Mark Twain’s “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”: Themes Analysis

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: May 21st, 2020


The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is a collection of twenty-seven short stories and sketches that were initially published in several publications around the U.S. during the 1880s. The book, authored by Mark Twain, was initially published on November 18, 1865, and has assumed other titles (Connie, xvii). These titles include “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” (Scott, para.1).

The story takes place in one of the gold-mining camps found in Calaveras County, California. This book is said to be one of Twain’s earliest writings, and he derived the story from the folklore that existed during the Gold Rush period. This title assisted in shaping Twain’s reputation as a humorist. In the book, the author uses various techniques to illustrate the American tall tale and reveal is message, and it is a striking depiction concerning the delusion of the people of America during the late nineteenth century.

Mark Twain’s “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was initially narrated in epistolary format. Even though some later publications did not pay attention to this letter-frame convention, the favorite ideals of the author are still being portrayed in the tale. In the book, the narrator (Mark Twain) is sent on an errand to see an older man called Simon Wheeler.

He is told to go and inquire about the whereabouts of an old friend of his, named Leonidas W. Smiley. Smiley had supposedly migrated to another mining settlement. Wheeler narrates to Twain a lively account about another miner called Jim Smiley, who is well known for betting in almost anything. Smiley would bet on anything, “If there was a dog-fight, he’d bet on it… if there was a chicken-fight, he’d bet on it” (Twain, 81).

Wheeler narrates to Twain some Smiley’s most prominent betting experiences. One of these involved a pet frog in which Smiley surprisingly lost the bet. Literary scholars usually cite this story to give an illustration of a tall tale and note how the author employs humor and exaggeration throughout the book. Moreover, critics emphasize the satire present in the story. The cultural differences between the western and the eastern parts of the U.S. have also been portrayed in the story.

“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”: Themes

The major themes present in this story are culture clash, American society, and deception. One of the late 19th century aspects of American society and culture central to the story is the idea of conflicting cultures.

This is evident in the portrayal of the developed eastern part of the U.S. and the developing western part. At the time when the story was written, there was a marked culture clash between the Eastern portion and the Western portion of the U.S. The Easterners were perceived to be civilized, cultured, and advanced, while the Westerners were seen to be less-educated and less-refined individuals. How is the west different from the east in“The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”? The author illustrates these differences in several ways.

The talkative uneducated older man, Simon Wheeler, as a representation of the Westerners, narrates to Twain stories that are incredible and speaks in a monotone, with no techniques of keeping the listener in his seat. Wheeler’s narration of the story in the popular genre of the tall tale and use of common language with grammatical errors reinforces the idea that the Westerners were less educated than their counterparts were.

In sharp contrast to the Westerner who spins a tale concerning a gambling man and his pet frog, Mark Twain is depicted as an educated with refined tastes young man. In the passages that come before Wheeler’s narration, Twain speaks in good English, which substantiates the fact that he is well educated in grammar and syntax.

The story summary depicts the Easterners as well educated, refined, snobby, and as some people who can be duped easily. On the other hand, according to the plot, the Westerners are portrayed as uneducated, gullible on the surface, and schemers since although Wheeler was inadequately trained, he narrated very original stories. The names used in the story, such as Daniel Webster and Andrew Jackson, make the story relevant to the American audience since the people were prominent personalities in American history (Smith, 41).

In this story, the author presents a complex and multifaceted view of the American society since it affirms that the American people can be concurrently resourceful, inventive, realistic, and strong-minded, as well as shortsighted, small-minded, and susceptible to deceit.

Deception is a fundamental component of the story, and it takes place on several occasions. In the first paragraphs of the book, Mark Twain laments that a friend who arranged for his meeting with the Westerner cheated him.

Twain’s friend told him to ask the older man about the whereabouts of another person, called Leonidas Smiley. He did not want Twain to hear the colorful story of the famous gambler: Jim Smiley. Wheeler also tricks the snobby Easterner by narrating to him the unbelievable and improbable tale of Jim, instead of Leonidas.

By masking the actual humor of his narration, the Westerner originally fools Twain and persuades him to be patient and wait for a more serious story that is forthcoming. Jim Smiley’s gamble with the Stranger also portrays fraud. The Stranger used fraudulent means to win the bet through stuffing the frog with a gunshot to weigh it down and disapprove of his competitor.

Writing Style Analysis

“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” story is given to us in the form of a tall tale, which was a familiar and well-liked story format in the late eighteenth century since most American frontiersmen employed it to show-off their exploits as well as to deceive the gullible Easterners. The structure of the text is presented in a ‘framed story’ format, which makes it one of its most essential aspects.

In a framed story, throughout the narration, one tale seems to be framed by another tale; therefore, in this instance, the outer tale concentrates on the talk between Mark Twain (the Easterner) and Simon Wheeler (the Westerner). The encounter between these people took place when Twain’s friend, called A. Ward, wanted to know the whereabouts of one of his friends.

In the first few paragraphs that introduce the setting and wind up the whole story, Twain talks in the first-person narrative voice. Since this portion was initially in the form of a letter, the entire narration can also be said to be in the epistolary format. The inner tale is whereby the old storyteller narrates to his visitor about the ways of the famous gambler, Jim Smiley, and he tells his seemingly highly exaggerated tales in a third-person narrative voice.

Satire in “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”, as a way in which human folly is pointed out by the use of irony, ridicule, or humor, forms an essential aspect. The author pokes fun at many things in American society (Krause, 562). As illustrated in the previous sections of this paper, the Eastern and the Western portions of America were viewed differently.

The author challenges that perception, which was held by many people then. In a satirical twist, the cultured Easterner is duped by both his friend and the older man. Similarly, the older man is eventually depicted not to be a rube. This is because he tells colorful stories whose deadpan delivery is only a way of duping his purportedly cultured listener.

Authors usually portray exaggerated, tremendous experiences in tall tales in which characters have above normal abilities. For example, in this short story, Smiley is depicted as someone who can bet on almost everything, Dan’l Webster is shown has able to fly through the air, and Andrew Jackson can fight for a whole year.

The author employs the literary technique called anthropomorphism by giving the pets in the story human characters (Mitchell, 77). The pets in the story are described by many different words, which include, but not limited to, arrogant, bad-tempered, determined and modest, and straightforward.


When Mark Twain’s “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” first appeared in print, the United States of America seemed almost to be consisting of two nations in one. There was a culture clash between the Westerners and the Easterners, and they held each other with contempt. In the book, Twain depicts the situation at that time by making fun of both parties. In the end, he shows that both parties were gullible, smart, and crafty.

Works Cited

Connie, Ann K. Mark Twain: a biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. Print.

Krause, Len S. J. “The Art and Satire of Twain’s ’Jumping Frog’ Story.” American Quarterly 16. 4 (1964): 562-576. Print.

Mitchell, Robert W. Anthropomorphism, anecdotes, and animals. Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York Press, 1997. Print.

Scott, Michael. “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” 2008. Web.

Smith, Paul. “The Infernal Reminiscence: Mythic Patterns in Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” Satire Newsletter 1.2 (1964): 41-44. Print.

Twain, Mark. The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. New York : Philip C. Duschnes, 1932. Print.

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