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Written by Timothy Sexton
I have a lurking suspicion that Leonidas W. Smiley is a myth.
The placement of this statement is what makes it significant. Were this admission to come at the conclusion of the story, after the reader has been exposed to the digressive story of Simon Wheeler and joins with the narrator in concluding that his friend who set him on the trail of Leonidas has enjoyed a joke at his expense, it would not be nearly as fascinating. Coming at the very beginning—literally the first paragraph—and it takes on resonance of foreshadowing while setting up the thematic component that much of what follows may be subject to serious consideration as deception.
He never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his voice from the gentle-flowing key to which he tuned the initial sentence, he never betrayed the slightest suspicion of enthusiasm;
This is another passage which seeds doubt about the veracity of anything that follows. The narrator is quite insistent that Simon Wheeler’s tale is told without much storytelling attributes, yet the when the reader is actually presented with Wheeler’s tale it is filled with images, metaphors, symbols, turns of phrase, and a variety of other literary devices which would be all but impossible to speak in such a monotonous manner without a making a concerted effort to do so. Wheeler does not come across as the type who makes a concerted effort to do much of anything other than spin tall tales, so the narrator must be attempting some sort of deception either in his characterization of Wheeler or in the way in which he has transferred Wheeler’s oral tale into a written transcript. The two versions simply do not match up.
"And he had a little small bull pup, that to look at him you'd think he wan's worth a cent, but to set around and look ornery, and lay for a chance to steal something. But as soon as money was up on him, he was a different dog; his underjaw'd begin to stick out like the fo'castle of a steamboat, and his teeth would uncover, and shine savage like the furnaces."
Nothing particularly special or out of the ordinary occurs in this quote, but that’s the very point. It is simply as good an example as any other of the use of dialect by the author to delineate character, create humor and advance the plot as well as establish the story’s them of Eastern versus Western ways. While nothing particular makes this passage any better than another, it is worth taking a close reading to fully appreciate the economy of words and the judicious use of regional pronunciation Twain uses her to get all those points across.
“he got the frog out and prized his mouth open and took a tea- spoon and filled him full of quail shot filled him pretty near up to his chin”
At this point of the story, anyone dealing with frogs might begin to suspect that Wheeler’s tall tale is totally untrue. Frogs do not have chins. (Actually, science has determined that only human beings have chins, though some animals do have chin-like protrusions; the frog, however, is not one of them.)
“And he ketched Dan'l by the nape of the neck”
If the reference to the chin did not get the narrator to start actively scoffing, it might be marked up to simple boredom. When the narrator lets the reference to a frog having a neck go by without comment, Wheeler knows he’s dealing with a rube. Frogs also do not have necks, much less napes. Of course, it could be that Wheeler is himself ignorant of these facts. That’s one of the beauties of the story; is Wheeler really as clever as he seems or is the Easterner just an even bigger ignoramus.
"However, lacking both time and inclination, I did not wait to hear about the afflicted cow, but took my leave.”
The story’s closing line occasionally differs slightly in word choice, but this specific passage seems the most likely to what Twain intends. Sometimes the final line is written in the more prosaic “I just left” or it may be the slightly more formal “I departed.” Since the entire point of the closing line is to draw a distinction between the unsophisticated language of Wheeler and the formal education of the narrator, “took my leave” seems by far the more preferable. Regardless of the exact word choice, it is evident that the narrator wishes to end his story on a display of his sophisticated mastery of proper English with, perhaps, the intention of gaining back some of the reputation lost by becoming a victim of a practical joke.
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