The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County | Study Guide

Mark Twain

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The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County | Themes


Appearance versus Reality

Jim Smiley will bet on anything, but when he can control the situation, he uses animals that aren't just good but are deceptively good. His "fifteen-minute nag" seems to be slow and ill, but when pressed, she can run fast enough to win any race. His dog is unimpressive and seems sure to lose the fights in which Smiley enters him. But once the money is bet, he pulls his trick move—clamping on to the other dog's hind legs—and wins. Smiley knows Daniel Webster, his "celebrated" frog, looks just like any other frog, and so he is able to find people to bet that other frogs can outjump it. They don't know he's been training his frog to jump. But when the stranger cheats by feeding the frog quail shot, this expectation is reversed. To Smiley, Daniel Webster looks the same as he always has, but in reality, he's weighed down and can't jump. By the same token, the stranger appears to be like the other people Smiley has tricked. But here, too, appearances are deceiving: the stranger is quick-thinking, and he beats Smiley at his own game.


The language used in telling the story is as important to "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" as the story itself. Mark Twain (1835–1910) starts with several paragraphs in standard English, which along with other clues establishes that the narrator is from the eastern United States. When Simon Wheeler starts telling his story, he speaks in an extreme dialect, which Twain reproduces through phonetic spelling and punctuation. He spells words such as "solitary" as "solittry" and "infinite" as "inftnit." He also uses apostrophes to show the way words are pronounced in this dialect, such as "cal'klated." He adds and omits punctuation and hyphens to convey speech patterns, such as drawing out sounds in "kicking up m-o-r-e dust." Wheeler tells his tale in a monotone that the narrator perceives as contrasting absurdly with the fantastical and humorous content of the story. Twain's creative use of language recreates oral storytelling in print, which helps bring his tall tale to life.

Competition and Betting

Betting is central to the story. Jim Smiley will bet on anything: dog or cat fights, races, which bird will fly off a fence first, and even if the wife of the camp minister will survive a nasty illness. Though the story focuses on Smiley and his obsessive gambling habit, there is a larger context to this. Smiley has to be betting someone for a wager to happen, and this means that the mining camp is full of gamblers. Indeed, as the entire mining camp itself is a gamble, all the men who fill it are by definition gamblers. In the Gold Rush of 1848, thousands of people left their previous lives and traveled to the camps to compete for California's gold in hopes of making a fortune. Despite betting everything, most of these miners would not be lucky enough to strike it rich.

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