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The Outcasts of Poker Flat

by Bret Harte

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The Outcasts of Poker Flat Themes

The main themes in The Outcasts of Poker Flat are appearance and reality, change and transformation, and fate and chance.

  • Appearance and reality: The story's characters often present a different face to the world than their true nature.
  • Change and transformation: The characters in the story undergo significant changes in their personalities over the course of the story.
  • Fate and chance: The events of the story are often determined by random chance or fate.

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Themes

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"The Outcasts of Poker Flat'' tells the story of four individuals exiled from a frontier town because of their alleged immorality. A blizzard traps them and a pair of innocent young lovers, leading to tragic consequences.

Appearances and Reality

At the beginning of the story, the four outcasts are described as "improper persons," and their initial actions suggest that, except for Oakhurst, they are foul-mouthed, lazy, and prone to drunkenness. However, because they come from another settlement, Tom and Piney know little about these strangers, and their perceptions are not clouded by the prejudices of the people in Poker Flat. In a previous brief encounter with Oakhurst, Tom had found him to be kind and gentlemanly, so Tom treats him as a gentleman rather than as a shifty card shark. The young couple assumes that the prostitute Duchess is "Mrs. Oakhurst," and Piney imagines that the women from Poker Flat must be ladies of a high social standing who are "used to fine things."

The discrepancy between appearance and reality becomes most apparent when the party is trapped in the snowstorm. Mother Shipton may indeed be a madam, but she also shows herself to be compassionate and heroic when she sacrifices her life in an effort to save Piney Likewise Duchess, the "soiled sister," evolves into a companion and protector for Piney. By the end of the story, observers cannot determine "which was she that had sinned." Oakhurst, the member of the party who appeared the most calm during the ordeal, eventually cannot play against unfavorable odds any longer and commits suicide. Throughout the story, Harte demonstrates that where human nature is concerned, reality is often more complex than appearances indicate.

Change and Transformation

Related to the themes of appearance and reality are the issues of change and transformation. During their period of confinement, the outcasts, particularly the two prostitutes, experience a type of metamorphosis. At first the women appear self-centered and dismissive of Tom and Piney and contemptuous of their naiveté. But as the group grows closer, these feelings shift to motherly affection, particularly toward Piney One suspects the sincerity of the young lovers allows Duehess and Mother Shipton openly to display aspects of their personalities they had previously chosen to conceal.

Oakhurst also undergoes a transformation, though a less uplifting one. Until the end of the story, Oakhurst is portrayed as others see him and as he sees himself, as a person noted for "coolness, impassiveness, and presence of mind." He is the first to grasp the group's predicament and quickly assumes command in the emergency. Tom's earlier experience with him shows that he has always had a streak of kindness and protectiveness toward those younger and weaker than himself, and in the isolated community of outcasts this quickly develops into a thoughtful solicitude for his companions. "When it is revealed that he killed himself, it is hard to say whether this represents a change in him or simply reveals a weakness that has always been hidden beneath his apparent strength.

Fate and Chance

Chance plays a critical role in the demise of the stranded travelers. Many developments within the narrative rely on random occurrences. Among the many examples, one can argue that if the outcasts did not stop for the night or had begun their journey one day earlier, they would have missed the snow and reached Sandy Bar. Similarly, if Tom and Piney had continued on their way rather than staying with the outcasts, they could have avoided the storm. However, one could also argue that if Oakhurst had sent Tom for help earlier, or had struggled to keep the fire lit rather than killing himself, most of the group might have survived.

Harte uses the character of Oakhurst to develop the theme of fate. As "too much of a gambler not to accept fate," Oakhurst explains that with luck "all you know for certain is that it's bound to change." Once the party is stranded, Oakhurst's gambling philosophy creates a dilemma for him. Having experienced "a streak of bad luck'' since the group left Poker Flat, the gambler's experiences suggest that eventually this misfortune should pass. However, it is also the gambler's prerogative to opt out of the game if he does not like the odds, and Oakhurst estimates their odds of surviving as one in a hundred. His suicide note, declaring that he "struck a streak of bad luck" and "handed in his checks," attests to his inability to resist despair when the odds on their fate seem stacked against him.

Heroism

To many readers, an important message of the story is that society often fails to recognize the true heroes and heroines in its midst. One can certainly argue this is the case with the sacrifice of Mother Shipton as well as the selfless devotion of Duchess. In both cases, women condemned by society prove themselves to be morally superior to their judges. The suicide of Oakhurst provides further comment on the nature of heroism. Throughout the story, he appears to be the leader of the party and the individual most likely to devise their escape, but ultimately he gives up the struggle and fails to save either the group or himself.

Themes and Meanings

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The pretentiousness of the Poker Flat community is contrasted with the essential goodness of the exiles. The hanging of two men and the banishment of four people are tactics associated with vigilantes of the Old West. In their attempt to establish their own brand of law and order, the people of the town are hypocritical. The gambler and the prostitutes serve as scapegoats for the collective guilt of a community that is trying to look respectable while its sole purpose for existing is the pursuit of gold. History illustrates that gambling and prostitution thrived in places such as Poker Flat. The author emphasizes the communal hypocrisy, then, by creating an honorable gambler and prostitutes with the proverbial hearts of gold.

Oakhurst is a heroic protagonist whose inclusion among the exiles is a matter of revenge rather than justice. Some members of the committee had urged hanging him as a means of getting back the money that they had lost to him, but they were overruled by those who had managed to win. He is merely banished, then, but Oakhurst takes the punishment philosophically. His profession has prepared him to accept bad luck. Oakhurst emerges as the leader of the exiles, who, had they taken his advice, probably would have survived. One of his former noble deeds is related when Tom Simson arrives. The compassion he has shown for the youth in returning his money sets him apart from ordinary mortals. Oakhurst commits suicide when he assesses the hopelessness of the situation. Like Mother Shipton’s death, it is a sacrifice that gives the others a better chance to survive. Although it does not work that way, it is his final noble act in the game of life, which, in the gambler’s terms, no one wins.

The prostitutes also work at an unrespected trade, but, like the gambler, they possess noble qualities. The love they show for the young Piney Woods puts them morally above the people who have banished them. They are victims of a town that has temporarily decided to enforce a narrow view of virtue. Like Hester Prynne in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), they grow in a moral sense, in contrast to their tormentors. The prostitutes have hearts of gold; the townspeople are striving to obtain pockets of gold and the respectability that goes with wealth and social position. Of the four exiles, only Uncle Billy deserved the punishment, which leads to the question of the guilt or innocence of the men hanged by the committee. The gambler and his two women compatriots seem to be superior to the vigilantes.

Bret Harte, in this story, is thematically in the mainstream of American literature. His most famous predecessors and contemporaries dealt with the archetypal theme of society forcing its value system on all its members. The tyranny of the community in punishing those who fail to conform to its narrow standards is illustrated in the works of contemporaries such as Mark Twain, Henry James, and William Dean Howells. Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, the most famous precursors of Harte, championed the individual who was wronged by society—Hawthorne most notably in The Scarlet Letter, “The Artist of the Beautiful,” and “The Minister’s Black Veil,” and Melville in Moby Dick (1851) and Billy Budd, Foretopman (1924). Harte moved the setting to the West but continued the literary struggle against local prejudice and the people who organize secret committees as a means of protecting their own interests. The real villains are the ordinary people, not the outcasts, of Poker Flat.

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