The frame tale structure of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is one of its most important parts. In a frame tale, one story appears in—that is, it is framed by—another story. In “Jumping Frog” the outer tale focuses on Mark Twain and his meeting with the talkative old storyteller, Simon Wheeler. This meeting occurs at the request of a friend of Twain’s, identified in some versions of the tale as A. Ward, who supposedly wants to find out about an old acquaintance named Leonidas Smiley. Twain reveals, however, that he suspects his friend’s request was merely a practical joke designed to waste his time. Twain’s suspicions about the meeting and his descriptions of Wheeler appear in the few paragraphs that open and close the entire story. Twain speaks in the first person in these passages. Because this portion of the tale first appeared in the form of a letter, the entire story also can be considered an epistolary tale.
The inner tale is the one Wheeler tells about Jim Smiley, his betting ways, and his run-in with the Stranger. Wheeler’s stories seem largely exaggerated, and can be viewed as examples of a tall tale. Wheeler tells his tale in a third-person narrative voice.
“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” takes place in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, shortly after the California Gold Rush of 1849. Mark Twain’s experience with Simon Wheeler and Wheeler’s stories about Jim Smiley both occur in Angel’s Camp, a mining camp located in Calaveras County, California. Wheeler tells Twain his stories in a local bar, the type of place where stories are often shared.
Satire is an essential component of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Satire is a technique that involves the manipulation of stereotypes and the use of exaggeration to point out the folly of a person or situation. In “Jumping Frog” Twain pokes fun at several things, including the tall tale genre, the American West, and the American East. Instead of merely using the tall tale for humorous effect, Twain also uses it to challenge various stereotypes held by many Americans at the time. According to these stereotypes, individuals living in the western United States were often uneducated, gullible fools. By contrast, Americans living in the eastern part of the United States were supposed to be well-educated, sophisticated, and cultured. In a satirical twist, Twain’s sophisticated Easterner actually comes across as an impatient and self-absorbed snob who gets fooled by both his friend and the garrulous Wheeler. Likewise, Wheeler is ultimately revealed to be not a rube, but a good-natured and experienced storyteller whose deadpan delivery is merely a front used to fool his supposedly sophisticated listener.
A tall tale features exaggerated, fabulous events. Characters in tall tales are often considered “larger than life,” meaning they exhibit extraordinary qualities. Simon Wheeler’s stories about Jim Smiley and his pets feature many such exaggerations, and thus fall into the tall tale category. For example, Wheeler describes Smiley as a man who will make a bet on anything, even something as mundane as which of two birds will fly off a fence first. Smiley’s frog, Dan’l Webster, practically flies through the air when jumping and uses his legs like a cat to scratch himself. Finally, Andrew Jackson, Smiley’s dog, will hold on to another dog—his preferred technique for fighting—for as long as a year to win a fight.
Twain gives the animals in “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” human traits, a technique called anthropomorphism. Andrew Jackson, Jim Smiley’s dog, is described as proud, ornery, and determined. He likes to fight and likes to win his battles. When he fights a dog that he can’t beat, he eventually dies from the humiliation. Both Andrew Jackson and the frog named Dan’l Webster are described as gifted. Dan’l Webster is additionally described as being modest and straightforward.
Authors frequently use dialect and vernacular language to establish the setting of their tales, as well as their characters’ identities. In “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” Twain uses language to highlight the differences between his characters. For example, when Twain speaks, he uses grammatically proper English. Simon Wheeler, however, tells his tale in the vernacular, or common-day language, of the American West. Wheeler ignores many grammatical rules, and speaks with an “accent” of sorts. He says “feller” instead of “fellow,” “reg’lar” instead of “regular,” and even “Dan’l” for “Daniel.”
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Mark Twain, Published by Gale, 1997.