The whole point of “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” is to illuminate how exaggeration is a cornerstone of humor. Humorous American fiction during the period of the late 1800s in which Twain was writing grew increasingly more dependent upon hyperbole, overstatement and similar literary devices to deliver the comic tone they sought. That tone is a very specific and particular sort of satire which engages the various devices of exaggeration to lampoon various situational elements commonly associated with the American frontier where the reality tended to be strikingly different from the portrayal of it read by excited readers back east.
By Twain’s own admission, the use of humor is most effective as a decoration to a story or a fragrant bouquet lying slyly beneath the flower of creation. In addition, although humor is essential for satire, it should not be contracted for the purpose of preaching a message. Considering that “The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” can be read in its entirety and profoundly enjoyed in the process without even needing to understand the satirical points it attempts to make, he clearly was right. Understanding the sermon beneath the outrageous events and descriptions makes the story all the more enjoyable and meaningful, it should go without saying.
The most obvious use of techniques of exaggeration utilized by Twain are what might be considered the prose equivalent of cinematic sight gags: the frog somersaulting through the air, for instance, or the frog that is able to catch flies on demand. The very concept of a dog winning a race by fastening hold of another dog’s hind legs is ridiculous to the point of insanity, but such over the top visual imagery is equaled by Twain’s subtle manipulation of local dialect to make satirical jabs. Consider that the bulk of those reading this story upon initial publication were settled into a social construct far away from its setting on the farthest end of the American continent. Geographical distance was nothing compared to cultural distance. Had Twain chose to set this story in New York or even had he chosen characters who came west from Boston or Philadelphia, the effect would be significantly different and the humor compromised. Wheeler, in particular, would essentially lose just about every bit of his power to amuse were he to speak in the more syntax of those readers back East who found his curious patois a source of terrific fun.
Of course, that is the whole point of the Twain’s admonition against using humor to preach. Wheeler is no doubt a figure of substantial satire, but the author’s decision to endow the character’s long monologue with recognizably “Western” patterns and figures of speech like referring to another as “the dangdest feller” also had the much more subtle satirical effect of undermining the superior attitudes of those readers back East who comforted their own lack of pioneer spirit with the cold comfort of being better educated, more well-spoken and generally more sophisticated those frog-jumping fellows transients of mining camps and ranches.
Ultimately, the exaggeration of the stories being told and the utilization of dialect to portray Westerners as the uneducated hicks his reader believed them to be will be completely upended by the character of the narrator himself. The narrator is written in a way that clearly has the intention of making reader assume Twain himself is the person telling the story. If so, then Twain—despite his position as a Westerner himself—is at least educated and sophisticated enough that his Eastern readers can easily identify with him. Wheeler is the rube here; Twain the stand-in for his readers. And yet, by the end, it is the Easterner in the form of the narrator who winds up being duped by the cagey and crafty rube in an example of a perfectly composed piece of satire that actually manages to satirize both sides of the ideological and philosophical coin.