Outcasts of Poker Flat is a short story. It first appeared in Overland
Monthly in January 1869, when Harte was the editor of the publication.
action takes place in California between November 23 and December 7, 1850,
when towns grew up from the influx of people seeking fortunes by mining
John Oakhurst: Professional
gambler who is forced out of the town of Poker Flat as an undesirable because
he wins so much money from the townspeople.
The Duchess and Mother
Shipton: Prostitutes who are also banished from Poker Flat.
Uncle Billy: Thief
and drunkard who is likewise forced out of town.
Tom Simson: Young
man who leaves town and joins Oakhurst and the other outcasts. He admires
Oakhurst, who returned $40 he had won from Billy after feeling sorry for
Piney Woods: Tom's
sweetheart, who leaves town with him. They had planned to marry in Poker
Jim Wheeler: Resident
of Poker Flat who bemoans the loss of money to Oakhurst.
Jake Woods: Piney's
father. He is referred to in the story but plays no active role in it.
BENEATH THIS TREE
LIES THE BODY
WHO STRUCK A STREAK OF BAD
ON THE 23D OF NOVEMBER,
HANDED IN HIS CHECKS
ON THE 7TH DECEMBER, 1850.
his side is a Derringer, which had put a bullet through his heart. He had
been the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat.
There is goodness--and even
heroism--in the heart of many of society's outcasts. John Oakhurst, the
Duchess, Mother Shipton all behave selflessly when death creeps up on them.
For example, they treat the two young people with utmost consideration
and kindness. Oakhurst could have used his snowshoes to return to civilization;
instead, he gave them to Tom Simson. Mother Shipton and the Duchess act
as surrogate mothers to Piney Woods. Except for Uncle Billy, all the characters
are tolerant of one another as they attempt to keep up their spirits under
extremely difficult circumstances. Mother Shipton, the Duchess, and Piney
Woods die nobly and courageously. Oakhurst chooses suicide, revealing that
he "was at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker
Flat," the narrator says.
The citizens of Poker Flat's
secret committee appear upright and just, at least to themselves. However,
in regard to John Oakhurst, they are hypocrites. After all, they sat down
at the poker table with him, becoming gamblers themselves. But after losing
money to him, they run him out of town. One citizen, John Wheeler, even
suggests hanging him, then taking back their money.
Indifference of Nature
Nature shows no mercy to
the outcasts. After Poker Flat rejects them, heavy snow isolates them.
The sky clears, offering them hope, only to form new clouds that bring
more snow. John Oakhurst may be a poker player par excellence, but he cannot
defeat Mother Nature.
The climax of The Outcasts
of Poker Flat occurs when John Oakhurst fails to return to the cabin after
seeing off Tom Simson on the latter's snowshoe trek back to Poker Flat.
It is at this point that the Duchess and Piney accept the imminence of
as a Local Colorist
Bret Harte is among the American
writers associated with the local-color genre. Besides presenting narratives
in a regional dialect, local-color writers, or "local colorists," attempted
to portray life in the various sections of burgeoning America. Harte, for
example, focused many of his stories on the gold-mining camps and towns.
However, rather than writing soberly realistic stories, local colorists
tended to write stories infused with "eccentrics as characters" and "whimsical
plotting," according to William Flint Thrall and Addison Hibbard, authors
of A Handbook to Literature (266). Thrall and Hibbard also
note that local colorists "emphasized verisimilitude of detail without
being concerned often enough about truth to the larger aspects of life
or human nature" (266).
Thrall, William Flint and Addison
Hibbard. A Handbook to Literature. Revised and enlarged by C. Hugh
Holman. New York: The .......Odyssey Press,
"The Outcasts of Poker Flat"
and similar stories of Harte were highly acclaimed and widely popular in
the decade or so after Harte published them, earning him substantial money
and a worldwide audience. Although this story and others of his remain
popular today, critics now believe he was far overrated as a stylist because
of his use of sentimentality and because of lack of originality in his
themes and plots. However, there can be no gainsaying that he invented
stock character types later imitated in western novels and films. These
character types include the roving gambler, like John Oakhurst, and the
tainted ladies with hearts of gold, like the Duchess and Mother Shipton.
Overall, one may fairly say that Harte was an appealing and influential
writer, but probably not great one.
Questions and Essay Topics
Who is the most admirable character
in the story?
Write an essay explaining the
importance Tom Simson and Piney Woods as catalysts who bring out the best
in John Oakhurst, Mother Shipton, and the Duchess.
Read the story carefully. Then
identify the passage suggesting that Uncle Billy is plotting against his
fellow outcasts. Would you describe him as malicious or mischievous?
Apparently, Tom Simson makes
it back to Poker Flat and summons help. Do you believe the citizens of
Poker Flat look less harshly on the outcasts after hearing their story
from Tom and finding the bodies, along with Oakhurst's epitaph?
Why did John Oakhurst choose
the two of clubs to bear his epitaph?
If you had to affix blame for
the deaths of the stranded outcasts, would you point your finger at Uncle
Billy, the committee of Poker Flat citizens, bad luck, or the outcasts
What was life like in frontier
towns in California during the days of the gold rush in the mid-19th Century?
Were the towns populated with characters like those in Bret Harte's fictional
Write an essay explaining to
what extent Bret Harte based his fictional tales on his own experiences