I understand that grotesque humor is something funny arising out of something tragic or painful, but I don't see anything funny about "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." I think that...

I understand that grotesque humor is something funny arising out of something tragic or painful, but I don't see anything funny about "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." I think that it is kind of painful to have to read it, so I can relate to the narrator finding it painful to have to listen to Simon Wheeler tell the story, and I get that the narrator's friend probably set him up by telling him to ask Wheeler about Rev. Smiley so the whole thing is a bit of an elaborate prank, but I'm supposed to list several examples of grotesque humor. What is my teacher looking for?

Expert Answers
Stephen Holliday eNotes educator| Certified Educator

First. the term grostesque humor is loosely defined as something comic and based on a character or event that is painful to see and funny at the same time, bizarre, abnormal, unnatural--it makes you laugh or smile, but you feel uneasy about it.  Grotesque humor arose out of art and sculpture during a period in the 19thC. known as the Gothic Revival, which was based on art and sculpture during the Gothic Period (from the 12thC. to the 16thC).  Many Gothic cathedrals, for example, are decorated with sculptures of gargoyles, frightening and fanciful monsters, and next to the gargoyle, there might be the sculpture of a man who happens to be picking his nose.  That is an example of what came to be known as grotesque humor.

Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" could be said to be an example of  grotesque literature because the entire story is based on a bizarre, abnormal character, Jim Smiley, who will bet on anything.  The first grotesquerie, that is, a scene or event that is grotesque, is Smiley's willingness to bet on life and death as if he is betting on the next day's weather:

Parson Walker's wife laid very sick once . . . and Smiley asked how she was, and he [Walker] said she was considerable better thank the Lord . . . and Smiley, before he thought, says, "Well, I'll risk two- and-a-half that she don't, any way."

The grotesque humor here, of course, is that Jim Smiley is such a habitual gambler that he fails to make any sort of moral calculation about his bets, and he wagers that his friend's wife will die without any consideration for Reverend Walker (or his wife).  In this story, Twain has created a character whose view of the world, seen through the lens of his gambling addition, is upside down, the perfect situation for grotesque humor.

Later, Jim Smiley decides that he wants to have a dog fight between his dog, Andrew Jackson, a good fighter, and another dog that is sure to lose.  His choice of the dog is another grotesquerie:

. . . he harnessed a dog once that didn't have no hind legs, because they'd been sawed off by a circular saw. . . .

For most readers, this is a painful scene because of the dog's condition, but Twain converts the purely grotesque into grotesque humor by having Andrew Jackson lose the fight because his main fighting technique--latching onto another dog's hind legs and holding on--is useless because there are no hind legs to latch onto.  Even as we smile, however, we are thinking uncomfortably about a dog with no hind legs.

The celebrated frog, too, provides some grotesque humor when Smiley's opponent fills him up with quail shot, which makes it impossible for him to jump.  As we smile or laugh at Jim Smiley's losing another bet, we are also aware that the frog has been treated inhumanely.  

Smiling or laughing, while feeling uneasy about smiling or laughing, is the hallmark of grotesque humor.  Clearly, Twain, who adopted grotesque humor as a consistent literary technique in most of his stories and novels, enjoys making his readers laugh and feel guilty about it.

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