When the unnamed narrator visits a small mining town in the West, he meets with an old man named Simon Wheeler to ask after a man named Leonidas W. Smiley. However, Wheeler launches into an unrelated story about a similarly named Jim Smiley, whose pet animals are unlikely heroes. Smiley trains his animals for various competitions, which other people bet upon. Because Smiley’s animals appear weak and unable to win, people are willing to bet against them. By investing his time and gambling-money in creatures that look frail but are actually incredibly capable, Smiley proves himself to be a clever businessman and illustrates how appearances can be deceiving.
Other people judge Smiley’s animals based on their underwhelming appearances, assuming that the feeble-looking animals will consequently lose their races, fights, and competitions. In fact, Smiley’s mare is “so slow and always had the asthma, or the distemper, or the consumption, or something of that kind.” Since the horse appears to be sluggish and even sickly, people understandably assume that it doesn’t have the adequate strength or energy to win a race. At one point, Smiley also owns a small bulldog puppy named Andrew Jackson “that to look at him you’d think he warn't worth a cent.” To those placing bets, the dog just looks “ornery” and up to no good, as if it’s looking “for a chance to steal something.” In addition, at the beginning of each fight, the bulldog even lets its competition “tackle him, and bully-rag him, and bite him, and throw him over his shoulder two or three times.” This seems to validate people’s judgement that the dog is going to lose.
Smiley understands the human impulse to make judgments based on appearances, and he uses this bias to his advantage. In the case of Smiley’s animals, appearances are misleading, as all of the animals have extensive training, which makes them formidable opponents. Smiley trains his sickly horse to hold back in the race until the very end, thereby increasing bets against him throughout the event because people thought that he would lose. When the mare nears the end of a race, she gets “excited and desperate like, and come cavorting and straddling up.” The description of her sloppy racing technique makes her seem undignified in comparison to the image of a sleek, galloping racing horse. Only at the finish line does Smiley’s horse pick up her pace and thus barely manage to beat the other horses at the last possible second. In this way, Smiley reinforces people’s appearance-based judgments until the very last moment, consequently earning himself more money. This racing technique also signifies a preservation of energy contained until absolutely necessary—the horse doesn’t put in her maximum effort to run until the last possible moment. Her training and intelligence help her be a successful, if surprising, racehorse, illustrating that appearances are misleading. Similarly, Smiley trains his small bulldog, Andrew Jackson, to be a victorious fighter. Although he appears unassuming, the dog has a fierce spirit and an unbeatable grip once he bites his opponent’s back leg—his surprising and characteristic move. Like the horse, the dog has been trained to allow himself to be beaten throughout his competition, only to emerge as a shocking victor when there’s a lot of money on the line. He doesn’t fight back as the other dog attacks him in the ring, and instead watches “the bets being doubled and doubled on the other side all the time, till the money was all up.” Only then does Smiley’s dog bite his opponent’s back leg and hold on until the fight is over, again revealing that appearances can’t always be trusted.
By training scruffy animals to withhold their strength until the very end of the battle, Smiley plays into people’s deep-rooted habit of judging based on appearances. Although this technique speaks to Smiley’s business prowess, Smiley himself learns this lesson the hard way at the end of the story. When a stranger comes into town, Smiley assumes the man is harmless and challenges him to a frog-jumping competition. The stranger answers in a “kinder sad” voice, saying, “Well, I’m only a stranger here, and I ain’t got no frog; but if I had a frog, I’d bet you.” Believing that the stranger is as downtrodden as he seems, Smiley quickly goes to the creek to catch a frog for the man, leaving his own frog unattended in the process. This allows the stranger to stuff the frog with “quail-shot” so that it can’t jump, and so Smiley will lose the bet. In this way, Twain encourages his readers to stay on their guard and always remember that appearances can be misleading.
Appearances vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Appearances vs. Reality Quotes in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County
“They used to give her two or three hundred yards, start, and then pass her under way; but always at the fag end of the race she'd get excited and desperate like, and come cavorting and straddling up, and scattering her legs around limber, sometimes in the air, and sometimes out to one side among the fences, and kicking up m-o-r-e dust and raising m-o-r-e racket with her coughing and sneezing and blowing her nose-and always fetch up at the stand just about a neck ahead as near as you could cipher it down.”
“But as soon as money was up on him he was a different dog; his under-jaw'd begin to stick out like the fo'castle of a steamboat, and his teeth would uncover and shine like the furnaces.”
“He ketched a frog one day, and took him home, and said he cal'lated to educate him; and so he never done nothing for three months but set in his back yard and learn that frog to jump.”
“[…] the new frog hopped off lively, but Dan'l give a heave, and hysted up his shoulders—so—like a Frenchman, but it warn't no use—he couldn't budge; he was planted as solid as a church, and he couldn't no more stir than if he was anchored out.”