Sunday, June 24, 2007

My first paper for American Lit 2, I got an 88%

I agree with Everett Carter when he says that America’s realism authors wrote about “morality with an abhorrence of moralizing”. The primary moral of “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” by Bret Harte is ‘don’t judge by appearances’. The story is also infused with secondary morals of sacrifice, caring and sharing. Harte presents all of these lessons subtly within the lines of his story, while also depicting what real life was like in the Wild West.
Harte presents his primary moral of ‘don’t judge by appearances’ through the assumed and actual characteristics of his five main characters. The town of Poker Flat has decided to do some virtuous cleansing by removing a few of it’s undesirable residents; a gambler, a prostitute and her procurer. Mr. Oakhurst is the gambler. He was run out of town for winning too much money from the towns people, but his life was spared because he didn’t win all of the time. Early into the story, Harte begins to reveal Oakhurst’s true nature. Oakhurst allows the Duchess to ride his horse, instead of her own mule. (1475) He is also the one leading the entire group to another town where they can start over. Oakhurst shows compassion to Tom Simson by returning all of the money that the gambler had won from the young man and becomes the strong father figure of the small group trying to survive the snowstorm. (1476) The Duchess is a prostitute and Mother Shipton ran the whorehouse. These women are unmarried and are involved in a degrading and embarrassing lifestyle. Harte reveals to us that the Duchess is simply a woman who needs to be cared for and loved, “The Duchess, without exactly knowing why, felt relieved, and putting her head upon Piney’s shoulder, spoke no more.“ (1481) Mother Shipton is a selfless woman who is constantly looking out for the needs of the other women in the group, she starved herself so that the younger women would have more food. (1480) Based solely upon their professions, the towns people of Poker Flat and the reader assumes that these characters are without any ethics or honor, but Harte reveals them as honest, caring and virtuous people.
Harte also introduces two characters from the town that the outcasts are trying to reach, Tom Simson and his fiancé, Piney Woods. Simson is indebted to Oakhurst because the gambler returned all of the money that he won from the young man and is very willing to now help the gambler. Tom and Piney are young and naïve and are perceived as weak due to their youth and innocence. But they turn out to be the strongest people in the entire group. Tom and Piney generously share their provisions with the outcasts. (1477) Piney plays the according and sings and Tom tells stories of Greek heroes to boost everyone’s moral. (1479/80) Tom is also the one who bravely travels back to Poker Flat to find help to rescue the rest of the group. (1480) When Piney and the Duchess are left alone in the hut to wait for the rescue, Piney takes “the position of the stronger, drew near and placed her arm around the Duchess’s waist.” (1480) Harte provides multiple examples to show that these characters are different from how they were initially perceived.
In addition to showing the reader the true nature of these five characters, Harte also uses them to present more moralistic themes in his story of sacrifice, caring for others and sharing. Oakhurst sacrifices his horse for the Duchess to ride. Mother Shipton sacrifices all of her food so that the younger women may have an opportunity to survive longer. Tom sacrifices his own life in order to find help to rescue the rest of the group. Tom and Piney share all of their provisions with the outcasts so that they all might be able to survive. They also share their talents by entertaining the group and boosting moral. All of the characters take care of each other and put the needs of the group before their own individual needs.
At first glance, “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” is simply a realistic tale of five people who are trying to survive a snowstorm. The story is set in the Wild West, specifically, in the Sierra Mountains. The terrain is rugged, but the party finds the shell of a crude hut where they can make a primitive camp. Harte’s language is simple and representative of the time and setting of the story. The narrative is descriptive and concise, in just a few words, the reader has a clear picture of the characters. The theme of the story is also representative of the world view. All people are guilty of judging other people, whether intentional or not. Harte uses irony to show the outcome of assumption. He is not blatant about the pitfalls of assumption; he doesn’t blame the demise of the outcasts on the residents of Poker Flat who kicked them out. It is the way that he tells the story about these people that shows that he’s not trying to teach a lesson or illustrate the difference between right and wrong. Harte begins the story of “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” by introducing three characters who are typically strong, independent and resilient. In other stories of the Wild West, the gambler and the prostitute are usually the antagonist or vehicles to move the plot along. But Harte makes them sympathetic and human. The reader can identify with these people. He gives them names and mentions their professions only in passing. By the end of the story, they turn out to be the weaker characters of the group. He also takes the two characters who should be weak and makes them strong; the young and innocent Tom and Piney are brave, energetic and hopeful. They end up taking responsibility for the moral and safety of the group.
The eventual fate of Oakhurst, the gambler and leader, is the ultimate irony which drives home the moral of Harte’s story. The story ends with the scene of Oakhurst dead under a tree; “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.” (1481) Oakhurst was not the man who the townspeople and the reader perceives him to be. He was not the cheating thief or the philosophical leader, he was just a man who lost the desire to persevere.




Work Cited
Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature.
United States: W.W. Norton & Company, INC, 2003.

8 comments:

Granny Caruthers said...

Great writing, Jen. I have heard of the story but do not recall rading it. Keep up ith sharing yourself. Love, Granny Hope to see you and the family soon.

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