The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County Essays and Criticism
by Mark Twain

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Analysis of "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavaras County"

(Short Stories for Students)

"The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" appears at first glance to be a simple, humorous story, but actually is a complex satire of American literature, social conventions, and politics. Like the land around the mining settlement of Angel's Camp, it has riches under the surface, and the patient and careful reader can tap into this vein.

Inspired by an anecdote Mark Twain heard while traveling in the western United States, the sketch was published in various forms and under various titles, including "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog" and "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," but the basic story remains the same in all versions. The narrator, apparently from the eastern part of the nation, finds himself in a western mining camp listening to a rustic character tell stories about a habitual gambler named Jim Smiley and the animals that were the subject of Smiley's bets.

The story's structure was familiar to American readers in the nineteenth century. Many writers of the era penned "frame stories," commonly set in the southwestern United States, showing supposedly sophisticated and cultured Easterners encountering less polished characters on the frontiers of the expanding nation. The rough Westerners would tell tales that were often preposterous, and the Easterners' account of, and reaction to, these stories provided a "frame'' for them. "Writers often capitalized on the juxtaposition of literate traveler and colloquial rustic, exaggerating their differences of manners and speech to suggest cultural absurdities in one or the other or both," critic Paul Baender explained in Modern Philology. "Some writers also contrived little contests between the traveler and the rustic in which the rustic deceived the traveler with a tall tale."

In "Jumping Frog," as several scholars have pointed out, Twain has used the conventions of these stories but also has gone beyond them, creating something fresh and unusual. Baender contended that "Jumping Frog" resembles southwestern frame stories but does not actually fit into this category. "Simon Wheeler sees no class or regional pretensions in the narrator and has none of his own ... the tale follows ... not as a regional outgrowth, but as a fabulous history even for the region," Baender asserted. The contrast between the narrator and Wheeler serves primarily to "direct us to the humor that follows," he argued.

Paul Schmidt put forth a somewhat different view of Twain's use of the frame-story device. Schmidt noted in Southwest Review that in earlier southwestern frame stories and their predecessors— "local color'' stories focusing on quirky, unsophisticated characters in various parts of the United States—the story's narrator tended to be identified with the author and to be condescending toward the rustics he or she encountered. As the southwestern frame story genre developed, authors found this condescending attitude conflicting with sincere admiration for the people of the frontier. Twain resolved this conflict, according to Schmidt, by separating his own point of view from that of the narrator and by making fun of the narrator's pomposity and pretension. Twain's accomplishment, Schmidt commented, is "much more than the simple addition of another character to his satiric targets"; the author has managed to satirize "the entire point of view of the local colorist" and "the genteel version of the Enlightened traveler and belle esprit, a representative nineteenth-century American rich in official and accepted attitudes."

There is much in the story to support this view. The narrator has an exaggerated and rather ridiculous formality in his manner of speaking. He reports that he went to see Simon Wheeler "in compliance with the request of a friend of mine''; he "hereunto append[s] the result." He assures Wheeler that he "would feel under many obligations to him" for any information Wheeler could provide about Rev. Leonidas W. Smiley. The narrator obviously is annoyed by Wheeler's...

(The entire section is 4,728 words.)