The novel begins with a Notice from someone named G. G., who is identified as the Chief of Ordnance. The Notice demands that no one try to find a motive, moral, or plot in the novel, on pain of various and sundry punishments. The Notice is followed by an Explanatory note from the Author, which states that the attention to dialects in the book has been painstaking and is extremely true-to-life in mimicking the peculiar verbal tendencies of individuals along the Mississippi. It assures the reader that if he or she feels that the characters in the book are “trying to talk alike but failing,” then the reader is mistaken.
The Notice and Explanatory set the tone for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn through their mixing of humor and seriousness. In its declaration that anyone looking for motive, plot, or moral will be prosecuted, banished, or shot, the Notice establishes a sense of blustery comedy that pervades the rest of the novel. The Explanatory takes on a slightly different tone, still full of a general good-naturedness but also brimming with authority. In the final paragraph, Twain essentially dares the reader to believe that he might know or understand more about the dialects of the South, and, by extension, the South itself. Twain’s good nature stems in part from his sense of assurance that, should anyone dare to challenge him, Twain would certainly prove victorious.
Beyond tone, the Notice and Explanatory set the stage for the themes that the novel explores later. Twain’s coy statement about the lack of seriousness in Huckleberry Finn actually alerts us that such seriousness does in fact exist in the text. At the same time, Twain’s refusal to make any straightforward claims for the seriousness of his work adds a note of irony and charm. The Explanatory note from the Author concerns the use of dialect, which Twain says has been reconstructed “painstakingly.” Again, if Huckleberry Finn is not meant to be a “serious” novel, the claim seems strange. But it is a serious novel, and Twain’s note on dialogue speaks for the authority and experience of the author and establishes the novel’s antiromantic, realistic stance. In short, the Notice and Explanatory, which at first glance appear to be disposable jokes, link the novel’s sense of fun and lightheartedness with its deeper moral concerns. This coupling continues throughout Huckleberry Finn and remains one of its greatest triumphs.