Outcasts of Poker Flat” by Bret Harte, and “To Brooklyn Bridge” by Hart Crane. Specifically, it discusses what reasons the two main characters have for conforming (or not conforming) to the norm in these two works.
The characters in these works symbolize America – both the best and the worst. They also symbolize how society expects much from its citizens, and how some people, no matter how hard they try, simply cannot conform to the norm and fit in to a society that will only accept them on its’ own quite demanding terms.
Conforming to the “norm” is one way people manage to get along in society. Society certainly does demand a lot from most people – ethically and politically, and those who do not openly conform to society’s rules are often cast out or seen as outsiders. In both of these works, the main characters must conform to society’s rules to survive. In “Brooklyn Bridge,” the main character is really the bridge itself, and Crane portrays it in a mystical or God-like way, as if it is an image to be idolized, just like the Statue of Liberty nearby in New York Harbor. More than conforming, the bridge becomes a symbol of America at its best. It is symbolic of a society on the move, and rushing toward the future. Crane writes, “Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft / A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets, / Tilting there momently, , / A jest falls from the speechless caravan” (Crane). The reader can see humanity as it rushes through the crowded streets of New York, then pausing for a moment on the miraculous bridge, and then scurrying on to their destinations. The bridge typifies solidity and permanence, something the rushing masses experience very seldom. The bridge conforms to what society believes its’ monuments should be – solid, permanent, and commanding. It also symbolizes these attributes that make a person successful in society, and so, it is a lasting symbol of what works and what does not. People look to it as an icon, and as a symbol of the best the American people can accomplish. Not to “worship” the Brooklyn Bridge as an American symbol and something representative of American culture and ingenuity is to go against the norm of society and culture.
In “Poker Flats,” the same theory of culture and society applies. Even in the wide open and unlawful American West of the 1850s there were certain customs and rules that one must follow in order to fit in. If the bridge symbolizes the American ideal, then Mr. Oakhurst in “Poker Flats” symbolizes quite a different American icon – the bad man with a heart of gold and a weak character. Mr. Oakhurst cannot commit himself to conforming to the norm; he can only exist in the fringes of society. When he actually joins a successful society, he cannot last there for long. He cannot face the realities of life and death, and so he chooses death over conforming or surviving. In the tiny society the survivors create in the hut on the trail, Mr. Oakhurst suddenly assumes the responsibility of leadership. Here, there is no on ridding the town of deviants, there is only a small, singular society that accepts Mr. Oakhurst for what he is. Somewhat like the iconic figure of the Brooklyn Bridge, he becomes larger than life and the savior of the group. It is an important role that is impossible for Mr. Oakhurst to fill. He has so long been on the fringe of society that when he is accepted for who he is, he cannot cope with the responsibility. He is so used to not conforming that he cannot conform, or create a new and acceptable life for himself. On the other hand, the ultimate sacrifice for her newfound society. She gives her life to try to save others. She symbolizes all that is good and decent in American life, just as the bridge does, and ironically, she is a castoff from Poker Flat, never able to prove her worth in the larger society that does not accept her. She is truly a good and decent person, and her character shows that even the outcast can fit in if they really care about others. Harte writes, “I’m going,’ she said, in a voice of querulous weakness, ‘but don’t say anything about it. Don’t waken the kids. Take the bundle from under my head and open it’” (Harte 33). Mother Shipton’s unselfish nature could not have been portrayed any better. Her sacrifice is superhuman, but so is her determination to do the “right” thing for her small society. She did not fit in the larger society of Poker Flat, but she was accepted in her small piece of society, and this was enough to make her life complete. Ethically, these outcasts may never have fit into a “normal” society, but in their small microcosm, they altered their roles. It is ironic that those who were the most reviled in town were the leaders and role models in their small society on the hill. It is also ironic that an inanimate object, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, can represent so much that is good and decent in America. The two parallels are easy to see when comparing these works. Sometimes it is not only the people in society who must conform to survive. Sometimes it is American icons that represent the country and the people that must also conform to a nation’s strict ideals.
In conclusion, both of these works illustrate the need for conformity in our society. In a society filled with only non-conformists, society would soon degenerate into anarchy and disrespect for every member of society. There are certain “rules” we all must understand and obey to get along in society, and these two works graphically illustrate what works, and what does not. Mr. Oakhurst’s weakness is a sign of non-conformity taken to extremes. The Brooklyn’s Bridge symbolic greatness signifies conformity and societal approval. Each work creates a smaller society and indicates how people survive or fail. The bridge, and those who cross it every day, are a microcosm of society, just as the misfits in the cabin are. They indicate that microcosms of society exist, but for them to blend successfully with society’s constraints, they must be willing to conform. The bridge is a lasting reminder of American strength and ingenuity, while the outcasts are a lasting reminder of American strength and non-conformity.
Brunner, Edward. “On ‘Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge’.” University of Illinois. 2000. 14 June 2004. http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/crane/proem.htm
Crane, Hart. “To Brooklyn Bridge.” Catryce.com. 2004. 14 June 2004. http://www.catryce.com/MysticCat/Poetry/Crane.html
Harte, Bret. The Luck of Roaring Camp. New York P.F. Collier & Son, 1892.
Pierce, Jason. “Overview of ‘The Outcasts of Poker Flat’.” Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998.