The Humor of Mark Twain An Analysis of The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County 马克·吐温的幽默观


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The Humor of Mark Twain

An Analysis of The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County



Submitted by Chen Xing

Student number 0805020075

Supervised by Li Chunhua

Foreign Languages College

Jiangxi Normal University

Mar. 2012

The Humor of Mark Twain

An Analysis of The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County
AbstractMark Twain, pseudonym of Samuel langhone Clemens, was brought up in the town of Hannibal, Missouri, near the Mississippi River. As one of America’s first and foremost realists and humorists, Mark Twain usually wrote about his own personal experiences and things he knew about from firsthand experience. In this thesis, I want to analyse barely one short stories of Mark Twain, to have a preliminary study on the humor of Mark Twain and the value of The Jumping Frog. In order to finish this job, some documents are helpful, both the online literature and the books. I have refer to many other writers’ view about Mark Twain. the main purpose of this paper is to make a clearly analyse of the humor of Mark Twain and the value of The Jumping Frog.
Key wordsMark Twain; humor; the value of The Jumping Frog; realism







Introduction 4

1.The humor in The Jumping Frog 6

1.1 A combination of colloquial language and humor 6

1.2.A combination of excessive exaggerated characters and events 7

1.3. Clever plot settings:from hoax and deception to humor 8

2.The elements that make Mark Twain a humorist 9

2.1. Social influences 9

2.2. Personal encounters 10

3.The value of the jumping frog 11

3.1. Criticise the American society in contend 11

3.2. Opens the door of the literary creation of Mark Twain in art 12

Conclusion 12

Bibliography 13

Acknowledgements 16


Mark Twain, the pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, was brought up in the town of Hannibal, Missouri, near the Mississippi River. He was twelve when his father died and he had to leave school. He was successively a printer’s apprentice, a tramp printer, a silver miner, a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, and a frontier journalist in Nevada and California. This knocking about gave him a wide knowledge of humanity. As one of America’s forerunner and reputed realist in the arena of American literature, Mark Twain usually wrote about his own personal experiences and things he knew about from firsthand experience. His life spanned the two Americas, the frontier America and the emerging urban, industrial giant of the twenty-century.

Fundamentally ,Twain is a great humorist. He once said “there are several kinds of stories”But only one difficult----the humorous. So to be humorous in his writing I venture to say is his lifelong pursuit. It is also undeniable that Twain is the only giant who had brought both local colorism and humor to world fame. Meanwhile he once claimed that he was a serious writer and was actively concerned with moral ideas in many ways. On this point, Twain was by no means shallow or frivolous and we can’t simply call him a humorist or an ironic writer. In fact, most of Twain’s works are the combination of both humor and humanity.

Because of his remarkable contribution to the nation, literary critics spoke highly of his achievements. For instance, these venerable title ”the Lincoln of American literature”, “the true father of our national literature”, “Mark Twain----Mirror of America” are used to highlight his pinnacles in literature. His faithful disciple, Ernest Hemingway, moreover, once put it, ”all modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain, called Hucklebury Finn…”

As far as a literary giant is concerned, Twain was remembered by men of letters firstly as a mastermind of humor and then as a realism writer. He is a master of humor and contributes a lot to American literature respectively. He has great influence upon writers after him, especially for his writing vehicles----humor. So far many researchers have become increasingly interested in Mark Twain’s humor. However, few studies have made on barely one of Mark Twain’s short stories----the first work which made him well-known to the public, The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. This is one of the reasons why I’m interested in this topic. For other resons, The Jumping Frog, which was regarded as the most excellent work in the American Humor Literature till then by James Lowell, reflects the typical characters of Mark Twain’s humor, for example the combination of colloquial language and humor, which is a milestone in literature. What’s more, in contend, it also criticises the American society at that time. Meanwhile, The Jumping Frog opens the door of the literary creation of Mark Twain as one of America’s first and foremost realists and humorists. The most important reason why I’d like writing this is that I appreciate Mark Twain’s prominent writing style.

Some experts had analyzed Mark Twain’s humor, they pointed out that Mark Twain mixed humor with satire, or transferred from humor to satire. Some scholars even made a comparison of Mark Twain’s humor and some other humorist. Still, other studies have picked up several of his short stories and novels toghther to analyse. In this thesis, I want to analyse barely one short stories of Mark Twain, to have a preliminary study on the humor of Mark Twain and the value of The Jumping Frog. In order to finish this job, some documents are helpful, both the online literature and the books. I have refer to many other writers’ view about Mark Twain.

Above all, the main purpose of this paper is to make a clearly analyse of the humor of Mark Twain and the value of The Jumping Frog.

1.The humor in The Jumping Frog

1.1 A combination of colloquial language and humor

The Jumping Frog is written in a colloquial style to some extend, in the general standard speech of uneducated Americans. It has something to do with ease and freedom in the use of language. Most of all, it has to do with the structure of the sentence, which is simple, direct, and fluent, maintaining the rhythm of the word’s group of speech and the intonations of the speaking voice.

Mark Twain wrote his first short story in his later well-known unpretentious, colloquial, and poetic style. He used vernacular language, dialect with spelling representing pronunciation. Vernacular language is the writer’s repeatedly emphasizednarrating language( ususlly belonging to a special district or age group ) as well as the characters’ direct language, usually different from accepted language of the society and the formal literery language. It can be humorous, with carnivalistic intent, but in essence is subversive and dislogic. Mark Twain’s The Jumping Frog has been chosen in this thesis to see the vernacular tradition in American literature. Mark Twain said, “I amend dialect stuff by talking and talking it till it sounds right.” He wanted his writing to have the sound of easy-going speech.

Part of this comes from his interest in humor. The directness of the language is a very influential point in Twain’s style. In his own time, dialect writing was considered humorous. People got a big laugh out of reading these misspell words, for example himself was misspelled for hisself, follow for foller, just for jest, yellow for yaller, any for ary, banana for bannanner, sort of kind of for sorter kinder, him for h’m, so long as for so’s, kept for kep, appeared for peared, one-two-three-get for one-two-three-git. He wrote in the colloquial style in the general standard speech of uneducated Americans. Mark Twain’s introductory note on accents is an indication of his conscious attempt to achieve accurate detail. What’s more, it develops a strong contrast between the written narration at the beginning and the following story told by Simon Wheeler in a colloquial language.

We may quote a passage from The Jumping Frog as an illustration:

“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 may be it was the spring of '50--I don't recollect exactly, somehow, though what makes me think it was one or the other is because I remember the big flume warn't finished when he first came to the camp; but any way, he was the curiousest man about always betting on anything that turned up you ever see, if he could get anybody to bet on the other side; and if he couldn't he'd change sides. Any way that suited the other man would suit him--any way just so's he got a bet, he was satisfied. But still he was lucky, uncommon lucky; he most always come out winner. He was always ready and laying for a chance; there couldn't be no solit'ry thing mentioned but that feller'd offer to bet on it, and take any side you please, as I was just telling you…”

The words used here are mostly simple and are short, concrete and direct in effect. Sentence structures are most of them simple or compound, with a series of “ands” and semi-colons serving as connectives and several dashes. The repetition of the words “any way” and the stringing together of things leave the impression that Mark Twain depend solely on the concrete object and action for the body and movement of his prose. What is more, there is an ungrammatical element, which gives the final finish to his style. Meanwhile, the word in the last line ary is misspell for any.

The author bear obvious intention to make use of the colloquial language to serve their respective purposes, rather than any spontaneous drive to record the different voices as they are. Twain exaggerate in his use of vernacular language, which seems to bear intent to be comic, but his language is so embroidered that the effect is amusing.

The language in The Jumping Frog initiated the new style of language in American literature, and has had significant influence upon American writers of later generations.

1.2.A combination of excessive exaggerated characters and events

The Jumping Frog displayed the major achievements of Twain’s art and made him famous to the public in his time: the carefully excessive exaggeration of its characters and events. After Wheeler starts his discourse about a man called Jim Smiley and a funny story about Jim, the exaggerated character, Jim Smiley, and the amusing events are developed.

We may also quote a passage from The Jumping Frog as an illustration:

“If there was a horse-race, you'd find him flush or you'd find him busted at the end of it; if there was a dog-fight, he'd bet on it; if there was a cat-fight, he'd bet on it; if there was a chicken-fight, he'd bet on it; why, if there was two birds setting on a fence, he would bet you which one would fly first; or if there was a camp-meeting, he would be there reg'lar to bet on Parson Walker, which he judged to be the best exhorter about here, and he was, too, and a good man. If he even see a straddle-bug start to go anywheres, he would bet you how long it would take him to get to--to wherever he was going to, and if you took him up, he would foller that straddle-bug to Mexico but what he would find out where he was bound for and how long he was on the road. Lots of the boys here has seen that Smiley and can tell you about him. Why, it never made no difference to him--he'd bet on any thing--the dangest feller. Parson Walker's wife laid very sick once, for a good while, and it seemed as if they warn't going to save her; but one morning he come in, and Smiley up and asked him how she was, and he said she was considerable better--thank the Lord for his inf'nit' mercy--and coming on so smart that with the blessing of Prov'dence she'd get well yet; and Smiley, before he thought, says, 'Well, I'll risk two-and-a-half she don't anyway.'"”

After an exaggerated description of several examples, we can imagine a vivid figure of Jim Smiley, who was so devoted to the bet. He can bet on anything and can always find something to bet on. Even the life-and-death of Parson Walker's wife can be bet by him, from which we can tell he regards the human life less important than bet. The depiction of Jim amuses the readers and develops humor. The creation of this work is inspired by the American society of his time. As a witness of the civil war, Twain was clearly the great changes in the nation’s economic developmentand political life. At that time, most majority of the slaves were emancipated, the slave-based economy of the defeated South had its prosperity became lootless. In this cae, clusters of groundless southern poor whites and the newly freed slaves headed directly or indirectly for the new-liberated cities to seek opportunities. It may be called the “Gold Rush” rejuvenated, or rather, it was so-called the “American Dream” by some critics.

1.3. Clever plot settings:from hoax and deception to humor

The hoax and tall tale are also part of Twain’s style. Hoax is writing something fantastic and pretending that it were true, much like the tall tale. It tolls as if it were true, and so the reader would laugh that any body could believe such preposterous things, the burlesque making fun of establishes ways of writing. In The Jumping Frog, the narrator is looking for a person called Leonidas W.Smiley. He has been told that he might ask Simon Wheeler, while Wheeler starts his discourse about a man called Jim Smiley and with a monotonous voice, lacking any enthusiasm but with an "earnestness and sincerity” to tell a funny story. There are a lie in this funny story, meanwhile, the writer also makes a joke with readers. For while readers might think something meaningful might happen, indeed, the funny story told by the old man is meaningless. So it can also be said that readers are cheated by the writer to some extend. However, the cheat here has nothing to do with morality. On the contrary, after reading the story, readers fell relaxed ang laugh because of the little joke.

Twain thinks that, “for the lie, as a Virtue, A Principle, is eternal; the lie, as a recreation, a solace, a refuge in time of need, the fourth Grace, the tenth Muse, man’s best and surest friend, is immortal, and cannot perish from the earth while this club remains ”.

Mark Twain once wrote in On the Decay of the Art of Lying:

“Lying is universal----we all do it. Therefore, the wise thing is for us diligently to train ourselves to lie thoughtfully, judiciously; to lie with a good object, and not an evil one; to lie for other’s advanntage, and not for our own; to lie healingly, charitably, humanely, not cruelly, hurtfully, maliciously; to lie gracefully and graciously, not awkwardly and clusily; to lie firmly, frankly, squarely, with head erect, not haltingly, tortuously, with pusillaniimous mien, as being ashamed of our high calling. Then shall we be rid of the rank and pestilent truth that is rotting the land; then shall we be great and good and beautiful, and worthy dwellers in a world where even benign Nature habitually lies, except when she promises execrable weather. Then----But am I but a new and feeble student in this gracious art; I cannot instruct this club. …”

There are lies here and there in The Jumping Frog, but the lying here is of course not evil, and readers just laugh after reading. The story has a relaxed and humourous atomphere. The venerable proverb says that chidren and fool always speak the truth. So we can tell that the hoax and lies using by Mark Twain here is wise. Hoax is one of the typical characters of the Western Humor.

For Mark Twain, he adopted the roundabout way, or in other words, the indirect way. He criticized things and amused people in an indirect way, which has the effect of humor. This kind of humor was typically created by hoax and deception in The Jumping Frog. Just as some critics said that “Twain was dancing with a mask”. Mark Twain would not show his real intention at first; he would show it in a roundabout way. So resders must read the books carefully.

2.The elements that make Mark Twain a humorist

2.1. Social influences

Both the American Civil War (happened in 1861 and lasted till 1865) and the re-construction after the war greatly affected Twain’s writing style. Mark Twain was born in Florida, Missouri, on 30th Novermber in 1835, into a lawyer family. With the advent of the civil war, young Twain in 1856 became a steamboat pilot, a profession about which he wrote thirty years later in the book Life on the Mississippi. Generally speaking, the American people enjoy regarding war experience as their cherished and valuable fortune, and Twain was also no exception. As a pilot he actively participated in the civil war in 1857. The cast of characters set before him in his profession was rich and varied----a cosmos. He took abundantly part in thhis life, listening to pilothousetalk of feuds, piracies, lynchings, he made himself very much familiar with all walks of life and each corner of the society. Twain, at the very beginning, was actually optimistic about what he saw and what he did, which could be reflected in The Jumping Frog. However, the end of the civil war put an end to his life as a pilot. Then he tried soldiering once again for two weeks with motley band of confederate guerrillas, who diligently avoided contact with the enemy. Twain quiting after deciding, after that, he made up his mind to establish his fame by writing. It was proved that his pen was really mightier than his pickax. In 1861 he become a journalist and adopted “Mark Twain” as his pen name. Four years later, The Jumping Frog was published. Twain in his later works shifted from an optimist to a misanthrope, from humor to satire.

2.2. Personal encounters

As I mentioned foregoing, social influence asserted predominant significance over Twain’s conversion from humor to satire. It is no exaggeeration that social influenceof his day, dominantly affected his attitude towards life, his outlook of society, his writing style and so on and so forth. However, there is another element, his personal tragedies which also canno’t be ignored when we tries to analyze his writiing style.

His father died when he was only twelve and which directly brought about the end of his found education. However, Twain we know was born in a period that the two sides were fighting at throat and when the conflict ended the west was still wide open. The nationwide aftermath of westward movement once again full of chances and opportunities and he therefore was utterly delighted with the fresh land and invigorated by the pioneering spirit. Chances are that his father’s death did not make diffeerence upon his emotion. Life was bright foor him,filled with mysteries, alarmed by its terrors, and amused by its contrast. Thus he was able to laugh with lightness as the great humorist iin the Pacific Slope. The moralizing of his earlier writing had been well padded with humor.

The Mississippi is not only Mark Twain’s life stage but also American society’s stage. It flows through the middle of America; it’s one of the greatest rivers in the world. In Twain’s early years, the geographic core was the great valley of the Mississippi River, and the Mississippi is the main artery of transportation on the young nation’s heart. In 1857, young Mark Twain entered that world as a cub pilot on a steamboat. Later, when he wented to write something, this land provided him with many plentiful writing materials.

3.The value of the jumping frog

3.1. Criticise the American society in contend

The name of the small bull-pup is Andrew Jackson, and Andrew Jackson is the 7th President of the United States, who was the first Westerner to become president and who advocated the right to vote for every State of the West in 1830. He is a gambler, a wild man, who had whores and spend much time in saloons. He was the cause for a scandal by entering the White House on the back of his horse. He wanted democracy of the common people and he reached his aim.

The frog’s name is Daniel Webster . This might remind the reader of Daniel Webster, a senator who had great responsibility for the slavery law. In the "Jumping Frog" a common, uneducated frog wins against an educated frog and has the conclusion that an ordinary frog is equal to the educated frog with a great name. The senator Webster was educated as well and still the time of the slavery is gone, just as the Western states always wanted to. They fought for the rights to be a State of America although they were not willing to have slavery on their grounds. Back then the law was to have one State with and the next one without slavery, always one after the other. When the West was applying it was the turn of a slavery State and although it was none they were permitted. The conclusion is that people are equal and the winner is not always the civilized and educated one .

Meanwhile, the characters descriped in the story are ugly. Jim Smiley, who is so devoted to the bet, reflects the general psychology in his time, speculative and greedy. The feller, a stranger in the camp, who wins the beat by cheating, also reflects the ugly society in his time.

Above all, the theme of "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" centers on the contrast between the narrator and Simon Wheeler. Twain satirizes, not just old miners and western hicks, but the elite educated easterners who come out west and find their training useless. The contrast between the story's main characters shows that the educated narrator looks like more of a fool than even Jim Smiley and his weighed down frog.And from the Northeast that ends up talking to a slack-jawed, western country guy and all the Northeastern guy can think about is how much he wants to get away from him. It's a clash of American East and West and Twain depicts it all so vividly. He also throws in a lot of references and commentary on famous American political figures and the like to help tie in the theme of America.

Mark Twain wanted to use the humor to wake up people’s mind, people’s awareness, to criticize the corrupted governments, to satirize the greedy people. Also, Mark Twain criticizes the American society in his time. His satires is just like a monument to American literature. His satires to today’s authors are still valuable; many writers benefit a lot from his satire. So, at present there are many institutes and scholars devoting to the study of Mark Twain.

3.2. Opens the door of the literary creation of Mark Twain in art

The Jumping Frog is Twain’s first short story which gains him a fame. The success of this work has the following reasons: he used a special type of art -----humor for the first time to reflect his thoughts and the society in his time; for whatever reasons, he brought together in it, with the highest degree of artistic balance, those most fundamental dualities running through his work and life from start to finish. Most of all it has to do with the structure of the sentence, which is simple, direct, and fluent, maintaining the rhythm of the word’s group of speech and the intonations of the speaking voice.For example, Mark Twain’s colloquial style has influenced a large number of American writers.His contribution to the development of realism and to American literature as a whole was partly through his colloquialism and humor. It is the epitome of the States as an important nation where every ethnic group hopes to find its voice expressed. With the help of humorous language, the first work of Mark Twain, The Jumping Frog, earns its literary immortality. Mark Twain,a mastermind of the humor and realism, is seen as a giant in world literature. His humor and great impact on the following men of lettters; critics also attached significant importance to it and put forward various interpretations.

Twain is a great realist and satirist in the late 19th century. His major works were written in the period from 1870-1910 when American was transformed from free trade capitalism to monopolistic stage with a high speed. Most of hhis works reflect the American social life and have great significance. “In this industrialized society, the great flow of industry irrigrated the whole world; human nature exposed and developed fully and cruelly; civilization showed its magical strength which chaged human being almost to savage.”(Alan Block, 1997:42) It is in that society Mark Twain sought his dream of democracy. He once held the faith in the likehood of its properity. Also, he showed concern for huamnity.


The remarks from the famous British litterateur Bernard Shaw:”I am persuaded that the future historian of American will find your works as indiispensable to him as a French historian finds the political tracts of Voltaire.” It can be surely concluded that Mark Twain has left a rich heritage to US history and history research, in addition to his great devotion to US literature’s upspring from the garden of the world literature. It is only right that Mark Twain should be remembered both as a great literary artist and a great social critic in the history of the United States.


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I would like first of all to express my special thanks to my supervisor Professor Li Chunhua for her constant encouragement and constructive suggestions in the course of my writing of this thesis. She took time from a heavy schedule of teaching to read my paper with a critical eye, and to discuss me how to reinforce some of the important viewpoints so that my arguments will probably become more dynamic. With her help and encouragement, my thesis would not have appeared in the present form.

Much is owed to the professors who have taught me over the last four years. Their courses are so enlightening and instructive that they will become my lifelong treasure and resources in my teaching career.

Finally, my thanks are also extended to all those who have helped me iin different ways.

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