The Idyl of Red Gulch
Bret Harte


Harte's tale of a small town in California during the Gold Rush centers on a young schoolmistress, a drunken but charming young man, and a prostitute. The unusual triangle creates a quiet, moralistic tale with a few unexpected twists and turns.  Go to the tale

   B a c k g r o u n d

  • Story Setting: Red Gulch, CA
  • Story Date: The 1860's
  • Publication Date: 1869
  • Bret Harte: 1836-1902

  •    T h e    S t o r y
    (The links bookmark the tale.)

  • The beginning of the tale
  • Sandy, drunk, sleeps in the bushes
  • Miss Mary, schoolmistress, sees Sandy
  • Mary and Sandy meet again, and again
  • Mary and Sandy meet yet again
  • Mary has a female visitor
  • Mary learns more about Sandy
  • Mary leaves Red Gulch

  •    T h e    T h e m e s
    (The links bookmark theme-related passages in the color-coded version of the tale.)

  • The Schoolmistress: 1
  • Romance: 1, 2
  • Schoolmistress and Community: 1, 2

  •    R e l a t e d    S i t e s

  • The Idyl of Red Gulch (facsimile of original journal)

  • Text of Stories by Bret Harte

  • BRET HARTE: Popularity, Poetry and Performance (Anxiety)

  • Bret Harte

  •    I n t r o d u c t i o n

       Bret Harte is best known for his stories set in California in the years following the 1849 Gold Rush. Harte was an easterner by birth and education who went west in 1854 when he was 18 and lived in California until he was 36. He never really lived the life of the mining camps and small towns he wrote about, so his stories tend to mythologize the world he depicted, creating stereotypical characters and places that capture the flavor of the time. "The Idyl of Red Gulch" is one of these stories.

       "The Idyl of Red Gulch" depicts an incident in a small town in northern California. The three main characters are classic western archetypes -- the town drunk, the prostitute, and the schoolmistress -- and they are all portrayed in the manner we have learned to expect. The drunk has a charming side and a surprising past; the prostitute is a painted woman on the outside but a caring, frightened woman on the inside; and the schoolmistress is a stern but warm young woman who is loved by her students and respected by the townfolk.

       The portrayal of Miss Mary, the schoolmistress, is certainly idealized. She is less what the women who taught in District Schools in the second half of the 19th century actually were and more the popular ideal of what they should have been. Her characterization is worlds away from the portrayal of the early 19th century schoolmaster we see in most stories in this collection. Comparing her with Ichabod Crane, Washington Irving's archetypical schoolmaster in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," makes the differences readily apparent. (Irving's story can be found on this site.) Harte's schoolmistress is as competent and capable as Irving's schoolmaster is bumbling and ignorant. Miss Mary is the perfection of young womanhood, while Ichabod Crane is almost an aberration of nature. She is loved by her students, and he is feared by his. Comparing these two characters demonstrates the gulf between the image of the District schoolmaster of the first half of the 19th century and the schoolmistress of the second half.

       Though Harte intended to portray Miss Mary in a positive light, his depiction is mildly offensive by today's standards. He stereotypes what he considers to be the traits of a young woman in a way that can generously be referred to as "antique." Nonetheless, the stereotyping instructs us about attitudes toward these women whose calling was to educate the children growing up in the small, barely civilized towns in the western United States. "Miss Mary" is prim, even, to use Harte's term, a bit "stuck up." At the same time, though, she is warm with her students and displays a sense of humor. She is well educated and from a good family in Boston (We are told that she is an orphan who was raised by her uncle, which helps explain her need to move west and make her own way in the world). Her one weakness is a wild, sensual spirit that she cannot quite control. In fact, her untamed spirit almost leads her to ruin.

       Harte accentuates the schoolmistress' maidenly virtues by contrasting her with the other female character in the story, a prostitute who is an unwed mother. These women inhabit the polar extremes of the career choices open to a single woman of the day. Yet when they meet at the end of the story, Harte interweaves their lives to indicate that these two women who must live without a husband's protection are really quite similar, and one false step by the schoolmistress could turn her into the woman who appears to be her opposite. Harte names his schoolmistress Mary, possibly to spotlight her dual nature. By giving her the Biblically ambiguous name belonging to both the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, he indicates that she could take the path walked by either of these two women.