“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 “interminable narrative,” but maintains an attitude of pained tolerance, all the time letting us know he considers himself superior to Wheeler. Wheeler, the narrator says, “had an expression of winning gentleness and simplicity” and told his tale with “impressive earnestness and sincerity … far from his imagining that there was anything ridiculous or funny about his story, he regarded it as a really important matter.”
Wheeler, however, possesses knowledge the narrator does not, and his story, suggested critic Lawrence R. Smith in Mark Twain Journal, contains details “directed precisely at the ignorance of the narrator.” For instance, Smith pointed out, Wheeler’s portrait of the frog, with references to its chin and the nape of its neck (both hard to find on a frog),”could only be acceptable to a man who had never seen one, or at least had not looked at one very carefully.” The narrator, though, is so convinced of his own superiority that he fails to realize Wheeler is playing with him, and he also fails to see anything of value in Wheeler’s story. Critics have found a variety of valuable points in Wheeler’s narrative. To Schmidt, it is the importance of cooperation in a community over unrestrained competition among individuals; the relaxed and cheerful Wheeler represents community values, while Jim Smiley disturbs the community with his competitiveness and pays the price for it when his frog loses the jumping contest. To Smith, Smiley is a more positive character, to be praised for his optimism and energy, who grows as a person when his frog is defeated; he learns not to be so naive and gullible. Either way, Wheeler’s tale can be interpreted as a commentary that ambitious, individualistic types would benefit from taking a hard look at themselves, maintaining the admirable aspects of their personalities, and being willing to change the rest. Both through the story of Jim Smiley and the framing story of Wheeler and the narrator, Twain satirizes certain American ideas of the nature of success and how to achieve it, while he also satirizes authors who have condescended to their “rustic” characters.”
Twain aims his barbed wit at some other targets, too. As Smith noted, Twain was known to be skeptical of organized religion, so it is significant that his narrator is looking for information about a minister; the clergy becomes associated with the narrator’s smug attitudes. A minister figures in Simon Wheeler’s tale, too; he mentions that Jim Smiley would attend Parson Walker’s camp meetings for the purpose of making bets. Smiley’s apparent lack of respect for religion is a way of deflating the pomposity of some religious people. The names of the bulldog pup and the frog have satirical significance, too, but here the jokes become more complicated. The dog’s namesake, President Andrew Jackson, had a public image as the champion of the common people and symbolized the belief that anyone, no matter how humble his origins, could, by talent and hard work, rise to the top of society. Wheeler ascribes just such talent to the dog, saying the animal “would have made a name for himself if he’d lived, for the stuff was in him and he had genius … he hadn’t no opportunities to speak of, and it don’t stand to reason that a dog could make such a fight as he could under them circumstances if he hadn’t no talent.” Smith thought the symbolism of the name appropriate and called the dog “the embodiment of Jacksonian democracy.” But another scholar, S. J. Krause, has argued in American Quarterly that Jackson actually considered himself superior to the so-called common people, that his stubbornness was not altogether admirable, and that he had a penchant for gambling. The story of the dog, therefore, is a means of subtly ridiculing Jackson, according to Krause. The frog is named after Daniel Webster, who distinguished himself as a U.S. congressman, senator, and Secretary of State. Krause has noted, though, that Webster was a political pragmatist, changing his stances when necessary—in other words, flip-flopping, just like the frog. Also important is the fact that just as the frog cannot jump in the final contest detailed in the story, Webster failed to make the ultimate leap in politics—he never became president. It takes some knowledge of history to appreciate Twain’s humor here, but this knowledge allows the reader to understand and enjoy the story on yet another level.
The names of other characters are meaningful, as well, and this is something upon which numerous critics have commented. “Simon Wheeler” suggests both “Simple Simon” of the nursery rhyme and a not-so-simple “wheeler-dealer.” This is appropriate because Simon does appear, at least in the narrator’s opinion, to be simple, both in the sense of being uncomplicated and in the sense of being not very bright; but, in reality, he is rather complex and crafty. In regard to the two Smileys, the simplicity of the name “Jim” contrasts with the pretense of “Leonidas.” And “Smiley” has a connotation of optimism.
These names, along with other aspects of the story, led one scholar, Paul Smith, to make an interpretation in Satire Newsletter that seems a bit far-fetched, but is sufficiently interesting to merit the attention of anyone studying the story. Smith saw “Jumping Frog” as a retelling of the great legends of pilgrims on a quest for knowledge and spiritual salvation. These pilgrims usually traveled from east to west, from a settled and familiar place to a land where there was much to be discovered. Smith saw the story’s nameless narrator as one of these pilgrims. Leonidas W. Smiley, according to Smith, represents the legendary Fisher-King, wounded, impotent, and lost in the Waste Land. Leonidas was the name of the king of ancient Sparta, and a minister is, in a phrase used in the Bible, a fisher of men. The name Smiley, Smith added, “suggests that in him the hopes of the land are invested and in his rejuvenation rests the chance to turn the waste land into the smiling land it once was.” Simon Wheeler is, in Smith’s view, an enchanter and a spinner of tales; his tale holds the clue to Leonidas W. Smiley’s disappearance. If the letters “o” and “s” are dropped from “Leonidas,” the remaining letters can be rearranged into “Daniel,” and the “W” stands for “Webster.” The king, therefore, has been turned into a frog, just as in the original Fisher-King tale, Smith asserted. And because Daniel Webster, the man, was a politician, the transformation symbolizes how practical politics have replaced religious idealism in American life.
A further sign of the nation’s decay is that the minister’s last name has been taken over by a compulsive gambler. It may seem a bit much to find religious allegory in the humorous tale of a gambler and his frog, but Smith contended that “however much a humorist Mark Twain was, he was aware of this tale’s tragic significance.” Smith’s interpretation, whether one finds it valid or not, is yet another indication of the riches that readers can mine from “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Mark Twain, Published by Gale, 1997.
Trudy Ring, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997.