Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
To load a frog with shot so that it cannot engage in a jumping match is amusing. Beyond the obvious laugh, however, the slyness with which the defeat of the champion frog is managed seems to be an indication of Mark Twain’s interest in championing frontier common sense. It is not really an endorsement of cheating or deception in a malicious sense. The narrator’s casual reference to an Eastern friend is followed by an indulgently superior description of Simon Wheeler. Wheeler’s winning gentleness and simplicity are of primary importance to the author. This disparity establishes Twain’s dislike of the affectations and hypocrisy of the East, a dislike he readily contrasts with the informality and openness of the West. If the similarities of dramatic situation at the outset of the tale seem to indicate a familiar story line—the country stooge bested by the polished urbanite—the story upsets these calculations. The narrator, as things turn out, is not as clever as he sees himself. Assuming that he is more sophisticated than the man he meets, the encounter teaches him just the reverse—it is he, not Simon Wheeler, who is simple. The innocence of Simon Wheeler’s expression is a mask that he assumes to deceive the outsider by seeming to fulfill all his preconceived notions of Western simplemindedness.
Simon Wheeler’s tall tale also endorses democracy by making fun of superior feelings. Gazing at Daniel Webster, the stranger is unable to see anything that makes him innately superior to any other frog in creation. The subsequent triumph of the underfrog over the highly touted excellence of Daniel Webster comically vindicates the stranger’s radical democracy. The lesson here is that it does not pay to be too proud or too haughty in the egalitarian West.
Twain is not merely embellishing a well-known theme. Though not immune to the sentiments of cynicism and skepticism, Twain was imbued with the frontier spirit of openness and sincerity characteristic of the West. By poking fun at hidebound tradition, manifested through the narrator’s arrogant and polite speech, he ridicules Eastern customs and manners. In creating these three “simple” characters, Simon Wheeler, Jim Smiley, and the stranger, all of whom are superior to the narrator, Mark Twain places his humorist’s stamp of legitimacy on the American West.