By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Outcasts of Poker Flat’ is a short story by the American writer Bret Harte (1836-1902), published in 1869 in the Overland Monthly magazine. The story helped to confirm Harte’s reputation as an exciting new talent, and by 1871 he was the highest-paid writer in the country. ‘The Outcasts of Poker Flat’ is set in California at the time of the Gold Rush and features a group of ‘undesirables’ who are banished from a mining community and become trapped in a mountain valley while attempting to reach the next settlement.
You can read ‘The Outcasts of Poker Flat’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Harte’s story.
‘The Outcasts of Poker Flat’: plot summary
The story is about a mining community in California during the Gold Rush; the events of the story take place in late 1850. Following a spate of crimes, the residents of Poker Flat hang two men and decide to cast out a number of other ‘improper persons’ and ‘objectionable characters’ from their community. These include John Oakhurst, a gambler; a prostitute known as ‘the Duchess’; a brothel madam known as ‘Mother Shipton’; and a suspected thief and a drunkard named Uncle Billy.
These ‘outcasts of Poker Flat’ are marched out of town and forbidden to return on pain of death. The group decide to head for the next settlement, Sandy Bar, but while traversing a difficult mountain pass, they grow exhausted and decide to set up camp for the night – although Oakhurst, knowing they have few provisions, argues that they should press on. He is overruled, however, and they set up camp in a wooded amphitheatre and start drinking.
Shortly after this, a man from Sandy Bar arrives at their camp: his name is Tom Simson, known as the Innocent, and he is an old associate of Oakhurst, to whom Simson had lost forty dollars in a poker game. Oakhurst returned the money to Simson, having taken pity on him, and Simson is now Oakhurst’s ‘devoted slave’ thanks to this act of kindness.
Simson shows his devotion by sharing his provisions with the party and directing them to a nearby cabin where they can take shelter. Riding with Simson is his fiancée, Piney Woods, and they were on their way to get married in Poker Flat, having eloped together because Piney’s father objected to the match.
The next morning, Oakhurst discovers that Uncle Billy has stolen their mules and left the group. The winter snows have arrived, so they are unable to continue along the trail. Oakhurst tells the Duchess and Mother Shipton to keep Uncle Billy’s theft to themselves so as not to panic Simson and Piney, who think that Billy has merely gone out for provisions.
Simson, who has plenty of provisions, offers to share with them, telling them optimistically that the snow will soon melt and they can be on their way. But a week passes and they remain trapped in the valley, having passed the time singing and telling stories (Simson regales the others with the stories from Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer’s Iliad).
Mother Shipton and the Duchess bond with Piney, viewing her as a sort of daughter figure. Ten days after they first reached the cabin, Mother Shipton dies of starvation, having stored up her rations for Piney rather than eat them herself. Oakhurst tells Simson to hike to Poker Flat to get help for them. He then gathers some wood for Piney and the Duchess before disappearing into the snow.
When the rescue party arrives a few days later, the two women are dead, their bodies frozen in the cabin. Oakhurst’s body is discovered nearby: he had shot himself in the heart, having left a suicide note on a playing card which he’d pinned to the tree next to his body.
‘The Outcasts of Poker Flat’: analysis
‘The Outcasts of Poker Flat’ is set at a time when vigilante ‘justice’ and lawlessness were both rife in California, during the Gold Rush that had begun in 1848. But Bret Harte invites us to ask if the titular ‘outcasts’ of the story really deserved their fate. They function, in some ways, as scapegoats: people on whom the rest of the town can heap their own sins and moral failings so as to feel better about themselves and feel as though they are doing something to ‘clean up’ the town.
This is made clear very early on in the story. The third-person narrator tells us that the ‘spasm of virtuous reaction’ in response to the crimes was ‘quite as lawless and ungovernable as any of the acts that provoked it’: the two men hanged in the gulch, we deduce, were unlikely to have been given a fair trial and were instead strung up by a lynch mob.
Indeed, Oakhurst is spared from hanging himself, not because the townspeople believe it would be unjust, but because some of them have profited from him by winning money off him in his poker games. In other words, Oakhurst’s ‘crime’ wasn’t playing poker, since there was clearly no shortage of other men in the town willing to play against him (why should he be exiled and not them?): his crime was making a living from the game.
Mr Oakhurst is a double outcast, we might say: as well as being exiled from Poker Flat, he is also something of an outsider to his fellow outcasts. Unlike them, he doesn’t drink, and he has a philosophical outlook which the other outcasts don’t share. His pragmatism dovetails with Simson’s naïve simplicity: it comes as little surprise that Simson lost at poker to Oakhurst.
At the same time, both of their ‘lies’ help to sustain the group when they become snowed in. Oakhurst knows that Uncle Billy stole the mules and deserted them, but he is canny enough to know that feeding Simson and Piney a more hopeful lie will be more judicious than telling them the unpalatable truth. By the same token, Simson’s naïve belief that the snow will soon clear proves as infectious as Oakhurst’s ‘calm’. This, too, is a lie, but it’s a lie whose untruth Simson himself is oblivious to.
At the end of ‘The Outcasts of Poker Flat’, too, Harte invites us to have sympathy for a group of people who have lived – and died – outside the boundaries of conventional society, but who are fundamentally good. Note the symbolism at the end of the story, when the search party arrives and discovers the bodies of Piney and the Duchess:
And when pitying fingers brushed the snow from their wan faces, you could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them, which was she that had sinned. Even the law of Poker Flat recognized this, and turned away, leaving them still locked in each other’s arms.
Since ‘wan’ means ‘pale’ or ‘white’, the two women are as white as the snow that has killed them: even the Duchess’s sins, we might say, have been washed as white as snow, as the searchers leave the two women in their final embrace and their ‘equal peace’.