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Themes in The Outcasts of Poker Flat

Judgement of Others: The townspeople living in Poker Flats cast judgement on the story’s main characters and exile them from the town. The narrative describes these exiles as working in unfavorable professions: John is a gambler, the two women are prostitutes. However, the narrative complicates a condemnation of these characters by allocating them certain noble traits or behaviors. Uncle Billy, the town drunk, is the only exile that has no redeemable characteristics. By describing these characters as capable of kindness and sacrifice, Harte demonstrates that we should favor kindness and tolerance over judgement and condemnation.

Innocence and Purity: Tom ‘The Innocent’ and Piney Woods represent traditional notions of purity. However, Piney’s relationship with the Duchess challenges the condemnation of this “fallen woman.” The close friendship between Piney and the Duchess intertwines the innocent with the fallen to suggest that they are not all that different in the grand scheme of life.

Themes Examples in The Outcasts of Poker Flat:

The Outcasts of Poker Flat

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"could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them which was she that had sinned..."   (The Outcasts of Poker Flat)

The “white-winged birds” here are doves, typically associated with innocence, unity, and purity. The color white is often associated with similar characteristics, and these two women surrounded by snow contributes to a tone of “peace.” Piney Woods and the Duchess look so peaceful and innocent lying close together in the snow that the townspeople “could scarcely tell” them apart. This final peaceful image of the death supports the notion that our morality is not easily measured by our life choices. Piney Woods and the Duchess are both good people, and their position in death reminds both the townspeople and the reader of this.

"relaxing into amiability..."   (The Outcasts of Poker Flat)

The group that was so divided before is now more “amicable” and “relaxed” with the addition of Tom Simson and Piney Woods. This introduces an important theme for the story: strangers with drastically differing realities can come together and discover similarities. The “moral” and the “immoral” people are not all that different after all. Thus, while Piney and Tom are conventionally deemed “acceptable” townspeople, there is good in many of the other characters, which we are just starting to see.

"reimbursing themselves from his pockets of the sums he had won from them..."   (The Outcasts of Poker Flat)

While Mr. Oakhurst was a gambler, he suggests that it is not the reason that the townspeople wanted to exile him. Instead, he says that they probably wanted him out of town to get revenge for his winning their money during a game. This introduces the theme of the hypocrisy of those in power. The members of the committee hold themselves up to be the highest authority of morality in the town, ultimately deciding who is allowed to stay or go, but their decisions are motivated by biases and vindictiveness. Readers are encouraged to question who the real “moral” people are—if any.

"improper persons..."   (The Outcasts of Poker Flat)

The word “improper” is used here to describe those that the “secret committee” deem “immoral” in some way. Note that the term “improper” does not necessarily describe someone who has committed crimes or offenses—but rather, someone that is “unfit” for this town. Thus, it is a value-judgement and not based upon law. The “change in moral atmosphere” has provoked this committee to exile citizens, but we are led to question how they decide and whether or not they should have the authority to do so.

"Poker Flat was “after somebody.” It had lately suffered the loss of several thousand dollars, two valuable horses, and a prominent citizen...."   (The Outcasts of Poker Flat)

The town had experienced several significant “losses” of varying kinds. In the eyes of the townspeople, someone needs to be held accountable for these losses. However, there is not simply one person whom the town can blame for its recent misfortune. The narrator poses a question here that will be used to explore one of the texts themes: why do we seek a scapegoat, regardless of the circumstances, even when there is no one obviously at fault?

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