The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County Symbols, Allegory and Motifs
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Written by Timothy Sexton
In addition to being a literal character, Simon Wheeler exists on a symbolic level. Allegorically speaking, he can be said to represent the Western stereotype for Twain’s Eastern readership. His manners suggest a lack of breeding, he is overbearing, has an anti-intellectual sense of humor and appears at first to be exactly the type of person whom an educated man from the East could take advantage of. He is also an ironic symbol, of course.
Mark Twain (The Character)
There are two Mark Twains to speak of when discussing the story. The first is Samuel Clemens, the writer of the story. Then there is his fictional alter ego who appears in the story and is perhaps not exactly a perfect representation of the real man. This is because the character in the story is the allegorical foil for Simon Wheeler. The character of Mark Twain is a symbol of Eastern intellectual snobbery who nevertheless manages to get bamboozled twice: first by the feller who sent him looking for a man who probably doesn’t exist and then by Simon, who wheedles him into staying far longer to listen to his digressive tall tales than any intellectual superiority would ever admit to.
Smiley's Crazy Wagers
According to Simon, that Smiley feller had a history of making wagers on some of the craziest things. The message seems to be that while thousands—maybe millions—of people might have be betting on horse races at the time, precious few were like Smiley and willing even to bet on how whether a person would succumb to illness or make a full recovery. By the end, however, it becomes clear that Smiley’s obsessive gambling is really a symbol for the human condition. Everything is a wager on some level. The Mark Twain character wagers that this Simon Wheeler feller will be able to help his track down the elusive Leonidas. Simon Wheeler wagers that he can hold the stranger’s attention for longer than just a few minutes with outlandish stories. At heart, everybody is a Jim Smiley; the question isn’t what kind of crazy gamble they are willing to take, but how much they are willing to put on the line.
The Fifteen Minute Nag
The slow mare that nevertheless manages to win Jim money every time she races is in a very broadly managed way a symbol of America. Or, more aptly: the idea of the American spirit of never say die and never give up. She may not be the fastest or the healthiest or the prettiest running horse in any race, but she refuses to quit until the thing is done. Since two of the animals that are pitted against each other are named after two famously oppositional politicians, it only stands to reason that Twain is trying to make a statement about America here. After all, when referring to a country, the feminine (mare) pronoun is usually preferred.
Twain gets barely halfway through his opening paragraph---his short opening paragraph—before having his narrator admit that the person he was looking for when he instead fell into the crafty clutches of Simon Wheeler is likely a myth. Maybe just some sort of Hitchcockian MacGuffin dreamed up by his friend in order to play an elaborate practical joke. The identification of Leonidas as missing and possibly mythical makes him a significant symbol in the story. The story is essentially a tale about Western stereotypes designed to satisfy Eastern readers. It is that very dichotomy that leads to the life in the Wild West becoming America’s mythic appropriate of Europe’s tales of knights and damsels in distress. Already by the 1860’s Twain has recognized that the power of myth is going to obliterate the power of truth and facts in the narrative about the settling of the frontier.
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