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The Outcasts of Poker Flat

by Bret Harte

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

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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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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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