The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County Imagery
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Written by Timothy Sexton
Narrator v. Storyteller
The difference between the sophisticated language of the eastern formal diction and the less restricted and storytelling dialect adopted by Wheeler are examples of how imagery can be used in the construction of sentences to delineate differences in character or even entire populations. Note that the first line written by the narrator creates the image of a precision with a focus upon getting to the point: “In compliance with the request of a friend of mine, who wrote me from the East, I called on good-natured, garrulous old Simon Wheeler…” Now compare the image of the character such language constructs in the imagination with the image created by Simon’s first line of dialogue: “Rev. Leonidas W. H’m Reverend Le—well, there was a feller here once by the name of Jim Smiley, in the winter of ’49—or maybe it was the spring of ’50—I don’t recollect exactly, somehow, though what makes think it was one or the other is because I remember the big flume warn’t finished when he first come to camp…” The narrator’s language almost creates the image of a legalese or at the very least a business letter whereas Wheeler’s freewheeling style complete with patois of mispronounced words reveals the image of a storyteller. And yet, do not forget, it is the narrator who has written the story to be published.
The Two Simon Wheelers
The narrator provides a portrait of Simon Wheeler telling his tall tale through imagery that includes a monotonous delivery, an unsmiling face, a lack of enthusiasm and a notable element of sincerity. This is the image of Simon Wheeler from the perspective of the narrator and yet that very same narrator relates the story within the story of Simon Wheeler telling his story-within-the-story-within-the-story in a manner that seems to defy this image at every point. The Simon Wheeler whose story the reader enjoys engages the language of storytelling that presents an image of quite enthusiastic and hardly monotonous discourse that hardly seems to be intended with the unsmiling sincerity with which we have been led to expect.
The Progression of Smiley's Wagers
Although it may seem rambling and prone to diversion, there is a solid construction to the imagery that Wheeler relates regarding the extent to which Smiley is a compulsive gambler. The subject of the water goes from horse to dog to cat to chicken to birds to a straddle bug to the health of Parson Walker’s wife. The imagery is quite concrete—no funny business with symbolism here—yet in the end it takes on a figurative element that suggests the extent to which Wheeler may be having fun at Twain’s expense. A horse race is about as normal a competition for wagering upon as it gets. Dogfights, catfights and cockfights may not be quite as popular, but are still hardly outside the realm of the average gambler. Once he gets to wagering on which of two birds would take off from a fence first, however, things start to move away further away from the norm until the finale image of actually betting on whether a person would live or die takes us about as far from horse-racing as possible. It is almost as if Wheeler starts judging just how far he can this idea before his audience before completely losing credibility.
Andrew Jackson and Daniel Webster
The names given to two of the animals at the center of Smiley’s wagering story provide a layer of imagery working in the service of allusion. Contemporary readers of Twain’s time would have been instantly familiar with the reputations of Jackson and Webster which would thus have endowed their understanding and appreciation of the story to attain another level based on applying those characteristics to the animals. This is an excellent example of how the utilization of imagery is not always a constant presence or effective device in literature. Today’s readers are far less likely to make the connection Twain intended in creating dogs and frogs named after well-known historical figures.
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