.

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