"The Outcasts of Poker Flat" is a captivating short story written by American author Bret Harte (1836-1902) and first published in the Overland Monthly magazine in 1869. The story played a significant role in establishing Harte's reputation as a talented writer, and by 1871, he became the highest-paid author in the country. Set during the California Gold Rush, "The Outcasts of Poker Flat" follows a group of undesirables who are expelled from a mining community and find themselves trapped in a mountain valley as they attempt to reach the next settlement.
Plot Summary of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"
The narrative takes place in late 1850, in a mining community in California during the Gold Rush. After a series of crimes, the residents of Poker Flat decide to hang two individuals and banish several other "improper persons" and "objectionable characters" from their community. This group includes John Oakhurst, a skilled gambler; a prostitute known as "the Duchess"; a brothel madam known as "Mother Shipton"; and a suspected thief and drunkard named Uncle Billy.
The outcasts are forced to leave Poker Flat under the threat of death and set out for the next settlement, Sandy Bar. However, while traversing a challenging mountain pass, they become fatigued and decide to camp for the night, despite Oakhurst's urging to press on due to their limited provisions. Setting up camp in a wooded amphitheatre, they begin drinking.
During their camp, a man named Tom Simson, known as the Innocent, arrives. He is an old acquaintance of Oakhurst and had previously lost forty dollars to him in a poker game. Out of pity, Oakhurst returned the money to Simson, and as a result, Simson has become Oakhurst's devoted follower.
Simson, accompanied by his fiancée Piney Woods, had been en route to Poker Flat to get married after eloping. Piney's father disapproved of their union. Simson shares his provisions with the outcasts and leads them to a nearby cabin where they can seek shelter.
The following morning, Oakhurst discovers that Uncle Billy has stolen their mules and abandoned the group. With winter snowfall already present, they are unable to continue along the trail. Oakhurst instructs the Duchess and Mother Shipton to keep Uncle Billy's theft a secret from Simson and Piney, making them believe that Uncle Billy had gone out to gather supplies.
Although Simson generously offers to share his provisions, assuring them that the snow will soon melt, a week passes, and they remain trapped in the valley. They spend their time singing and telling stories, with Simson entertaining them with tales from Alexander Pope's translation of Homer's Iliad.
Mother Shipton and the Duchess develop a strong bond with Piney, treating her as a daughter figure. Unfortunately, after ten days in the cabin, Mother Shipton succumbs to starvation. She had saved her rations for Piney rather than consuming them herself. Oakhurst urges Simson to hike to Poker Flat for help, then gathers firewood for Piney and the Duchess before vanishing into the snow.
Several days later, the rescue party arrives, only to discover the lifeless bodies of the two women frozen in the cabin. Nearby, they find Oakhurst's body. He had taken his own life by shooting himself in the heart and left a suicide note written on a playing card pinned to a nearby tree.
Analysis of "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"
"The Outcasts of Poker Flat" is set during a time of lawlessness and vigilante justice in California, specifically during the Gold Rush of the late 1840s. Bret Harte raises questions about the fate of the outcasts and challenges the notion of their deserving exile. The townspeople use them as scapegoats, projecting their own sins and moral failings onto the outcasts to justify their actions and create a sense of cleansing in the town.
Early in the story, Harte reveals that the town's reaction to the crimes committed by the outcasts is lawless and ungovernable, as the two men hanged in the gulch likely did not receive a fair trial but were victims of a lynch mob. Oakhurst, however, is spared from hanging because some townspeople had previously profited from his poker games. It becomes evident that Oakhurst's crime was not playing poker, as there were others in the town willing to participate, but rather making a living from the game.
Oakhurst stands as a double outcast. He is exiled from Poker Flat and also separated from his fellow outcasts. Unlike the others, he abstains from drinking and possesses a philosophical outlook that sets him apart. His pragmatism aligns with Simson's naive simplicity, making it unsurprising that Simson lost to Oakhurst in their poker game.
Both Oakhurst and Simson's "lies" contribute to the survival of the group when they become stranded in the snow. Oakhurst knows that Uncle Billy stole the mules and abandoned them but chooses to tell Simson and Piney a more hopeful lie, understanding that it is more prudent than revealing the harsh truth. Similarly, Simson's naive belief that the snow will soon melt proves contagious, and his optimistic outlook becomes a comforting falsehood, even if he is unaware of its untruth.
In the story's conclusion, Harte invites sympathy for a group of individuals who have lived and died outside the confines of conventional society but possess inherent goodness. Symbolically, when the search party uncovers the bodies of Piney and the Duchess, their pale faces resemble the snow that caused their demise. Even the law of Poker Flat acknowledges their purity, and the searchers turn away, leaving the two women in their final embrace, undisturbed in their "equal peace."
The notion that the Duchess's sins have been washed as white as snow suggests a redemption of sorts, as they are left in a peaceful embrace. Harte emphasizes the innate goodness that can exist within those deemed outcasts by society, challenging stereotypes and prompting readers to question the moral judgments imposed upon individuals.