In Bret Harte’s “The Outcasts of Poker Flats,” Harte uses the context of lawless California during the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s to create a story that reflects the morality that is often unseen in others and also how nature itself is an agent that defeats the outcasts, in addition to their social maladies. As the town of Poker Flats has fallen on hard times both financially and morally, a group of high-standing citizens elect to banish John Oakhurst, the central character and three other undesirable citizens of the town: Duchess, Mother Shipton, and Uncle Billy. These characters are permanently exiled and must find their way to the nearest town in the area, where on the road, they run into Tom Simson and his girl Piney Woods who lets the exiles know that there is a cabin nearby for shelter through the night. However, a fierce snowstorm kicks up and no one is able to leave because Uncle Billy had escaped in the middle of the night with the horses and the mule the exiles were given for travel. Slowly, each character befalls a dreadful fate in the cabin as Oakhurst sends Simson back to Poker Flats to retrieve help. When the law enforcement officials of Poker Flats return to the cabin, they find all inhabitants dead.
The central theme of the story is the occurrence of an inherent streak of morality that is often unseen in people through their actions or otherwise. John Oakhurst had won a great deal of money from the high-standing citizens while gambling, and was exiled because it was unacceptable to the townspeople to “let this yer young man from Roaring Camp – an entire stranger – carry away our money.” (Harte 1) However, the fact that the high-standing citizens were engaged in a gambling game with Oakhurst proves their immorality, also, and he would not have been targeted had he not won. As it stood throughout the story, Oakhurst himself was the kindest character with the best intentions, along with Mother Shipton who was also exiled. Oakhurst gave Simson the snowshoes so that he could travel back to civilization; Mother Shipton slowly starved herself so that adequate food could be had for Piney Woods; Duchess and Piney Woods comforted each other and helped each other slide nobly into death.
As Oakhurst piled the firewood massively high for Piney Woods and Duchess during their final night, he nobly exited the cabin and killed himself quietly, resigning himself to his fate and hoping for the survival of the two young girls. As three exiles of the four showed exceptional character and integrity, even in the face of hard times, it is proven that the moral compass of Poker Flats was dreadfully wrong and ill-chosen. The final scene, where Piney Woods and Duchess are found deceased wrapped around each other proves the wrongness of the exile as “you could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them which was she that had sinned,” as one could not tell the innocent from the sinner in their peaceful state. (Harte 7) This also leads to the hypocrisy of the townspeople, the ones that sent the exiles out into the world away from Poker Flats.
The tone of Harte’s story is ominous and unfortunate, calling to a mood that is dreary and unforgiving. As the town of Poker Flats fades from view, there is a heavy connotation of something much worse approaching the characters, even though what seems to be the worst has already happened. The diction surrounding Uncle Billy’s character, using phrases such as “bellicose state into one of stupor,” continually points to his poor character, while both Duchess and Mother Shipton remain honest and true to Piney Woods and Tom Simson. (Harte 2) In addition, the tone itself also points to the fierce natural elements that eventually ruin the exiled party. Just as the townspeople had sent the exiles out without much of a thought, the weather turns from decent to incredibly terrible, making any passage beyond the cabin impossible due to their lack of horses from Uncle Billy’s theft. This proves that nature itself is a key conflict in the story, separate from a direct conflict between humans that ultimately proves to be Poker Flats against the exiles.
As the skies clear amidst the fresh snow, they darken once again and isolate the exiles even further, preventing travel and limiting supplies – “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 5). The tone of this phrase in particular points to the terrible fate that would await three of the exiles and Piney Woods. The snow acts also as a symbol of the innocence of the exiles and the young couple that joins them in the cabin. As the white snow blankets the ground, it pretends to act as a rebirth for the characters and one can hope that they will arrive safely at their destination and begin their lives. However, nature betrays that symbol and instead the snow is a drowning agent, much like a vast sea, and works to bring the demise of the characters at the hand of Mother Nature, proving that it cannot and will not be tamed despite any other occurrence.
Overall, Bret Harte’s “The Outcasts of Poker Flats” depicts an example of the sociology theory in that an immoral society fallen on hard times looking for subjects to blame and overall retribution. While it is not known how the exiles are specifically chosen, Oakhurst, Duchess, and Mother Shipton are shown to be caring and devoted individuals dedicated to the preservation of each other’s lives as opposed to focusing solely on their own. In this way, the citizens of Poker Flats have committed a larger crime than the likes of what the exiles were convicted of based on the fact that by sending the exiles out, the citizens committed them to their deaths. Another central player in the conflict of the story is indirectly the struggle with Mother Nature, where the snowstorm approaches and seals the fate of the four remaining cabin-dwellers as Oakhurst has equipped one to find help. Though the characters fight their hardest fight and struggle to keep each other alive, in the end it is not enough to overcome the massive blizzard with the little supplies they have, leaving death all over the cabin to be found by the immoral and ruthless citizens of Poker Flats.