The Outcasts of Poker Flat

The Outcasts of Poker Flat Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What is the story's ultimate treatment of religion?

    The story opens with John Oakhurst noticing the "Sabbath lull in the air," a phrase that instantly evokes Poker Flat's religious resonances. The exile of Oakhurst and his companions itself connotes divine judgement in line with the various cleansings that punctuate the Bible, including the Plagues of Egypt and the Flood, the latter of which is connoted by the narrator's comparison of the falling snow to "white-winged doves." Throughout the story, the narrator uses language that seems to pass divine judgement on the exiles, Tom, and Piney; for example, it describes Piney as "the younger and purer," and the Duchess as Piney's "soiled sister." However, Tom, "the Innocent," and his bride, Piney Woods, also initiate a round of religious hymn-singing once they have merged with the exiles, casting the entire group—including the supposedly sinful exiles—in a religious light. By the end of the story, this motif of purification has extended to include the exiles, as Mother Shipton becomes a martyr figure and the falling snow hides "all human stain," meaning the sin that, according to the citizens of Poker Flat, defined the exiles. In this way, the ending of the story is ultimately religious, in that it forgives the exiles of their sins in the same stroke as it eliminates them from the Earth, much like the religious cleansings of the Bible.

  2. 2

    How does the playing card used as John Oakhurst's tombstone develop the theme of luck, chance, and fate?

    Oakhurst admits that, as a gambler, he believes a person's luck is always changing, and the narrator says that for Oakhurst, life is an "uncertain game." Oakhurst's ideas about his profession truly extend to his worldview, which suggests a resonance between the physical playing card and Oakhurst's physical body. In this way, it is fitting that his tombstone is a playing card, as it symbolizes his ideas about knowing when one's own luck is about to run out. His suicide thus becomes a victorious act, as he ultimately wins the game of life by taking his own life instead of succumbing to death like his companions in the mountains.

  3. 3

    How does Mother Shipton's role as a martyr develop the story's existing themes of guilt, purity, and innocence?

    Mother Shipton begins the story as a sinful character but evolves into a martyr, providing a useful microcosm of the more global irony embedded in the story. Although both Mother Shipton and the Duchess have been exiled because of their profession as prostitutes, Mother Shipton is presented as a thornier, more vengeful character than The Duchess. When the journey begins, for example, Mother Shipton threatens to "cut somebody's heart out," whereas the Duchess directs her anger inward, simply threatening to "die in the road." As the characters' exile grows more desperate, however, Mother Shipton becomes the ultimate figure of selflessness, sacrificing her food—and therefore her life—so that Piney, who is clearly the most innocent of the expedition's women, may live. More so than even Oakhurst, Mother Shipton thereby enhances the irony and hypocrisy of Poker Flat banishing those whom they deem "improper," revealing that in doing so, they have sentenced an unsung martyr to her death.

  4. 4

    How do the myths and mythical symbols mentioned in the story speak to the novel's themes of innocence and purity?

    Notions of good and evil are crucial to this story, as its premise is the exile of those deemed "improper" by the good townspeople of Poker Flat. Much of this duality is communicated through symbols that relate to purity and innocence or, by contrast, stain and guilt. It is, for example, in the guise of a mere plot device that snow serves as a crucial symbol of purity. This is explicitly invoked by the narrator at the close of the story when the characters succumb to the blizzard: "all human stain, all trace of earthly travail, was hidden beneath the spotless mantle mercifully flung from above," says the narrator. Fire likewise becomes a dual symbol of both damnation (hellfire) and purification. In this way, fire and snow serve as almost biblical—indeed elemental—symbols that track the supposedly evil group of exiles throughout their journey from "evil" to "good." It is the story of the Iliad, however, that serves as the ultimate mythical symbol in the story, invoking as it does the themes of fate and divine judgement.

  5. 5

    Is this story ultimately fatalistic?

    Throughout the story, the narrator plays with the idea that life is a game of poker and therefore subject to the same odds. This is, of course, voiced explicitly by John Oakhurst, who calls life "an uncertain game." In a vacuum, this line would imply that one's fate is as predetermined as a deck of cards, a thesis that is likewise borne out when Oakhurst says that all one can ever know about luck is that it is "bound to change." That said, notions of fate and free will duel throughout the story on a character-by-character basis. Although the exiles are doomed, through no fault of their own, when Poker Flat banishes them on the eve of a blizzard (not to mention when Uncle Billy steals their provisions), Tom "the Innocent" and his bride, Piney, choose to take the mountain pass to seek their fortune. Likewise, while most of the characters surrender to death by freezing, John Oakhurst chooses to commit suicide by shooting himself in the heart, while Mother Shipton starves herself. In this way, the story keeps in tension notions of fate and free will, as each character's fate is a product of both.