A tall tale laced with typical Twainian humor and irony and ultimately meant not to be believed but enjoyed, Mark Twain’s (Samuel Langhorne Clemens’s) “The Notorious [Celebrated] Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” first appeared in an 1865 issue of the Saturday Press and eventually became part of the 1875 collection Mark Twain’s Sketches, New and Old. Repeatedly published—sometimes under slightly different names—and frequently used in Twain’s lecture tours, it may have developed from an experience Twain himself had as he stayed at a mining camp and listened to the men’s stories. In spite of its deliberately far-fetched nature—for readers commence ready to hear a tale of truth, gradually begin to feel its implausibility, and finally perceive its impossibility— its protagonist, Jim Smiley, represents a human being with whom all readers can identify, for like all humans, he is fl awed, and he cannot stop his habitual behavior, no matter its consequences. Mark Twain presents him not as someone to pity or scorn, not as someone to make fun of, but rather as someone merely to recognize, for in this early tale, while Twain uses some satire, he passes no judgment, for he has not yet reached the late stage of his career and the biting cynicism that eventually colored those late works.
This early work’s biggest complication stems from its use of a double narrator: the frame narrator—a persona that adopts Mark Twain’s fictive voice and listens to the other narrator—and the Jim Smiley tale narrator—Simon Wheeler. The story even employs an allusion to epistolary form, for the frame narrator begins by explaining that a friend’s letter sent him to hunt for a friend, the Reverend Leonidas W. Smiley, and he must compose a letter of explanation to the friend who sent him seeking.
But the frame narrator cannot find Leonidas W. Smiley; instead, Simon Wheeler launches into the “exasperating reminiscence” of “his infamous Jim Smiley” (1), and the frame narrator must sit politely and listen to what he considers a long, drawn-out, useless narration. This story, divided into what some consider three symbolic parts, begins with an introduction to Jim Smiley and his mare—an asthmatic beast that consistently wins races and money for Jim precisely because of her determination and in spite of her somewhat slow pace. She represents the lesson that winning results from effort and a failure to give up. Surely, Jim Smiley himself practices this motto, for no matter where he goes, he continues to try to win money.
The second part of the tale concerns another creature Smiley bets on, for Jim Smiley emerges as a devoted gambler, a risk taker who thrives on the challenge of not knowing for certain any outcome yet always calculating his ventures very carefully. Twain characterizes him through the dialogue of Simon Wheeler, who claims, “There couldn’t be no solit’ry thing mentioned but that feller’d offer to bet on it. . . . You couldn’t fetch nothing for him to bet on but he’d match you” (2, 4). Andrew Jackson, a dog absent his two hind legs, serves as the second animal upon whom Jim Smiley bets, and this dog, too, wins every race and does so by biting the hind legs of his competitors—at least until he faces a competitor just like him and suddenly quits and dies. This racer, then, represents natural talent, for his uncoached strategy demonstrates a kind of outwitting cleverness. He personifies Jim’s own talent for betting wisely.
Smiley does claim, however, that he has coached and educated his third competitor, a frog named Dan’l Webster, in hopping. He carries Dan’l around in a box wherever he goes and repeatedly bets that Dan’l can out-jump any frog in Calaveras County. A stranger to town claims he would like to challenge that bet, but he has no frog. Jim Smiley, of course, volunteers to get him a frog, and while he does so, he leaves Dan’l with the stranger. In an ironic twist, the stranger “filled him full of quail-shot—filled him pretty near up to his chin” (5), so Dan’l cannot move, never mind jump, when race time arrives, and the stranger wins with his frog. Once Jim Smiley discovers the trick, he chases the stranger, but he never catches him. The frog, then, represents education, for through him, Jim Smiley gains a lesson about trust and about never truly having a sure bet. Nonetheless, as the story ends, Jim Smiley sets off, ready to gamble again.
Some would say Jim Smiley’s antics, though supposedly calculated by Twain merely as entertainment, actually do deal with the themes of human trickery and of life’s offering of no sure bets, of nothing that can be taken for granted. Perhaps Jim Smiley himself is a little bit mare, a little bit dog, and a little bit jumping frog, but he will never quit gambling no matter how much money he loses.
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