Jim Baker's Bluejay Yarn Summary
“Jim Baker’s Bluejay Yarn” was first published as chapter 3 of Mark Twain’s travel narrative A Tramp Abroad (1880). In that version, the actual narrative is preceded by an introduction, which appears at the end of chapter 2, in which the narrator of A Tramp Abroad introduces Jim Baker as “a middle-aged, simple-hearted miner who had lived in a lonely corner of California among the woods and mountains a good many years, and had studied the ways of his only neighbors, the beasts and the birds, until he believed he could accurately translate any remark they made.” Also in the introductory section, Jim Baker elaborates on his high opinion of jays, offering the opinion that they are “just as much a human as you be,” and concluding that “a jay will lie, a jay will steal, a jay will deceive, a jay will betray; and four times out of five, a jay will go back on his solemnest promise.” The narrator affirms that he knows this to be true because Jim Baker told him so himself, thus establishing his own naïveté and gullibility. This beginning establishes a “frame” for the story.
Some editors print the introductory material as part of “Jim Baker’s Bluejay Yarn,” although others include only the material from chapter 3 of A Tramp Abroad that is discussed below. Because the story materially benefits from establishing Jim Baker’s character and his views on jays, it is best to read a complete version.
Jim Baker’s “yarn” cannot be captured in a simple summary of events, because, as Twain pointed out in an essay entitled “How to Tell a Story,” a “humorous story depends for its effect on the manner of the telling,” rather than on its contents. Thus, the events of the story are unimpressive unless presented with the droll style of the master storyteller. Even when read aloud, the yarn falls flat unless it is artfully presented. Being such a master raconteur, Jim Baker must be “heard” as he elaborates this tale of an excessively ambitious bluejay whose reach far exceeded his grasp.
Baker begins in a matter-of-fact way by establishing his authority as an expert on bluejay behavior by setting the story at a time in the past “when I first begun to understand jay language correctly.” Being the last remaining soul in the region, Baker no doubt gained his knowledge of jays by doing just what he describes in the story: watching bluejays from his front porch. In fact, he seems to have nothing else in particular to occupy his time, so on this Sunday morning, Baker says, “I was sitting out here in front of my cabin, with my cat, taking the sun, and looking at the blue hills, and listening to the leaves rustling so lonely in the trees, and thinking of the home away yonder in the states, that I hadn’t heard from in thirteen years, when a bluejay lit on that house, with an acorn in his mouth, and says, ’Hello, I reckon I’ve struck something.’” In this way, Twain not only establishes the “authenticity” of the story but also subtly characterizes the narrator and his way of life.
As Baker watches, the jay becomes intrigued by a knothole he has discovered in the roof of the abandoned cabin on which he is perched. After an elaborate examination to satisfy himself that it is indeed a hole that he has discovered, the jay drops an acorn into the opening and awaits the sound of it hitting bottom. When he hears nothing after a proper interval, he seems first curious, then surprised, and finally indignant. Baker is able to infer this because, as he told the reader at the outset, he understands jay language. In this context, the elaborate description given of the jay’s behavior is Baker’s way of describing the bird’s language. “He cocked his head to one side, shut one eye and put the other one to the hole, like a ’possum looking down a jug; then he glanced up with his bright eyes, gave a wink or two with his wings—which signifies gratification, you understand—and says, ’It looks like a hole, it’s...
(The entire section is 1,126 words.)