And pulseless and cold, with a Derringer by his side and a bullet in his heart, though still calm as in life, beneath the snow lay he who was at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat.
This is the narrator's final word on John Oakhurst, wherein the narrator plays with the idea that although Oakhurst is often represented as the stoic, macho presence in the group, he was simultaneously its weakest member. In taking his own life, Oakhurst at once bravely resigns himself to his luck running out, and, in a perhaps cowardly fashion, evades the pain of a prolonged natural demise. Perhaps, the narrator suggests, Oakhurst was dead long before he took his own life, as he looks as stoic in death as he did while alive. Ultimately, Oakhurst's suicide poses a question about about strength and weakness as it relates to fate and chance.
"'Luck,' continued the gambler, reflectively, 'is a mighty queer thing. All you know about it for certain is that it’s bound to change. And it’s finding out when it’s going to change that makes you.'"
Despite being the story's protagonist, John Oakhurst is often notably silent as the plot unfolds. As a result, this quotation stands out as one of few insights into Oakhurst's interiority that the narrator allows the reader. In it, we see encapsulated the story's fatalistic tone regarding the influence of luck on one's fate and character. That the narrator refers to Oakhurst, a well-established character at this point, as "the gambler" is likewise notable, as it highlights the irony of this admission: a person whose career is built on the idea that they are particularly skilled at playing card games admits his victories have all depended on luck. Most of all, this quotation foreshadows Oakhurst's suicide, as it signals that Oakhurst recognizes his luck changing even before the other characters realize that they are doomed. In this way, Oakhurst might envision himself as victorious when he commits suicide, as he "[found] out when [his luck was] going to change" before it did.
But all human stain, all trace of earthly travail, was hidden beneath the spotless mantle mercifully flung from above.
One of the story's dominant themes is innocence and purity, so the snow that falls ceaselessly in the mountains becomes a symbol of spiritual purification and cleansing, wiping away all "human stain" from the group of exiles, who are supposedly damned. This is tragically ironic, as the snow is simultaneously killing and cleansing the group from sin.
He was too much of a gambler not to accept Fate. With him life was at best an uncertain game, and he recognized the usual percentage in favor of the dealer.
Presaging Oakhurst's later statement about luck being "certain to change," this quotation from the narrator sets the story's fatalistic tone. This tone is embodied, of course, by John Oakhurst's suicide, which serves as a proof of his ideas about life's uncertainty. Here, we also see traces of the story's religious themes, as "the dealer," though unspecified, could be linked to a creator figure. In this light, the story's themes of chance and fate intertwine with those of damnation and sin—concepts which are present in the story from the beginning, as Oakhurst and his companions are considered too impure to stay in Poker Flat.
And so reclining, the younger and purer pillowing the head of her soiled sister upon her virgin breast, they fell asleep.
In this passage, the story's themes of innocence and purity versus sin come to a head. Piney Woods, whose very name suggests the pastoral and idyllic, serves as a symbol of purity and innocence from the start; her virginity is also explicitly cited here. Contrastingly, The Duchess is marked by the citizens of Poker Flat as a symbol of sin and impurity because of her profession as a prostitute. In this scene, however, Piney merges with the Duchess, Piney's "soiled sister," as they nap. Symbolically, this signals the fluidity of good and evil, sin and innocence, that permeates the entirety of the story. Just as the citizens of Poker Flat become ironically implicated in the deaths of those whom they termed evil, Piney and the Duchess become one, a symbolic union of, and perhaps even proof of the fluid boundaries between, good and evil.
The Outcasts of Poker Flat Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Outcasts of Poker Flat is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.