Themes and Meanings
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.