Themes and Characters

A cultured easterner relates his recent visit to a talkative old man at a western mining camp. Rather than providing the information that the easterner is looking for, the old man keeps him waiting while he spins a tale about a betting man and his pet frog.

“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” highlights various aspects of late-19th-century American society and culture through the retelling of a tall tale. Central to the story is the idea of conflicting cultures, particularly the clash between the settled, eastern portion of the United States and the still-developing West. At the time Twain wrote the story, the East and its inhabitants had a reputation for being civilized, cultured, and advanced. The West, on the other hand, was still being settled, and people thought of its population as less educated and less refined. By extension, westerners were thought by easterners to be naive and easily duped.

Twain presents these ideas in his story in various ways. Simon Wheeler, for instance, symbolizes the American westerner-a garrulous old man who tells farf-e-t-c-hed and highly improbable tales. He speaks in a monotone, supposedly having no knowledge of a good storyteller’s techniques for keeping an audience’s attention. An uneducated man, Wheeler tells his story in the popular genre of the tall tale rather than in one of the more accepted classic genres taught in eastern schools. He also speaks in the vernacular-that is, in common language, which contains idiomatic expressions, slang, and improper grammar and syntax. Wheeler’s use of vernacular language reinforces the idea that the West is populated by crude barbarians with little education or knowledge of good speech.

In stark contrast to Simon Wheeler, the narrator, Mark Twain, comes across as refined and well educated. This Mark Twain is a storyteller also, but in the passages that precede and follow Wheeler’s tale, he speaks in proper English. It is obvious that he has been educated in the finer points of grammar and syntax. Twain, however, also comes across as a snob. He is annoyed by Wheeler’s diction, and because he finds Wheeler’s quaint stories fantastic, he thinks they lack value. Indeed, when Wheeler is called away, Twain sneaks off, unwilling to listen any longer. Twain does not consider Wheeler to be an effective storyteller because the old man does not use the conventions that Twain prefers. He does not realize, however, that Wheeler is actually capitalizing on the stereotype of the uneducated westerner. For instance, although Twain finds Wheeler’s voice monotonous, it makes him believe that Wheeler speaks with straightforward earnestness. Wheeler craftily balances the absurdity of his tale with the gravity with which he speaks to keep Twain in the listener’s seat.

Deception, an integral part of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” occurs on many levels. In the opening paragraph Mark Twain, the narrator, voices his suspicion that he has been duped by a friend who orchestrated this “chance” encounter with Simon Wheeler. His friend asked him to inquire about a childhood friend named Leonidas Smiley, knowing full well that Twain would instead be subjected to fabulous stories about the famous betting man of Angel’s Camp, Jim Smiley. His friend also knew that Twain would be bored and frustrated by the entire experience. Wheeler likewise dupes Twain. He tells him the fantastic and improbable story of Jim-rather than Leonidas-Smiley with a grave demeanor that masks the genuine humor of his tale. By using this mask, Wheeler initially fools the snobby easterner and convinces him that he will be told a serious story. Another instance of deception involves Jim Smiley’s bet with the stranger, who wagered that Dan’l Webster was not the best jumper in Calaveras County. Not only did the stranger deceive Jim Smiley by pretending to be gullible, but he cheated by stuffing Dan’l Webster with quail shot to weight him down.

When first published, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” provided relevant and incisive commentary about American society. While portraying easterners as educated and refined and westerners as uneducated and gullible on the surface, Twain upset these stereotypes on a deeper level. He depicted the easterner (Mark Twain) as a snob and someone who could easily be duped, while portraying the westerner (Simon Wheeler) as somewhat of a schemer who, despite his lack of formal training, tells highly original tales. The names of Jim Smiley’s pets also had relevance for Twain’s American audience. Daniel Webster was the name of a famous American statesman known for his speaking abilities. Andrew Jackson, a former president of the United States and war hero known for his determination and strong will, was a strong believer in democracy and the rights of the “common” people. In these and other descriptions found in the story, Twain provided a more complicated and multifaceted view of Americans. “Jumping Frog” asserted that Americans could simultaneously be resourceful, innovative, practical, and determined, as well as shortsighted, narrow-minded, and gullible.

Mark Twain is the author and narrator of the story as well as one of its Characters. He is portrayed as the butt of a joke-the reluctant audience for the fantastic tales of a garrulous old man named Simon Wheeler. Twain allegedly was asked by a friend to find out about an acquaintance of that friend. Twain thinks that this was merely a trick, however, and is subsequently frustrated by his entire experience with Wheeler. Coming across as an impatient, condescending man unwilling to listen to Wheeler, he sneaks away when he gets the chance. Twain speaks in perfect English and may be viewed as a symbol of the snobbery associated with the eastern United States during the 19th century.

Simon Wheeler is an elderly resident of the western mining operation known as Angel’s Camp. A fat, balding man whom Twain finds in a bar, Wheeler is described condescendingly as possessing “an expression of winning gentleness and simplicity.” He remembers when much of the camp was being built and provides the actual story of the infamous betting man named Jim Smiley and his “notorious jumping frog.” Though he seems comfortable with his role as storyteller, Wheeler seems oblivious to the fact that he is boring his listener, Mark Twain, as well as to the fantastic nature of his tale. For his part, Twain asserts that although Wheeler speaks for a very long time with no enthusiasm or emotion, he speaks sincerely and takes his stories seriously. Critics note, however, that Wheeler is well aware of his narrative abilities and is not as naive as he seems. Despite his supposed lack of sophistication, he immediately sizes up the cultured easterner and dupes him into hearing this fantastic tale.

Jim Smiley is the focus of Simon Wheeler’s tale. A resident of Calaveras County’s Angel’s Camp in either 1849 or 1850, Jim was primarily known for his love for betting and would bet on almost anything-no matter how ridiculous. He even bet on whether people would recover from an illness and on which of two birds would fly away first. It is said that Jim would even make a poor bet just so that he could make a bet. Jim was considered a lucky man, however, and frequently won his bets. Jim had several pets: an old horse, a bull-pup named Andrew Jackson, cats, chickens, and a frog named Dan’l Webster, who is the “celebrated frog” of the title. Jim used these animals’ abilities as the basis for many of his bets. He was tricked by the stranger at the tale’s end.

The stranger was a con artist. He stated that Dan’l Webster wasn’t the prized jumper that Jim said he was and bet that any other frog could beat Dan’l in a jumping contest. While Jim searched for another frog, the stranger fed Dan’l Webster quail shot to make him too heavy to jump and thereby swindled Jim out of his money. This situation-the stranger duping the local (Jim Smiley)-contrasts with Simon Wheeler, the local, who dupes Twain, the visitor.

Dan’l Webster is the “notorious jumping frog of Calaveras County.” He was caught by Jim Smiley and trained by him to jump high, far, and on command. When jumping, he did somersaults and is described by the narrator as “whirling in the air like a doughnut.” Despite his jumping prowess, he is described as modest and straightforward. He was often used in Jim’s bets and was the victim of the stranger’s prank. According to Jim, Dan’l Webster could out-jump any frog in Calaveras County. He shared his name with the famous 19th-century American statesman and orator.

Jim Smiley also used his bull-pup, Andrew Jackson, in various bets. The dog is described as a good dog that did not look like much, and other dogs often seemed to get the better of him in fights. The narrator notes, however, that Andrew Jackson never seemed to be bothered by these temporary setbacks because once a bet was involved, his behavior would change. As the stakes in the bets were raised, Andrew Jackson would bite the other dog in the hind leg and stay there, hanging on, until the owner of his opponent gave in and forfeited the fight. In this way, Jim’s bull-pup would win his fights. Andrew Jackson died when Jim arranged for him to fight a dog with no hind legs. The narrator implies that Andrew Jackson was a proud dog and died of embarrassment. Like his namesake, Andrew Jackson is described as determined and strong-willed.

The “fifteen-minute nag” is the name given to Jim Smiley’s horse. An old and rather sickly animal, the fifteen-minute nag was used by Jim in many of his bets. The horse suffered from various ailments and did not look as if she could win a horse race. Nevertheless, Jim frequently put her in races. Although she would start out slow, in the last leg of the race the nag always seemed to get excited and typically found the energy to win the race.

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