In what ways does Twain use irony in "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County"?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In his humorous story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, Mark Twain makes clever use of irony in separating the true from the false.  He does this through the use of three types of irony: verbal irony, in which a word or phrase is used to suggest the opposite of its usual meaning; dramatic irony, in which there is a contradiction between what a character thinks and what the reader or audience knows to be true; and situational irony, in which an event occurs that directly contradicts the expectations of the characters, of the reader, or of the audience.

Verbal Irony

By appearing to set up a contrast between the sophisticated, even pedantic voice of the narrator from the East and the regional dialect of Simon Wheeler, Twain satirizes the superior attitude of the Easterner; however, at the same time, according to critic Lawrence R. Smith in his essay entitled, "Mark Twain's 'Jumping Frog':  Towards an American Heroic Ideal," there is not just satire of the sophisticated and the vernacular voice, but there is a verbal irony regarding the men's speech: the contrast of falsity against truth. For instance, Twain's narrator describes Smiley's voice as possessing "a gentle-flowing key" when, in truth, he finds Smiley tedious.

Situational Irony

As he tells his "exasperating reminiscence" of Jim Smiley, Simon Wheeler ridicules the hypocrisy of the narrator who purports to seek "any information" on the Reverend Leonidas W. Smiley for which he "would feel under many obligations to him": Wheeler tells the narrator about Jim Smiley who,

...if there was a camp meeting, he would be there reg'lar, to bet on Parson Walker, which he judged to be the best exhorter about here, and so he was, too, and a good man

This ridicule of the man of cloth contradicts what the narrator expects to hear while it also points to the insincerity of the narrator himself who leaves because the tale of Jim Smiley does not afford him information about the Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley.

Dramatic Irony

This type of irony occurs in the tale about Jim Smiley's frog Daniel Webster--ironically named, of course for his "honesty" and "straightforwardness"although he is just a frog--whose mouth the other man fills with quailshot unbenowst to the owner, Mr. Smiley.  But, since the other man knows, this is dramatic irony.

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