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The Outcasts of Poker Flat

by Bret Harte

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Discussion Topic

Mother Shipton's characterization and fate in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"

Summary:

Mother Shipton is characterized as a tough, shrewd, and caring woman who is initially seen as a hardened outcast. However, her true nature is revealed when she sacrifices her own food to ensure the survival of a younger girl, Piney Woods. Ultimately, she dies of starvation, showing a softer, selfless side that contrasts with her initial portrayal.

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How is Mother Shipton characterized in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

Clearly a dynamic character, Mother Shipton transforms from a hardened, self-centered female in a profession of "impropriety" to an altruistic, tender, and motherly woman.
Ironically named Mother Shipton as the apparent madam of a house of ill repute, this hardened woman has a colorful repertoire of "bad language" that she fluently expels as the town rids itself of the "improper people." Later, after the escort of the group of which the disreputable Mother Shipton is a member disappears from her view while returning to Poker Flat, her pent-up feelings find expression in some rather "bad language" as she eyes the reprobate Uncle Billy with "malevolence."
When they have only gone a short ways, another woman of ill-repute named Duchess dismounts from her horse and declares she will go no farther. The group stops their journey to the next town, Sandy Bar, although they have not yet covered half the trail. A snowfall comes in the night, and the group is snowed in the next day and cannot travel. Fortunately, a young couple has stopped on their way to Poker Flat, and they graciously share their provisions. The young man, who is acquainted with the gambler in the expelled group, entertains the company, and Mother Shipton relaxes "into amicability" as she listens.
The next morning, Mr. Oakhurst, the gambler, discovers Uncle Billy absconded with all the mules in the night. Fortuitously, however, they stored the provisions in the abandoned hut, so they have enough to last them for ten days. The young couple entertain that night, but the snow continues to fall. One clear day, Mother Shipton sees smoke coming from Poker Flat and utters "a final malediction." After this, Mother Shipton, "the strongest of the party," seems to weaken and become ill.
In the middle of the night on the tenth day, she summons Mr. Oakhurst and tells him,
I'm going. . . but don't say anything about it. Don't waken the kids. Take the bundle from under my head and open it.
After Oakhurst takes the bundle, Mother Shipton tells him, "Give 'em to the child." The bundle is full of Mother Sipton's rations, which she did not eat to increase Piney's chances of surviving. Turning her head away, she dies. In this act of unselfishness, Mother Shipton demonstrates what love is. She lay down her life so the innocent Piney can live. There is no more unselfish and loving act, and given the opportunity, Mother Shipton proves herself to be heroic.
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What is Mother Shipton's fate in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

I suppose that there are a couple of answers to this question depending on when in the story the question is asking about. If this question is probing early elements of the story, then the same thing happens to Mother Shipton as happens to the other outcasts of the town. Mother Shipton has been evicted from the town for her morally ambiguous occupation. She is a prostitute, and the town wants to get rid of people that are "improper."

It had lately suffered the loss of several thousand dollars, two valuable horses, and a prominent citizen. It was experiencing a spasm of virtuous reaction, quite as lawless and ungovernable as any of the acts that had provoked it. A secret committee had determined to rid the town of all improper persons.

Mother Shipton shares her eviction with Mr. Oakhurst, Duchess, and Uncle Billy. The goal for the group is to get to a camp named Sandy Bar. Unfortunately, the group decides to make camp far too early in the day, and they are snowed in as a result. The group can't begin traveling again, and their food supplies dwindle quickly. Mother Shipton, Oakhurst, and Duchess all die as a result. I would like to make it clear that Mother Shipton did her best to keep the other outcasts alive by giving up her portion of food for the benefit of the other outcasts.

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What is Mother Shipton's fate in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"?

Mother Shipton is the older of the two prostitutes who are run out of town in Bret Harte's "The Outcasts of Poker Flat." Mother Shipton undergoes a transformation during the journey, changing from voicing her "desire to cut somebody's heart out" to "relaxing into amiability," exhibiting a motherly and protective influence on the two younger women.

Mother Shipton--once the strongest of the party--seemed to sicken and fade.

When she told Oakhurst to take the bundle on which she rested her head, he found that it contained her food from the past week--"untouched." She had been saving it for the other two women to eat in order to prolong their lives. Mother Shipton had starved herself to death:

"That's what they call it," said the woman, querulously, as she lay down again and, turning her face to the wall, passed quietly away.

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