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Rock Street, San Francisco

Analysis of Character and Style Elements of Work in The Outcasts of Poker Flat


The Outcasts of Poker Flat is a fascinating short story that is built on two major elements of works; character and style. All the characters in the story behave and act in ways that magnificently fit into their roles. In the various sections of the story, every character has a defining moment in which the reader is able to know their real and true nature. The story shows how the society does judge people negatively while at the same time displaying their heroism.  The Poker Flat community expels the evil people such as Mr. Oakhurst, a gambler and Mother Shipton together with Duchess who are prostitutes (Harte 23). Besides the character analysis, Harte also employed on various styles that did not only bring out the meaning of the story but also added flavor and made it interesting to the reader. Gale indicates that Harte is normally labeled as a local colorist owing to the styles he employed in his works (Gale 6). In this paper, I will focus on the analysis of character and style literature elements of work which are strongly depicted in the short story, The Outcasts of Poker Flat.

Character Analysis

The main character in this story is John Oakhurst. He is a character of outstanding and phenomenal traits. I could say that he is courageous, calm and a modest character. To the townspeople, Mr. Oakhurst appeared to be slightly nefarious due to his act of gambling but in my case, he is a good hearted and an honest individual. This trait is seen from the story when Harte shows him returning to Tom Simson the forty dollars he had won. Also, Mr. Oakhurst returns the money he owed the boy and helps him to turn away from future gambling. In many times in the story, Mr. Oakhurst has proven to be an extraordinary calm person. At one point, the town’s men came to take him away, but he demonstrated his calmness by not resisting but rather adhered to their demands. Harte writes, “The momentary excitement brought Mr. Oakhurst back to the fire with his usual calm” (Harte 11). This statement to me showed the calmness of Mr. Oakhurst. Besides, many instances from the story prove him to be a courageous person. When he and the other travelers get snowed, he does not get scared. Supposing it could have been me in this situation, I would have quickly run away just like Uncle Billy. He also had the courage to kick Uncle Billy in the stomach when he wanted to tell him that he should stop laughing. Mr. Oakhurst is the central focus and the heart of the story and he has greatly helped in driving the story and bringing out the themes that the author intended.

The actions of Uncle Billy in the entire story of The Outcasts of Poker Flat clearly paint him of being cruel and inhumane in nature. According to me, he is a self-centered person who only takes pride in his own well being. He steals his companions’ transportation and even deserts them. He does not have any remorse and he confidently signs the death warrant of his companion. He is an alcoholic, a thief and a character who takes advantage of the given situation to exploit others. In my view, Harte succeeded in bringing out the character of cruelty and inhumane in Uncle Billy which has made the story more interesting. Another character used by Harte to blend the story is Mother Shipton.  She was at first a prostitute and this made her be exiled. However, her action of sacrificing herself by starving to death in a quest to save the children labels her an honorable and a caring individual (Kimchi). In my opinion, Mother Shipton would not have done the sacrifice. Harte also portrays her of being carefree with a mellow personality when she tells Mr. Oakhurst, “I’m going…but don’t say anything about it” (Harte a 44). She did not want Mr. Oakhurst to trouble anyone with her death. Tom Simson, well known as “the innocent” and his lover Piney woods are characters who have also shown courage by running away despite Piney’s father forbid their marriage.

Harte also focused on redemption and change of characters towards the end of the story. There is morality transformation in Mother Shipton and the Duchess from being prostitutes to caring and motherly nature. The love that Mother Shipton has on Piney makes her starve so that Piney could have something to eat. Indeed, Mother Shipton is a dynamic character who in the end transforms herself from a self-centered, hardened and a prostitute of “impropriety” to a woman of tenderness, altruistic and a caring individual (Harte and Stegner 17). Harte writes “You could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them which was she that had sinned” (Harte 54). The characters the reader could easily underrate at the beginning of the story do come out to be true heroes at the end. However, Oakhurst is the only character who doesn’t undergo a change in character. He continues to be kind and sensitive until when he commits suicide.

Style Element Analysis

The short story, The Outcasts of Poker Flat is filled with numerous styles. Hyperbole and humor are among the styles of color that are illustrated in the story. Besides, Harte utilizes dialogues, comic scenes and descriptions which are directed towards offsetting the tragedy within the story and prevent it from turning into melodrama. Many cases of humor that are evident in the story are primarily based on hyperbole. Hyperbole, in this case, is where a given situation is overstated or exaggerated from the language used. From the story, I realized that the language is a parody of sentimental or romantic fiction. Furthermore, I could tell that Mr. Oakhurst stoical and impassivity towards life brings a balance to the tragedy in the story. As the e-notes website reports, Mr. Oakhurst outwardly presents a view of being impermeable to anger or pain and he approaches life as though it is a game of cards (e-notes). I also figured out that, the language connected to gambling in the story defines his attitude to life. The pathetic or absurd views of other people are a contrast to his dignity.

The tone of the story in many parts is hilarious. For example “Life is cheap in the Old West, where gold is more important than morality” (Harte 15). The story as noted from the start sounds entertaining and Harte successfully managed to capture the reader’s attention through making the social commentary unobtrusive. In the story, the opening pages are full of language which does seem to be too grand for the occasions. For instance, Harte indicates that Mr. Oakhurst noticed changes in the “moral atmosphere of the Poker Flat town” (Harte 4). Again, the crimes that have been committed in the town makes it experience “spasm of virtuous reaction” (Harte 5). Another quote that illustrates this style is “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” (Harte 8). Therefore, humor is a style that has come out to be significant in Harte’s story.

The story is also filled with symbols, motifs, and allegory that have added to the meaning and depth. These devices to me have acted as a bridge between the story and the themes such as conflict, fate, and luck. Harte use of symbols and allegory has not only made it interesting but also, provided an inspiration for the works of literature. A number of symbols, motifs, and allegory are highlighted in the story. For example, the fire that was built by the exiles does symbolize hell, a place where the morally decayed individuals go. Moreover, the snow is used to symbolize a powerful element of forgiveness and spiritual cleansing. From the story, the snow is figurative and literally wipes the stains from the souls and the bodies of the exiles (Harte and Stegner 29). Deuce of Clubs is another symbol. In this case, Mr. Oakhurst action of leaving the game of the card and his tombstone is a powerful symbol of him trusting chance and luck in life and a guiding force towards death. On the other hand, the Iliad is an allegory. The recital of the Iliad by Tom culminates to a theme of fate. Additionally, Achilles, Mr. Oakhurst’s interested character is fated by gods to confront death, but he dies when he is shot in his ankle. In my view, Mr. Oakhurst correctly represents the Achilles and this is an allegory. Poker is seen to be a dominated motif in The Outcasts of Poker Flat. Poker is a town where Mr. Oakhurst and his counterparts are exiled and at the same time, it is a name given to the game that has made Mr. Oakhurst to be driven out of town. Arguably, I could state that the motif has indeed tied the storyline and themes in Harte’s story.

Metaphors and similes are stylistic devices that cannot be overlooked in Harte’s story. They have made the story lyrical and more interesting to the reader. Harte use of similes has managed to spark the reader’s imagination while at the same time communicating the information that he wanted. To me, the similes and metaphors from the story are illustrative and have created a lasting impression in my mind. Besides, they have been elaborative through expansion of the points and have helped me to comprehend the true meaning of the story. For example, Harte writes “Feathery drifts of snow, shaken from the long pine-boughs, flew like white-winged birds, and settled about them as they slept” (Harte 27). This is a simile in which the writer does compare the snow that falls on the exiles to the white birds which could biblically represent purification as those that appeared to Noah’s Ark. An example of a metaphor from the story is “With him life was at best an uncertain game” (Harte 24). According to Mr. Oakhurst, life is compared to the poker game and the author explicitly illustrated fate, chance and luck themes that have dominated his story.

Irony, another style employed by Harte has enabled him to bring out the reality of the story and drive the point at home. He used both dramatic and situational ironies. The irony style had an impact on me as it helped me to know the personalities and motives of the character and again formed the basis of the moral lessons from the story. Uncle Billy’s betrayal is a dramatic irony while the act of exile is a situational irony. To me, it is ironic that Poker Flat town purges the evil doers by exiling them and yet, the purging itself is an act of wickedness. It is also the irony that Tom is called “the innocent” and yet he is in the company of the exiled individuals. Besides, Tom set out from the town in search of his fortune but it is ironical he meets his demise.


Indeed, the critical admiration and the popularity of Harte’s story, The Outcasts of Poker Flat will always remain to be the best tale and a significant piece of literature. With the use of character and style elements of works, Harte proved to be a model to many writers. Certainly, this story entirely culminates into themes of forgiveness, reality, fate and tolerance. I could conclude that the poker game and society evokes ideas that concern the human nature and the peoples’ willingness and ability to withstand the misfortunes they encounter and their transformation from the wrong ways of life.


Works Cited

Gale, Cengage Learning. A Study Guide for Bret Harte’s Outcasts of Poker Flat. Michigan. Gale, Cengage Learning , 2015.

e-notes. The Outcasts of Poker Flat Analysis: Styles and Technique.  n.d. accessed on January 12, 2017 from

Kimchi Mike.  The Outcasts of Poker Flat: Characters. November 14, 2012, accessed on January 12, 2017 from

Harte Bret a. The Outcasts of Poker Flat . New York City. Dramatic Publishing. 1968

Harte Bret b. Selected Stories of Bret Harte. Createspace Independent Pub, 2013.

Harte Bret and Stegner Wallace. The outcasts of Poker Flat, and Other Tales. New York City. New American Library, 1961

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