Tennessee's Partner Themes
by Bret Harte

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Tennessee's Partner Themes

Law and Justice

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One theme in this short story is the theme of law and justice. When Tennessee is put on trial we are told that "The law of Sandy Bar was implacable, but not vengeful." When Tennessee is asked to respond to questions at the trial, he replies, "I don’t take any hand in this yer game.” Thus, although the aim of the court is to exact its "implacable" justice, Tennessee seems completely indifferent, if not somewhat dismissive, of the very idea of justice. He calls it a "game," implying that it is not a serious or meaningful process.

Tennessee's Partner also seems to have a similar attitude towards law and justice. He offers to buy Tennessee's freedom with "seventeen hundred dollars in coarse gold and a watch," and is genuinely taken aback when the court tells him that their verdict can not be bought. Indeed, Tennessee's Partner is described as initially "perplexed with the belief that he had not offered enough." This attitude toward law and justice will seem peculiar to most readers, but it might, nonetheless, encourage some to think about the purpose of the law and the true meaning of justice.

The Natural World's Indifference to Mankind

A second theme in the story is the indifference of the natural world to the lives of men. While Tennessee's trial is occurring, the Sierra mountain range is described as "remote and passionless, (and) crowned with remoter passionless stars." And after Tennessee's court-decreed execution has been carried out, "the birds (still) s(i)ng, the flowers (still) bloom ... (and) the sun (still) sh(ines), as cheerily as before." Both of these quotations imply that the natural world is utterly indifferent to, and unaffected by the trials and tribulations of mankind. This indifference perhaps reminds us that such trials and tribulations are, in the grand scheme of things, rather insignificant and meaningless. And depending how one looks at it, this might render Tennessee's death either more or less tragic.

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Tennessee’s Partner” chronicles an inexplicable bond between two men, Tennessee and his partner, both crude, unlettered mining camp men. The basis for their bond is never explained, but its durable strength is revealed in the fact that their friendship survives a breach of its faith: After Tennessee runs off with his partner’s wife, he returns to Sandy Bar and is welcomed back by his friend without rancor or resentment. Theirs is a friendship that transcends marriage ties—at least for the protagonist, Tennessee’s Partner.

Although Bret Harte’s story is in the tradition of local-color realism, its essential idea is romantic in origin. It argues that no matter how primitive a man appears to be, he may still possess some indelible virtue, such as loyalty. The devotion of Tennessee’s Partner to his friend is not contingent on refined sensibilities honed through schooling or sophisticated social codes. In fact, Tennessee’s Partner cannot even articulate the code by which he lives or the feelings that bind him to his friend. When he is asked to speak on Tennessee’s behalf at his friend’s trial, he can only ask, “What should a man know of his pardner?” To him, loyalty is simply a fact of his life—one as unfathomable to him as it is to the reader.

The fact that rough-and-tumble frontier mining camp existence scarcely seems a promising incubator for the kind of sensibilities that underlie the protagonist’s behavior makes his loyalty all the more remarkable. It is also unique in the story, for the citizens of Sandy Bar do not share Tennessee’s Partner’s simple virtue. In contrast, they tend to be cruel spectators. When Tennessee returns to Sandy Bar after having been jilted by his partner’s wife, the...

(The entire section is 947 words.)