The Outcasts of Poker Flat

The Outcasts of Poker Flat Summary and Analysis of the Second Half of the Story


Oakurst wakes up in the early morning and notices it has started to snow. Furthermore, he discovers that Uncle Billy has been up long before him, and has stolen off with their horses and mules. The rest of the group has no other choice than to wait for ten days until they run out of provisions.

At first, the travelers attempt to entertain themselves by singing and listening to Tom play accordion and tell stories like The Iliad around the campfire. Slowly, however, their rations dwindle, and the group faces the harsh reality that they may not make it to their destinations.

As the days go by, Mother Shipton dies of starvation, as she tries to save food for ‘the child,’ Piney. Oakhurst decides that Tom has to go to get some help and he fixes him some snow shoes. Then he tells the two women he will accompany Tom ‘as far as the canyon.’ Duchess and Piney stay in the cabin and when their fire dies they fall asleep hugging each other. And when officials from the town, the “law of Poker Flat” comes upon their bodies days later, it is unable to tell which one is the sinner, the snow having eliminated all trace of wrongdoing from their bodies, so the search party turns away and let them be.

The search party also happens upon the makeshift grave of John Oakhurst, marked by a playing card upon which Oakhurst has written an epitaph blaming his death on "a streak of bad luck." The narrator reveals that Oakhurst shot himself with a pistol in the heart, and calls Oakhurst both the strongest and weakest of the "outcasts of Poker Flat."


In this section, Harte's narrator continues his role as third-person semi-omniscient, and reveals an eerie awareness of each character's dramatic situation, and of the dramatic situation of the town of Poker Flat itself. For example, the narrator introduces the reader to the story by describing the "Sabbath lull" that Oakhurst notices before he's exiled, and then by letting us in on Oakhurst's internal dialogue, "I reckon they’re after somebody...likely it’s me." In this way, the narrator provides the reader with an editorial point of view right away, effectively siding with Oakhurst (i.e. using irony to describe the town's new committee reaction to local crime as a "spasm of virtuous reaction," and indeed "quite as lawless and ungovernable as any of the acts that had provoked it"), and even explicitly passing judgement in the first person ("I regret to say that some of these were ladies"). At the same time, the vast extent of the narrator's knowledge about each character's backstory approaches total omniscience and therefore gestures at objectivity, even approaching a Godlike perspective. This conflict between objectivity and subjectivity, summed up by the story's last line ("beneath the snow lay he who was at once the strongest and yet the weakest of the outcasts of Poker Flat"), fits into the story's core themes surrounding the complicated nature of sin and purity, guilt and innocence, free will and fate.

At the start of the story’s second half, Harte builds on the dramatic irony present at the end of its first half, wherein the reader (but none of the characters) knows that Uncle Billy has stranded the party in the a mountain blizzard. Here, the devastating news spreads first to Oakhurst and later to the other “improper” members of the party, but never to Tom Simson and Piney, the “innocents” of the group, as Oakhurst lies to them, saying he believes the animals stampeded when Uncle Billy left. Only the exiled Mother Shipton and the Duchess hear the lie and understand that Uncle Billy has stolen the animals, thereby dooming them. By reserving the knowledge of Uncle Billy’s crime for only the reader and the “improper” members of the party, Harte not only reinforces the already present division between the “innocent” characters and the “improper” ones, but also establishes a sympathetic tie between the reader and the exiles. In this way, the Innocent and his fiancée remain appropriately “innocent” of their companions’ sins, whereas the reader is asked to understand these sins yet invest in the story of the sinful characters all the same.

Once Uncle Billy has doomed his companions, the foreshadowing that is central to the story kicks into high gear. One of the first instances of this foreshadowing comes in the form of the bone castanets that Tom the Innocent plays, which become particularly eerie alongside the refrain of the song that the party sings: “I’m proud to live in the service of the Lord, And I’m bound to die in His army.” Later, Oakhurst repeats this refrain privately in conversation with Tom in order to emphasize the fatal implications of the second half of the verse, “And I’m bound to die in His army.”

Harte also begins to personify the party’s natural environment, imbuing it with increasing viciousness. Although the sun initially appears “regretful,” Harte eventually compares the snow to a “prison” via metaphor. Even Tom’s accordion seems worried by their predicament, producing music in “fitful spasms and long-drawn gasps.” Only when the party has died does Harte compare the ceasing snow to a more peaceful image—“white-winged birds”—therein calling to mind the white dove sent to signify the end of the purifying flood in the Bible. Here, personification collides with allusion to signify the end of a storm meant to cleanse the Earth of sin, an ironic note with which to close the story, as the characters are only entirely purified when the snow has killed them.

The irony of such an ending is enforced by the complicated nature of guilt and innocence running through the story’s second half, where Oakhurst serves as a kind of moral middle ground between innocent and improper. This is made clear when Tom tells the story of the Iliad, focusing on the figure of Achilles (whose name he pronounces wrong). Like the alluded-to Achilles, John Oakhurst serves as a tragic character that occupies a fatal middle ground between innocent and guilty, weak and strong. With the narrator’s final reference to Oakhurst as the “strongest and yet the weakest” of the exiles from Poker Flat, the reader is meant to feel the similar tragedy and inevitability of his death.

In this way, Oakhurst serves as a disruption of the story’s identity as allegory throughout, whereas his doomed companions only disrupt the allegory at the story's close. Although the story begins with its central characters categorized as guilty or innocent, it closes with a more complicated view of each character’s moral standing. For example, Mother Shipton, who begins the story swearing and complaining about her situation, ends up a martyr who sacrifices herself for the good of Piney. In turn, Piney dies next to the Duchess, and they are made morally indistinguishable from one another, despite their distinct identities as innocent and guilty at the start of the story. Only Oakhurst maintains the same ambivalent moral identity throughout the story, relying on luck rather than morality to guide him. Of course, his reliance on luck is ultimately complicated by his decision to take his own life, an act of free will.