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-nineteenth-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 farfetched 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...
(The entire section is 1662 words.)