The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County Themes
by Mark Twain

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical 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.


(Short Stories for Students)

Culture Clash
"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 was considered to be populated by a less-educated and less-refined group of people. 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 tales that are far-fetched and highly improbable. He speaks in monotone, supposedly having no knowledge of the techniques a good storyteller uses to keep 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 was populated by crude barbarians who had little education or knowledge of good speech.

In stark contrast to Simon Wheeler, the narrator Mark Twain comes across as well-educated with refined tastes. This Mark Twain is a storyteller...

(The entire section is 1,175 words.)