Character Analysis in The Outcasts of Poker Flat

John Oakhurst: A character of noble qualities, John is exiled not due to his unsavory nature, but out of revenge and spite. When he successfully wins a large amount of money from the leaders of the town, they have him permanently banished. Various instances throughout the story show John to be a character with good moral values. He even insists on returning Tom’s money to him after winning at cards.

The Duchess: The Duchess is a young prostitute with a flair for the dramatic. During the exiles’s journey, The Duchess is melodramatic and theatrical, traits that annoy her fellow traveling companions.

Mother Shipton: Mother Shipton is an older Madame who takes on a maternal role in the group. Mother Shipton later makes the ultimate sacrifice when she secretly starves herself in order to ensure enough food for Piney Woods.

Uncle Billy: Uncle Billy is a drunk scoundrel who steals the exile’s mode of transport and rides up into the hills. Unlike the other exiles, Harte does not give Billy any redeemable qualities.

Tom Stinson: Tom Stinson, or Tom ‘The Innocent,’ demonstrates characteristics that reflect his name. He is described as a virgin who encounters the exiles while traveling with Piney Woods to get married. When Tom loses at cards to John, he has his money returned and receives a warning to never gamble again. His appallingly bad card playing abilities reflect his pure, innocent nature.

Piney Woods: Piney Woods is also painted as an innocent, fifteen-year-old virgin. She is eager to marry Tom, but was forced to run away with him because her father disapproves of their union. She forms a close bond with The Duchess.

Character Analysis Examples in The Outcasts of Poker Flat:

The Outcasts of Poker Flat 9

"You've starved yourself..."   (The Outcasts of Poker Flat)

Mother Shipton’s act of selflessness contributes to the theme that the boundary between “moral” and “immoral” is not black and white, nor very easily defined. In the beginning of the story, Mother Shipton is described from the eyes of the townspeople: she is a prostitute that they look down on—worthy only of being cast out. Mother Shipton has her guard up once she is exiled, but gradually she begins to let it down, eventually placing the needs of others above her own. Harte paints the “moral” and the “immoral” as a kind of spectrum and all the characters fall at different places on that spectrum throughout the story.

"He dropped a warning to the Duchess and Mother Shipton, who of course knew the facts of their associate's defection..."   (The Outcasts of Poker Flat)

The narrator states that the Duchess and Mother Shipton are aware of “Uncle Billy’s rascality” in a way that Tom Simson and Piney Woods are not. Mr. Oakhurst has kept the truth from Tom and Piney due to “some occult,” or mysterious, reason. However, as Mr. Oakhurst seems to be notorious for attempting to preserve innocence (recall his protectiveness of Tom Simson when he lost his gambling match), we might view Mr. Oakhurst’s omission as another one of these attempts. Mr. Oakhurst seems to be trying to shield Tom Simson from the dishonorable Uncle Billy.

"Temperance House..."   (The Outcasts of Poker Flat)

The term “temperance” means abstinence from drinking alcohol. A “temperance house,” also known as a “temperance tavern,” was a type of bar that did not serve alcohol or asked customers to sign an oath stating that they would drink in moderation or abstain completely while inside. Piney Woods used to work in a temperance house—an occupation traditionally held in higher “moral” esteem than some of the occupations of her present company.

"Piney Woods..."   (The Outcasts of Poker Flat)

Piney Woods is another conventionally “innocent” or “good” character and is referred to by her real name rather than a nickname. Because we are given Piney’s real name before we learn much about her, we are led to assume that she might be different from the group of exiles.

"made a devoted slave of Tom Simson..."   (The Outcasts of Poker Flat)

The mention of gambling here draws an immediate comparison to Tom Simson and Mr. Oakhurst. However, note that Tom Simson is depicted as someone who could not even gamble if he wanted to. Though this lack of experience in gambling might make Tom seem even more “innocent” or “moral” than Mr. Oakhurst, the narrator reminds us of Mr. Oakhurst’s benevolence when Mr. Oakhurst gives Tom Simson all the money that he lost. Tom Simson is innocent, but Mr. Oakhurst does not take advantage of this. Comparing these two characters reinforces Mr. Oakhurst’s ethical nature.

"the “Innocent” ..."   (The Outcasts of Poker Flat)

Tom Simson is referred to by his nickname, the “Innocent,” like all of the “expatriates” except Mr. Oakhurst. However, we are still given his birth name. Furthermore, while the nicknames of the “outcasts” have either neutral or negative connotations, Tom Simson’s nickname is generally considered positive and reminds us that he is not a part of the banished group.

"The thought of deserting his weaker and more pitiable companions never perhaps occurred to him..."   (The Outcasts of Poker Flat)

Mr. Oakhurst sets himself apart from his “companions” in many ways. They are “loud,” “weak,” “pitiable,” and drinking liquor when they should be making better use of their time and rations. Mr. Oakhurst is “calm,” strong, sober and resolute. This contrast portrays Mr. Oakhurst as a kind of exception to the rule. While he was exiled, he is still portrayed as more virtuous and ethical than his companions.

"anathema..."   (The Outcasts of Poker Flat)

An “anathema” is a person or thing that is hated or loathed. While the narrator states that Uncle Billy was the one that “included the whole party in one sweeping anathema,” Mother Shipton also eyes Mr. Oakhurst with “malevolence.” Note that Mr. Oakhurst’s kind actions failed to “draw the party into any closer sympathy.” This group of individuals are very divided, either hateful or fearful of one another despite being victims of the same unfortunate circumstance.

"philosophic calmness..."   (The Outcasts of Poker Flat)

Mr. Oakhurst is characterized as “calm,” “quiet,” and “philosophic” many times throughout the story. He accepts his “sentence” in this calm manner, defying our expectations of what an “improper” person might behave like in this circumstance. Consider his reaction in relation to other characters, as it continues to define his character throughout the remainder of the story and establishes him as a heroic figure.