Tennessee's Partner

by Bret Harte

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Themes

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Law and Justice

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

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

"Tennessee's Partner" is a short story by Bret Harte. The story's major theme could be interpreted in two different ways: either the story is about undying loyalty to a friend, or the story is about a toxic, parasitic friendship. The titular character is loyal to his friend, Tennessee, and they both live in a mining town in the western United States (presumably in what is now the state of California).

Tennessee is an abhorrent man, and his bad reputation is well known throughout the village. He even makes sexual advances toward Tennessee's Partner's new bride and runs off with her. Therefore, the two friends could be seen as the opposite sides of the same coin: one is loyal, and one is untrustworthy.

After the town's authority figure executes Tennessee, it is no coincidence that Tennessee's Partner dies from sickness soon after. Harte wanted to illustrate their symbiotic relationship and the fact that Tennessee's Partner was dependent on Tennessee, even on a spiritual or existential level.

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