Morality Among the Outcasts of Poker Flat by Bret Harte

Morality Among the Outcasts of Poker Flat by Bret Harte

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Morality Among the Outcasts of Poker Flat by Bret Harte
As Mr. John Oakhurst, gambler, stepped into the main street of Poker Flat on the morning of the twenty third of November, 1850, he was conscious of a change in its moral atmosphere from the preceding night. Two or three men, conversing earnestly together, ceased as he approached, and exchanged significant glances. There was a Sabbath lull in the air, which, in a settlement unused to Sabbath influences, looked ominous.
Mr. Oakhurst's calm handsome face betrayed small concern of these indications. Whether he was conscious of any predisposing cause was another question. ‘I reckon they are after somebody,' he reflected; ‘likely it's me.' He returned to his pocket the handkerchief he had been whipping away the red duct of Poker Flat from his neat boots, and quietly discharged his mind of any further conjecture.
In point of fact, Poker Flat was ‘after somebody.' It had lately suffered the loss of several thousand dollars, two valuable horses, and a prominent citizen. It was experiencing a spasm of virtuous reaction, quite as lawless and ungovernable as any of the acts that had provoked it. A secret committee had determined to rid the town of all improper persons. This was done permanently in regard of two men who were then hanging from boughs of a sycamore in the gulch, and temporarily in the banishment of certain other objectionable characters. I regret to say that some of these were ladies. It is but due to the sex, however, to state that their impropriety was professional, and it was only in such easily established standards of evil that Poker Flat ventured to sit in judgment.
Mr. Oakhurst was right in supposing that he was included in this category. A few of the committee had urged hanging him as a possible example, and a sure method of reimbursing themselves from his pockets of the sums he had won from them. ‘It's again
justice,' said Jim Wheeler, ‘to let this yer young man from Roaring Camp – an entire stranger – carry away our money.' But a crude sentiment of equity residing in the breasts of those who had been fortunate enough to win from Mr. Oakhurst, overruled this narrow local prejudice.
Mr. Oakhurst received his sentence with philosophic calmness, nonetheless coolly, that he was aware of the hesitation of his judges. He was too much of a gambler not to accept Fate.

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With him life was an uncertain game, and he recognized the usual percentage in favor of the dealer.
A body of armed men accompanied the deported wickedness of Poker Flat to the outskirts of the settlement. Besides Mr. Oakhurst, who was known to be a coolly desperate man, and whose intimidation the armed escort was intended, the expatriated party consisted of a young woman familiarly known as ‘the Duchess'; and ‘uncle Billy,' a suspected sluice-robber and confirmed drunkard. The cavalcade provoked no comments from the spectators, nor was a word uttered by the escort. Only when the gulch which marked the outermost limits of Poker Flat was reached, the leader spoke briefly and to the point. The exiles were forbidden to return at the peril of their lives.

Bret Harte's ‘The Outcasts of Poker Flat' is a satirical story about the hypocrisy of nineteenth-century conventional morality in America. Poker Flat is presumably like other frontier towns in that it has a thin veneer of morality. Gambling, stealing, prostitution, and murder occur as frequently as they do in similar frontier towns. Justice is rough and swiftly dispensed. Harte uses irony, satire, euphemisms, and humor to ridicule and attack such conventional morality. Harte argues that morality is determined by specific situations that bring out the best in people.
In this story, a group of undesirables are expelled from Poker Flat and undergo trials that result in the apparent moral reformation of each person. Initially, they are stock characters and represent particular vices, but their epiphanies transform them into real people. The principle character, Mr. John Oakhurst, is a gambler. His occupation is immediately established in the first sentence of the passage. His profession places him on the fringes of respectable society. The others include two women of dubious character and an alleged thief.
The opening paragraph in the above passage sets the tone for the rest of the text. The language is wryly ironic: "There was a Sabbath lull in the air, which, in a settlement unused to Sabbath influences, looked ominous." This sentence implies that there is a lack of religious piety, and that holy days were not regularly observed in Poker Flat. The phrase "Sabbath lull" implies a break or recess from the mundane. It also invokes a sense of a foreboding threat. This change in faith has taken place literally over night, as Mr. Oakhurst notices that morning.
Mr. Oakhurst seems to have a prescient awareness of the threats he faces, although he does not give any indications of being concerned or worried. He calmly dismisses from his mind the fear that he is the likely object of the consequences of the moral transformation of Poker Flat. His calm acceptance of his fate is evident later on when he faces the catastrophes that befall him and his fellow outcasts with an admirable equanimity. The author does not indicate Mr. Oakhurst's attitude towards his fate. We are left to conjecture whether Mr. Oakhurst is able to so easily dismiss thought of his imminent danger because he believes he deserves his fate, or from an innate nobility of spirit. This quality of Mr. Oakhurst allows him to somehow assume a moral high position and voice of reason when the outcasts make camp. He is able to take their being snowed in, the loss of the mules and provisions, and the flight of ‘Uncle Benny' in step.
We realize that he has reason to worry in the following paragraph when the author, in a very satirical tone, catalogues the reasons for the moral change in the town. Harte describes the theft of ‘two thousand dollars, two valuable horses and a prominent politician,' as a ‘loss' the town has ‘suffered.' These provoke a rage in the townspeople that can seemingly only be satisfied by blood. Their bloodlust spurs a ‘spasm of virtuous reaction.' A spasm is an involuntary muscular contraction, and the image this phrase invokes, in addition to its being really witty, is that of a population in the grip of something quite uncontrollable and beyond its power. In fact the author confirms this suspicion when he adds, "quite as lawless and ungovernable as the acts which have provoked it." The shape this reaction takes is the formation of a vigilante committee. Vigilante committees are extra judicial/ extra legal responses to crime – they do not observe such niceties as "due process," "habeas corpus," or any inherent rights of the criminal. They are often driven by revenge and vendetta. The justice they dispense is swift and rough.
Two men are summarily hanged, and others expelled from the town. The author euphemistically refers to this as "temporarily in the banishment of certain other objectionable characters." Harte does not come right out and say that they are prostitutes; he calls them "ladies." The use of euphemism betrays either the author's ambivalence towards these vices, or his indifference to them. It could be however, that he does not want to prescribe moral absolutes. Indeed, that he does not want to speak strongly against them or he is simply being ironic.
Using irony helps the author make the point that vice or immorality, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder. The author seems to be skeptical of the town's sudden conversion. He seems to accuse the townspeople of having less than pure motives. Their moral transformation seems driven by selfishness and even pique, rather than being an end in itself.
For example in the fourth paragraph, those who had lost money to Oakhurst favored hanging him, while those who had not or had won money from him, prevailed upon the others not to hang him. The author seems to be saying here that moral outrage seems to be driven by other reasons other than innate morality. Those who had profited from the vices were increasingly inclined to turn a blind eye, while apparent victims were less willing.
Depending on the reader's perspective, the outcasts either redeem themselves at the camp, and in so doing reclaim their humanity, or he sees the improbability of the epiphany they supposedly experienced. The basic moral lesson this text provides echoes the Biblical saying, "judge not lest you be judged." It seems to argue for a value free or a prejudice free society. It praises neither the gambler, nor the prostitute nor the thief. It does not really blame the townspeople either; it is remarkably free of condemnation. All it does is humorously trace the symbiotic or complementary nature of both vice and sinner. At the end even the supposedly virtuous townspeople could not tell between sinner and innocent.
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