The following won third place in the Humanities/Literature division of the Walter Spara Writing Contest sponsored by the Department of English and Communications in the spring semester, 2012.
An Admirable Gambler
Author Bret Harte is best known for his story, “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” in which the main character John Oakhurst is introduced as a gambler. Due to numerous crimes taking place in the region of Poker Flat, a secret committee has decided on which citizens to banish based on their levels of morality and have chosen Oakhurst because of all the money he has won from them in gambling. When banished along with several other immoral citizens, they are trapped by a snow storm which blocks their path to the town, Sandy Bar, and they must find a way to survive under the unfortunate conditions. Although Oakhurst is considered to be immoral by the townspeople, we learn that deep in this gambler’s heart are several admirable qualities that he puts to good use throughout the time he and his fellow exiles struggle on their journey.
Oakhurst has several opportunities to leave his group and possibly save his own life, but the leader within him causes him to stay with his group and be there when they need him. When they are almost halfway through their journey, the Duchess “declared her intention of going no farther, and the party halted” (485). Oakhurst knows they need to keep going, but when the group begins to sit down and drink, he realizes there is no chance the group is continuing. The narrator describes the other exiles as “weaker and more pitiable companions” (486) that would not make it much farther without Oakhurst. One of his companions, Uncle Billy, is known for being a “sluice-robber and confirmed drunkard” (485). Proving these accusations, Uncle Billy steals several mules with rations while everyone is asleep the second night they are stranded. Oakhurst, “turning
to where Uncle Billy had been lying…found him gone. He [then] ran to the spot where the mules had been tethered – they were no longer there” (487). Uncle Billy does what Oakhurst could’ve done. However, because Oakhurst is such a strong leader inside, he decided to do what is right and stay with his helpless companions.
Along with being a confident leader, Oakhurst also shows compassion and comforts his fellow exiles while they are stranded. One incident in which he exemplifies his compassion occurs when he confronts the others about Uncle Billy’s disappearance. When he returns to the campfire after he discovers Uncle Billy has run away, he does not reveal the truth to the others right away. “For some occult reason, Mr. Oakhurst could not bring himself to disclose Uncle Billy’s rascality, and so offered the hypothesis that he had wandered from the camp and had accidently stampeded the animals” (487). He wants the others to keep hope and stay positive about the situation and they find some comfort knowing there is a possibility Uncle Billy will return. Another incident where Oakhurst gives his companions comfort happens when he encourages Tom, who is not banished but runs into them on their journey, to go to Poker Flat to fetch help for the others. As Tom is leaving, the Duchess asks Oakhurst if he is going with him. He tells her he is only going part of the way, but then he turns around “suddenly and kisse[s] the Duchess, leaving her pallid face aflame and her trembling limbs rigid with amazement” (490). In this situation, Oakhurst can tell that the Duchess is scared and he takes the initiative to comfort her with a kiss, which for a moment makes her forget their unfortunate fate.
Another one of Oakhurst’s commendable qualities is his generosity. One would think that when stuck in a life or death situation, like the one the exiles are trapped in, that a gambler would fend for himself and play his cards right. Yet instead, throughout the struggle, Oakhurst watches after the others that are perhaps more innocent than he and gives them hope as well as provisions so that they may have a chance to survive. One example where Oakhurst displays generosity happens when he sends Tom back to Poker Flat to fetch for help. He pulls “the Innocent aside, and show[s] him a pair of snowshoes, which he had fashioned from the old pack-saddle” (490). Oakhurst gives everything he has to Tom so that he can make it back in time to save the women. Instead of using these snow shoes to help himself make it to Sandy Bar, Oakhurst gives them away. Also, before he and Tom leave, Oakhurst shows a bit more generosity towards the women who are staying at the camp. After the men left, “the Duchess.. .found that someone had quietly piled beside the hut enough fuel to last a few days longer” (490). Oakhurst was the one who chopped up enough firewood for the women so that they may have a fire to keep them warm. Not only does Oakhurst demonstrate a giving nature on this journey, but also he had shown generosity in his past. We learn earlier in the story that he had met Tom before during a gambling game and “had won the entire fortune. . . of that guileless youth” (486). Still, “after the game was finished, Mr. Oakhurst drew the youthful speculator behind the door.. .then handed him his money back…” (486). This act of charity shows us that generosity had been deep in Oakhurst’s heart well before he was banished from Poker Flat.
In “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” Bret Harte brilliantly illustrates the importance of not judging others based on their outward appearance and past choices. Although the main character, Oakhurst, is known as a gambler and is banished from his town, we discover several of his admirable qualities throughout the story. He shows leadership in choosing to stay with his helpless group, compassion in keeping hope alive and caring for the sad women, and generosity in giving his supplies away to help the innocent others fight for their lives. Some suggest that these admirable qualities make Oakhurst weak in that he isn’t able to save his own life. Others believe, these commendable, sympathetic attributes are what make Oakhurst the strongest one in the group. After all, sacrificing one’s own life for others requires a great amount of inner strength.
Harte, Bret. “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” The American Tradition in Literature 12th ed. Vol 2. Eds. Georger and Barbara Perkins. New York, New York. McGraw Hill. 2009. 484-91.