Outcasts Of Poker Flat Essay Questions

Bret Hartes The Outcasts Of Poker Flat

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This can’t be happening thought Bill. Man I’m in so much trouble, there’s no way I can get out of it. I’m stuck. Bill had just wrecked his parent’s BMW in an accident, and they had no idea that the expensive car was even missing from the garage. And a terrible thing had happened as a result of the crash. A young woman lay dead in the passenger side of the vehicle, swarmed by medics. Bill had escaped injury, but as his body was still at the crash site, his mind wasn’t. He was in total shock at what had happened. If I only left the car in the garage and didn’t try to “borrow” it, Lisa might still be alive….Bill tried to imagine that it wasn’t real, that he was in his bed dreaming, but no, he was responsible for the destruction of his parents’ car and his the death of his girlfriend. It was as if his mind wasn’t registering, as if it was in some far away place. He just couldn’t come to grips with what had happened. This is a classic example of severe shock. The event that took place was so strong that the mind has trouble working. While in Bill’s case where he had indeed had an accident, the realism of the situation dwarfs the mind as if a small comet hurtled towards a blazing sun. But this is just one aspect of realism. The whole of realism is made up of the fact that our lives, the world, the universe, it’s all real. And as much as our minds would want to deny it, everything will stay real, and for most people they just make the best of it. But for the rest of the people, they invent new ways to get around the feeling that a wall has been placed in their path. All this goes to say that people must be original and “keep it real” to survive the physical and mental fatigue life throws at them and also that everything will always be real and we must be in touch with our minds to harvest the realness.
     Bret Harte tells of a story where a group is outcast into the world to fend for themselves during the winter season. After they have been exiled and are outside the city walls, most of the group can’t handle the situation presented before them, as quoted, “As the escort disappeared, their pent-up feelings found vent in a few hysterical tears from the Duchess, some bad language from Mother Shipton, and a Perthian volley of expletives from Uncle Billy.

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The philosophic Oakhurst alone remained silent.” John Oakhurst, an experienced card player, is one of the outcasts exiled from the city. But instead of crying or yelling or screaming about how unfair the situation is, he instead creates a new situation from the old one where he is in control. As for the rest of his company, they can’t believe they’ve just been left alone to take care of themselves, and as a result their minds can’t handle that pressure. The world showed it’s real side and it kicked them in the face.
     Later on in the story the group encounters two friends of Mr. Oakhurst’s. One is no more than a child at fifteen years old and the other, Tom, is an old poker buddy of Oakhurst’s. They become trapped along with the rest of the group, and as they find themselves running out of rations, one member of the outcasts saves her rations for the







“child”, demonstrating tremendous courage. She realizes that all of them will not survive, so she sacrifices herself in order to save another. The moment where she sees the realness of the situation is shown here, “ Only Mother Shipton-once the strongest of the party- seemed to sicken and fade. At midnight on the tenth day she called Oakhurst to her side. “I’m going,” she said, in a voice of querulous weakness, “but don’t say anything about it. Don’t waken the kids. Take the bundle from under my head, and open it. “ Mr. Oakhurst did so. It contained Mother Shipton’s rations for the last week, untouched. “Give ‘em to the child,” she said, pointing to the sleeping Piney. “You’ve starved yourself,” said the gambler. “That’s what they call it,” said the woman querulously, as she lay down again, and, turning her face to the wall, passed quietly away.”
     Near the end of the story, even Mr. Oakhurst can finally see that not all of them will survive even though he had created hope where there had been none at first. He sends Tom to the city where he was exiled from. His own personal reason is to at least save Tom from death, but he tells Tom to go for the sake of the remaining survivors. His mind was able to take in the situation and make sense of it instead of completely twist and distort it. As a personal way to accept this defeat, he releases himself by committing
suicide, knowing that he has done everything he possibly could to better the bleakness of the situation. There is also a touch of nature in the story. As John and Tom are gone, only the Duchess and Piney remain. They too realize their fate is sealed, and they die in each other’s arms. At this moment it almost seems that nature pays its’ respect to the pair, as read, “ And so reclining, the younger and the purer pillowing the head of her soiled sister upon her virgin breast, they fell asleep. 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 about.”
     This is a great story that shows how amidst all the suffering and the futileness, one person was able to overcome all the emotion and create a new path to overlap the one that had been laid out before them. The person overcame the realness of the situation with his mind, and instead of accepting what he had been given, he became original and made new hope in light of the groups low moral. The world is very real and can be frightening at times, but we must overcome that fear and forge ahead to better ourselves and other people.



Bret Harte is usually labeled a local colorist. The local-color, or regional-realism, movement hit its peak in American literature between 1870 and 1890. It was fiction that emphasized the speech, dress, mannerisms, and values of a particular region. Literature of this type was usually more concerned with surface presentation of the characters than with probing their psychological motivations. The characters are more likely to be representatives of a specific place than clearly defined individuals, and the stories often descend to the facile conventions of hack writing. Harte never quite transcended this genre, but he became one of the most famous practitioners of local color, along with the early Mark Twain, Hamlin Garland, Kate Chopin, Sarah Orne Jewett, George Washington Cable, and Joel Chandler Harris.

Two aspects of local color that help illustrate the attributes of a locale and its people are humor and hyperbole. Harte uses comic scenes, dialogue, and descriptions to offset the tragedy of the story and to keep it from turning into melodrama. Much of the humor is based on hyperbole—language that is exaggerated or overstated for the situation. Sometimes this is reversed to understatement, in which the words seem too insignificant for the occasion. The language is often a parody of romantic or sentimental fiction. Also involved in balancing the tragedy is the gambler’s stoical approach to life. Outwardly impervious to pain or anger, Oakhurst faces life as if it were a game of cards, and his attitude is defined in language associated with gambling. The ridiculous or pathetic aspects of the others are contrasted with the dignity of Oakhurst.

The opening pages are filled with language that seems too grand for the events. Oakhurst notices that there is a change in the “moral atmosphere” of the town. There is a “Sabbath lull” in a community “unused to Sabbath influences.” Poker Flat is experiencing a “spasm of virtuous reaction” to the crimes that have been committed. The secret committee rids the town “permanently” of two alleged criminals, while it “sits in judgment” on the “impropriety” of the “professional ladies” it decides to banish. The gambler is saved from hanging caused by “local prejudice” only because of a “crude sentiment of equity” in the breasts of several townsmen who had been lucky enough to win from him.

For a brief period in the story, Uncle Billy serves as a foil to Oakhurst. When the “deported wickedness” of the town is abandoned by the vigilantes, Mother Shipton uses some bad language, but Uncle Billy explodes a “volley of expletives” at his tormentors in an attempt to gain revenge through the colorful use of words. Billy then directs his attention to his fellow expatriates and condemns them in a “sweeping anathema.” When Tom Simson arrives, Billy, at the threat of a kick from Oakhurst, stifles his laughter while listening to the youth talk about how he is going to Poker Flat to “seek his fortune.” He can barely restrain himself when Simson refers to the Duchess as Mrs. Oakhurst. Billy has to retreat from the group until he can “recover his gravity,” but not before he “confides his joke” to the trees with leg-slapping, face contortions, and the “usual profanity.” As he returns and surveys the “sylvan group,” Uncle Billy formulates his plan of desertion.

In contrast, Oakhurst sees the situation from the stoical viewpoint of a gambler who has not unexpectedly fallen on hard times but who has to make the best of it in an honorable way. He tries to hide Billy’s treachery from the others by suggesting that he and the mules only got lost in the blizzard, but their morale is damaged by the loss of the supplies. Only Simson enjoys the “prospect of their forced seclusion,” and he tries to entertain them with “square fun,” including tales about Homer’s “Ashheels” (or Achilles). Oakhurst, however, concerns himself with the “losing game before him.” When he sees that there is no hope left, he “hands in his checks” to conclude his “streak of bad luck.” His acceptance of death has been learned from his “pariah trade,” and his suicide note is written on the deuce of clubs, the lowest card, to symbolize that his luck and life have run out.

The tone of the story, though, is essentially humorous. Life is cheap in the Old West, where gold is more important than morality. However, with his objective method of telling the story, the author is able to make his social commentary unobtrusively. The story is, first of all, entertaining.

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