The Outcasts of Poker Flat

The Outcasts of Poker Flat Themes

Purity and Innocence

Because the story's premise is the exile of several townspeople from Poker Flat, the line between innocence and guilt is built into the plot from the beginning. Referring to the town's disapproval of prostitution, the narrator says, "it was only in such easily established standards of evil that Poker Flat ventured to sit in judgment." In this way, Poker Flat draws a sharp line delimiting that which is conventionally or legally prohibited, whereas the story's narrator makes room for ambiguity as it relates to good and evil. The theme of hidden innocence is particularly embodied by Tom Simson, referred to as "the Innocent," and his bride, Piney Woods, both of whom are categorically innocent people blending with those whom society has termed guilty. Although Uncle Billy proves Poker Flat's judgment right by taking advantage of his fellow exiles, others in the party sacrifice themselves for the good of the group (Mother Shipton), a gesture that alludes to Christ's crucifixion, which is similarly in tune with notions of innocence and purity. The relentless snow that plagues the group likewise provides the symbolic space for the characters to be cleansed and purified. Ultimately, the citizens of Poker Flat must confront their own guilt when they discover the frozen remains of the exiled party in the mountains.

Chance, Luck, and Fate

Luck is a looming presence in the story, as the name "Poker Flat" refers to a card game in which luck is key. Of course, John Oakhurst is himself a gambler who depends on luck and chance for his living. Ultimately, however, he resigns himself to the notion that luck is fickle and "bound to change," leaving the deuce of clubs to serve as his tombstone after killing himself. Embedded in the story's treatment of chance, luck, and fate, however, is the question of human agency. Although the party is exiled, they believe they'll make it to Sandy Bar until Uncle Billy steals their mules. Both Mother Shipton and John Oakhurst likewise demonstrate their own agency in controlling their fate by taking their own lives. On the other hand, the events of the story are strongly influenced by the relentless snow, a force of nature outside the realm of human agency and seemingly determining each character's fate.


Religion is introduced at the start of the story when John Oakhurst notices a "Sabbath lull" in the air, which he interprets as a sign of his impending exile. Later, Tom Simson prompts the group to sing, "I'm proud to live in the service of the Lord, And I'm bound to die in His army," foreshadowing their eventual deaths. A powerful symbol of God's presence is the snow that falls throughout the group's stay in the mountains, as it both symbolizes a spiritual cleansing of the exiles and dooms them to die in each other's arms.