The Outcasts of Poker Flat: A Story of Redemption

“The Outcasts of Poker Flat” was published in 1869 by Bret Harte. Harte, who lived in Northern California, was familiar with the mining camps of the West, and he was a master of portraying the stereotypical characters of the West, from the prostitutes with “hearts of gold” to the stoic, chivalrous, and “coolly desperate” gambler. Harte was also familiar with the greed of the Western gold mining camps, where people came to find their fortunes, and explored the theme of morally superior-white-vigilante justice in his writings. In fact, it was because of an article he wrote and published in The Northern Californian, “expressing outrage over the massacre in nearby Eureka of sixty Native Americans, mostly women and children, by a small gang of white vigilantes,” that Harte was fired from his job as assistant editor (351). It is this theme of religious hypocrisy that is explored in “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” but moreover, it is the idea of redemption through the characters as well as Nature that makes a lasting and meaningful impact.

The story begins in a gold mining camp in California with the protagonist, John Oakhurst, noting the change in the atmosphere, “There was a Sabbath lull in the air which, in a settlement unused to Sabbath influences, looked ominous.” This line is the first indicator that the citizens are not, in reality, good Christians who are living the good life. Rather they are people who, for some reason, have decided to put on the cloak of Christian righteousness, which Oakhurst understands to be a dangerous thing if they are not indeed Christians. Harte gives an indication of the local landscape and local morality when he describes Oakhurst “whipping away the red dust of Poker Flat from his neat boots.” In the Bible, Jesus says, “Even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you. Yet be sure of this: the Kingdom of God is near” (Luke 10:11). The color red of the Californian mining camp can be construed as symbolizing the sin of the “righteous” citizens, and Oakhurst – who actually committed no sin other than being a very good gambler- is obeying the words of Christ.

Harte further illustrates the hypocrisy of the town when he writes, “It was experiencing a spasm of virtuous reaction, quite as lawless and ungovernable as any of the acts that had provoked it. A secret committee had determined to rid the town of all improper persons.” The hypocrisy in the town’s actions resembles that of the high priest, Caiaphas, in the gospels, who calls a secret and illegal meeting of the other chief priests to try, judge, and condemn Jesus. Harte then introduces two other characters, Duchess and Mother Shipton, who are being banished for their profession. They are prostitutes, but it is obvious that they would not be able to sell their wares if there were no buyers. There were indeed buyers, and those guilty buyers are exiling the two fallen women. There is yet another correlation to scripture that shows the town is not acting the part of good Christians and are, in fact, hypocrites. In the New Testament, a woman is brought before Jesus. By law, she is to be stoned for committing adultery. Jesus does not stone her but shows her mercy. He then says, Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).

As the group of outcasts, including Uncle Billy, likely the only legitimately guilty person, are led out of town by an armed escort, the reader catches a glimpse of Oakhurst’s kindness when he trades his horse for Duchess’s mule. Harte then describes the landscape: “A wooded amphitheater, surrounded on three sides by precipitous cliffs of naked granite, sloped gently toward the crest of another precipice that overlooked the valley.” Though Oakhurst cautions against delay and foreshadows the tragedy that is to come when he warns them against “throwing up their hand before the game was played out,” the group decides to stop and partake in a few drinks. In this amphitheater, as in the amphitheaters of ancient Greece, where many tragedies were performed, the tragedy of the outcasts of Poker Flat will be played out.

When considering the religious symbology of the story as well as the natural aspect, the following passage is important: “He looked at the gloomy walls that rose a thousand feet sheer above the circling pines around him; at the sky, ominously clouded; at the valley below, already deepening into shadow.” The imagery of clouds is littered throughout scripture and is usually connected to the presence of God. In fact, the sky was dark for three hours during the crucifixion. Christ, having been innocent, was a sacrifice for the sin of humanity. When considering the fate of the outcasts, they could be seen as having been sacrificed by the citizens of Poker Flat, who were gamblers themselves as well as frequenters of prostitutes. In a natural sense, it is easy to assume the increasing danger in the outcasts’ situation, knowing that the story takes place at the end of November when snow is likely to fall. 

When Harte introduces Tom Simson, the Innocent of Poker Flat, and his fifteen-year-old fiancée, Piney Wood, the reader begins to get a glimpse at the goodness contained in the outcasts, minus Uncle Billy. The latter steals away in the night with the mules and provisions. The reader learns that Oakhurst, after having won a significant amount of money from Tom some time ago, gives the money back and advises him to no longer gamble. This is a characteristic far from the swindler that the citizens of Poker Flat made Oakhurst out to be. Mother Shipton and the Duchess transform into something self-sacrificing and angelic: “the virgin Piney slept beside her frailer sisters as sweetly as though attended by celestial guardians.” Oakhurst, Duchess, and Mother Shipton spare Tom and Piney the anxiety and fear that would surely have overwhelmed them had they known Uncle Billy had stolen the mules with no intention of sending help: “For some occult reason, Mr. Oakhurst could not bring himself to disclose Uncle Billy’s rascality.” 

Then the snow comes. Harte describes the brutality of the California Sierras to a tee: “The third day came, and the sun, looking through the white-curtained valley, saw the outcasts divide their slowly decreasing store of provisions for the morning meal. It was one of the peculiarities of that mountain climate that its rays diffused a kindly warmth over the wintry landscape as if in regretful commiseration of the past. But it revealed drift on drift of snow piled high around the hut–a hopeless, uncharted, trackless sea of white lying below the rocky shores to which the castaways still clung.” Harte then references Poker Flat using the ironic word “pastoral.” The fact that the outcasts can see the smoke rising from the warm settlement miles away is perhaps the reason they join in the hymn that Piney and Tom are singing, not out of devotion but with defiance: “I fear that a certain defiant tone and Covenanter’s swing to its chorus, rather than any devotional quality, caused it speedily to infect the others, who at last joined in the refrain: “I’m proud to live in the service of the Lord, And I’m bound to die in His army.” 

It is not much later that Mother Shipton does indeed die, having sacrificed her rations so that the young Piney would have a better chance of surviving. It is with Mother Shipton’s passing that the story takes a turn for the worse. The Innocent, Tom Simson, follows Oakhurst’s direction and heads for Poker Flat on snow shows made from a saddle while John Oakhurst decides his game is done. While Oakhurst hands in his cards with a bullet to his heart, it is the picture that Harte paints of Piney and the Duchess that brings the theme home. When Piney and the Duchess truly understand their fate is death, the Duchess asks Piney if she can pray. Piney replies, “No dear.” This refusal to pray is Harte’s separating the truly righteous, in the form of Piney, from the truly unrighteous, the citizens of Poker Flat and their newfound religion who surely pray every morning and every night. 

Though Nature seems impersonal and brutal throughout the story, it is towards the end that Harte uses it in a very personal and beautiful way: “The wind lulled as if it feared to waken them. Feathery drifts of snow, shaken from the long pine boughs, flew like white-winged birds and settled about them as they slept. The moon, through the rifted clouds, looked down upon what had been the camp. But all human stain, all trace of earthly travail, was hidden beneath the spotless mantle mercifully flung from above.” Doves, or white birds, are referenced throughout scripture. They represent guilt offerings and the Holy Spirit. In many respects, the Duchess could well be seen as a guilt offering for the people of Poker Flat. And as the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ as he was baptized, the Holy Spirit descends on the two women. In this scene, the Duchess’s sins are covered by white, just as it says in the Bible, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalms 51:7). 

In the end, the outcasts of Poker Flat are condemned to death by the citizens of Poker Flat. However, their condemnation ultimately brought out the goodness in them, the parts of themselves that perhaps they had forgotten about or believed no longer existed. Moreover, it was through that goodness, and their ultimate deaths that they were able to be redeemed and perhaps were able to touch the citizens of Poker Flat and show them the meaning of sin and forgiveness: “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.”


 Works Cited

Harte, Bret. “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” Selected Stories. n. p. 17 Dec. 2012. Project Gutenberg. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.

Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology American Literature Volume C. Crawfordsville: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. Print.

Categories: Essays

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