Following the suggestion of a friend, the unnamed narrator meets a man named Simon Wheeler to ask Wheeler about another man named Leonidas W. Smiley. The narrator, a man hailing from the East, finds Wheeler “dozing comfortably by the barroom stove” in a “dilapidated” tavern in a Californian mining town called Angel’s Camp.
The unnamed narrator comes from the Eastern United States and thus stands as an outsider to Western culture. Right away, Wheeler and Angel Camp seem distinctively (and perhaps stereotypically) Western.
When the unnamed narrator asks Simon Wheeler about Leonidas W. Smiley, Wheeler instead launches into a long story about a different man named Jim Smiley. The narrator thinks that there actually isn’t a man named Leonidas W. Smiley and that his friend intentionally set him up, knowing that the narrator would have to sit through a long, boring story from Wheeler. Indeed, the narrator writes that he thinks his friend knew Wheeler would “bore me to death with some exasperating reminiscence of [Jim Smiley] as long and as tedious as it should be useless to me.”
The unnamed narrator is irritated that his friend from the East set him up to listen to a monotonous story, which suggests from the outset that the narrator won’t exactly enjoy Wheeler’s tale. However, the narrator is fascinated by Wheeler’s method of conveying the story. As an Eastern outsider, the narrator records the Western storyteller’s words, thereby preserving and affirming the value of the Western tall tale.
Simon Wheeler is “fat and baldheaded,” and he looks like a simple but content man. As Wheeler begins telling his story to the narrator, “He never smiled, he never frowned, he never changed his voice from the gentle-flowing key to which he tuned his initial sentence.” Not only is Wheeler’s story boring, but also his monotone delivery is just as dull. Regardless, Wheeler treats his story “as a really important matter” and forces the narrator to listen by “back[ing him] into a corner.” Despite not wanting to listen to this tangential and largely irrelevant story, the unnamed narrator lets Wheeler tell it in full and never interrupts him.
While the Western Wheeler and Eastern narrator take vastly different views on the value of the content of the story—with the narrator finding it absurd, and Wheeler considering it “a really important matter”—the narrator appreciates and records Wheeler’s unpolished, Western style of storytelling.
Simon Wheeler claims that Jim Smiley was the “curiousest man,” who was willing to bet on anything. He loved gambling so much that he didn’t even care which side of the bet he was on, just as long as someone was willing to bet him in the first place: “Any way that suited the other man would suit him—any way just sos’s he got a bet, he was satisfied.” Despite this, Smiley was “uncommon lucky,” and almost always won his bets on horse races, dogfights, catfights, and chicken-fights alike. He was even willing to place a bet on how long it would take a straddle-bug to walk to a given destination.
Wheeler’s dialect reveals his lack of an Eastern education and emphasizes that he’s a bit rough around the edges. The juxtaposition between the unnamed narrator’s crisp diction and Wheeler’s unrefined but passionate delivery helps further delineate the cultural differences between the East and West.
Jim Smiley was so willing to place bets on anything that he even made some insensitive ones in the process. When Smiley visited the Parson’s wife after she had finally recovered from a long illness, he told her that he bet “two-and-a-half” that she wouldn’t survive her sickness. The subject of a bet “never made no difference to him—he’d bet on any thing—the dangdest feller.”
Jim Smiley’s willingness to bet on the life of the Parson’s wife demonstrates the absurdity of his passion for betting—he would place money on anything. Though Smiley perhaps lacks tact, he doesn’t appear to be a cheat, which allows him to remain an accepted member of the community.
Wheeler recounts how Smiley once trained an unassuming mare to be a racing horse. The mare looked very sickly and always ran at the back of the group, so people bet against her. She was “so slow and always had the asthma, or the distemper, or the consumption, or something of that kind.” However, she would put in extra effort near the finish line while “coughing and sneezing and blowing her nose” to win the race, defying expectations.
The appearances of Jim Smiley’s many animals are deceiving, as seen with his racing mare. Because the horse doesn’t look like it could win, people confidently bet against her. When she emerges as an unlikely winner, Smiley is able to win money from his opponents. This illustrates that Smiley is a clever but honest businessman; he relies on other people’s biases (and his animals’ extensive training) to make his money.
Jim Smiley also owned and trained a small bulldog named Andrew Jackson. Jackson didn’t look like a very good fighter; according to Simon Wheeler, “to look at him you’d think he warn't worth a cent but to set around and look ornery and lay for a chance to steal something.” Because of the bulldog’s appearance, people would place money down that Jackson wouldn’t win the dogfight. Jackson would even passively allow dogs to attack him without putting up a fight while more bets were placed. However, after putting on a show of being a bad fighter, Jackson would clamp down on his opponent’s back leg—his characteristic move—and not let go until the fight was over. This tactic caused Jackson to be a champion dog-fighter.
Like the mare, Jim Smiley’s bulldog does not look like a winner, consequently inviting people to judge him based on his appearance. Once again, Smiley uses this to his advantage. However, Smiley makes sure his animals win their competitions by training them effectively—not by cheating.
Once, Andrew Jackson was put into a fight with a dog that didn’t have back legs. As usual, Jackson allowed the fight to go on until all the money had been placed. At that point, he went in to bite his opponent’s back leg. However, when he discovered that he couldn’t use his winning move, he gave up and died in the fight. Simon Wheeler is sad that Jackson died because he “had genius” and was a very talented fighter.
Jim Smiley trains his scruffy bulldog, Andrew Jackson, to be an excellent fighter. Even though people judge Jackson on his appearance, he defies expectations, winning many fights (and winning Smiley lots of money).
Jim Smiley owned and trained many types of animals for his bets, including rat-terriers, chicken-cocks, and tomcats. One day, he found and brought home a frog that he named Dan’l Webster. He decided to train him—“he cal’lated to educated him”—and began teaching the frog how to jump high.
Jim Smiley loves to gamble, but he doesn’t cheat. He’s an honest man who puts hard work into training his animals to be winners. Smiley’s integrity earns him a spot in the community, but it is also his downfall—as the following anecdote about Dan’l Webster will illustrate.
For three months, Jim Smiley did nothing but sit in his backyard and teach his pet frog, Dan’l Webster, how to jump higher. Smiley trained the frog to jump on command when he tapped its back, and he taught it to catch any fly with its tongue, no matter the distance. Simon Wheeler recalls watching the frog in action himself—once, when Smiley was in the same tavern that Wheeler and the narrator are currently in, Smiley shouted, “Flies, Dan’l, flies!” The frog leapt from the floor, snaked a fly from the counter of the bar, and flopped back down to the floor.
Even though Dan’l Webster looks like an ordinary frog, Jim Smiley has put three entire months into training him how to be an excellent jumper. Smiley’s hard work and integrity causes him to be a successful gambler—he doesn’t have to cheat to win.
Dan’l Webster won many bets in frog-jumping competitions. He was very good at jumping from flat surfaces straight into the air. Many travelers said that Webster was the most talented frog that they had ever seen. Simon Wheeler explains that “fellers that had traveled and been everywhere all said he laid over any frog that ever they see,” and Jim Smiley was very proud of his frog’s accomplishments.
Jim Smiley approaches gambling as a profession, and he clearly is honest and straightforward in his dealings—rather than rigging his bets, he puts hard work into training his animals to be unlikely winners.
One day, a stranger came to town. Jim Smiley had brought Dan’l Webster downtown in a box in order to find someone to place a bet with. The stranger spotted the box and asked Smiley what it was; Smiley replied it was a frog, and the stranger asked what it was good for. Smiley boasted that his frog could “outjump any frog in Calaveras County.”
When the stranger enters town, Jim Smiley immediately trusts him and tries to engage him in a bet. Smiley is honest when he tells the stranger that his frog can jump higher than any other frog in the county, even though the stranger doesn’t know if that is true or not. However, it seems that Smiley is growing prideful due to his nearly spotless track record, implying that he is perhaps about to be proven wrong.
The stranger took the box holding Dan’l Webster from Jim Smiley and carefully analyzed the frog. Upon returning the box to Smiley, he declared that he couldn’t see anything special about the frog: “I don't see no p'ints about that frog that’s any better'n any other frog.” Smiley retorted that he would bet 40 dollars that Webster could outjump any frog in Calaveras County.
Dan’l Webster’s appearance is deceiving because he just looks like an ordinary frog; the stranger has no way of knowing that Jim Smiley has spent three months training the frog how to jump high.
Considering Jim Smiley’s bet that his frog, Dan’l Webster, could outjump any frog in the county, the stranger said, in a “kinder sad-like” voice, that he was only a stranger there and had no frog of his own to bet with. However, he said if he did have a frog, he would certainly accept Smiley’s bet.
The stranger doesn’t belong to the community, and he is aware that he is an outsider to Angel’s Camp. His acknowledgement of his status points back to the unnamed narrator, who is also an outsider to Angel’s Camp.
After hearing that the stranger would accept the bet if only he had a frog, Jim Smiley hastily decided to go find him a frog in the swamp. He left the box holding Dan’l Webster with the stranger for safekeeping and set off to catch a frog.
Jim Smiley is full of good intentions and immediately trusts to the stranger to watch his precious frog, Dan’l Webster. It seems increasingly likely that Smiley will have to learn for himself the danger of trusting in appearances.
While Jim Smiley was off catching a frog in the muddy swamp, the stranger sat with the box holding Dan’l Webster and waited, thinking. Eventually, he took Webster out of his box, pried his mouth open, and used a teaspoon to fill the frog full of quail-shot (a pellet used to fill shotgun shells). When the heavy gunshot reached the frog’s chin, the stranger set Webster back down on the floor. The weight of the gunshot made it impossible for Webster to move.
The story suggests that, as an outsider to the community, the stranger holds a different code of morality. He betrays Jim Smiley’s trust by harming his frog, and the stranger presumably knows that he will have to leave town after this interaction, thereby escaping any punishment.
Jim Smiley returned from the swamp with another frog in hand for the stranger to use in his bet. Smiley placed both frogs down, counted to three, and both men tapped the back of their frogs in order to get them to jump. The stranger’s frog flew off, but Dan’l Webster remained planted on the ground. Smiley was bewildered and disgusted, but he honored the bet and paid the stranger the promised 40 dollars.
Jim Smiley has integrity, and it never occurs to him that the stranger would cheat or harm his frog. Even though Dan’l Webster’s inability to jump is unexplainable in this moment—and should, perhaps, seem fishy—Smiley honors the bet and dutifully pays the stranger forty dollars.
After accepting the winnings from the bet from Jim Smiley, the stranger left. As he exited through the door, he jerked his thumb over his shoulder and informed Smiley that he didn’t see anything special about Dan’l Webster in comparison to any other frogs, repeating, “I don't see no p'ints about that frog that’s any better'n any other frog.” Smiley was crushed.
As an outsider leading a roaming lifestyle, the stranger doesn’t find himself beholden to the same code of integrity that Smiley honors. After cheating in the bet, the stranger leaves in order to escape punishment, permanently deeming himself an outsider.
Bewildered by Dan’l Webster’s behavior, Jim Smiley investigated what could be the matter with him. When Smiley picked up Webster, he was shocked to discover that he weighed “five pound[s]!” Smiley turned Webster upside-down and was enraged when quail-shot fell out of him. Infuriated, Smiley chased after the stranger but could never find him.
While Jim Smiley can live a stationary lifestyle in the community because his honesty, the stranger has to immediately flee town in order to escape being punished for his deceitful behavior.
The story is interrupted when Simon Wheeler hears someone calling his name in front of the tavern. He asks the narrator to wait for him, and he leaves briefly to see who is looking for him. Rather than wait to hear more about a certain Jim Smiley, who is not the Leonidas W. Smiley that the narrator was enquiring after, the narrator leaves. The narrator meets Wheeler at the door, and Wheeler attempts to begin another story about a “yaller one-eyed cow that didn't have no tail, only just a short stump like a bannanner” that Smiley owned. However, the narrator lacks both the “time and inclination” to hear the story out. Instead, he bids farewell to Wheeler and leaves the tavern.
After sitting through Simon Wheeler’s long story about Jim Smiley, the narrator is clearly relieved when an opportunity arises to excuse himself, suggesting that the regional differences between the East and West are irreconcilable. However, even though the Eastern narrator was largely uninterested in the content of Wheeler’s tale, he writes it down, thereby preserving and celebrating the tradition of Western storytelling.