Summary: Chapter 1
. . . when I couldn’t stand it no longer I lit out. I got into my old rags and my sugar-hogshead again, and was free and satisfied.
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The novel begins as the narrator (later identified as Huckleberry Finn) states that we may know of him from another book, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, written by “Mr. Mark Twain.” Huck quickly asserts that it “ain’t no matter” if we haven’t heard of him. According to Huck, Twain mostly told the truth in the previous tale, with some “stretchers” thrown in, although everyone—except Tom’s Aunt Polly, the Widow Douglas, and maybe a few other girls—tells lies once in a while.
We learn that Tom Sawyer ended with Tom and Huckleberry finding a stash of gold some robbers had hidden in a cave. The boys received $6,000 apiece, which the local judge, Judge Thatcher, put into a trust The money in the bank now accrues a dollar a day from interest. Then, the Widow Douglas adopted and tried to “sivilize” Huck. Huck couldn’t stand it, so he threw on his old rags and ran away. He has since returned because Tom Sawyer told him he could join his new band of robbers if he would return to the Widow “and be respectable.”
The Widow frequently bemoans her failure to reform Huck. He particularly cringes at the fact that he has to “grumble” (i.e., pray) over the food before every meal. The Widow tries to teach Huck about Moses, but Huck loses interest when he realizes that Moses is dead. The Widow will not let Huck smoke but approves of snuff since she uses it herself. Her sister, Miss Watson, tries to give Huck spelling lessons. These efforts are not in vain, as Huck does in fact learn to read.
Huck feels especially restless because the Widow and Miss Watson constantly attempt to improve his behavior. When Miss Watson tells him about the “bad place”—hell—he blurts out that he would like to go there, for a change of scenery. This proclamation causes an uproar. Huck doesn’t see the point of going to the “good place” and resolves not to bother trying to get there. He keeps this sentiment a secret, however, because he doesn’t want to cause more trouble. When Huck asks, Miss Watson tells him that there is no chance that Tom Sawyer will end up in heaven. Huck is glad “because I wanted him and me to be together.”
One night, after Miss Watson leads a prayer session with Huck and the household slaves, Huck goes to bed feeling “so lonesome I most wished I was dead.” He gets shivers hearing the sounds of nature through his window. Huck accidentally flicks a spider into a candle, and the bad omen frightens him. Just after midnight, Huck hears movement below the window and hears a “me-yow” sound, to which he responds with another “me-yow.” Climbing out the window onto the shed, Huck finds Tom Sawyer waiting for him in the yard.
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In the opening pages of Huckleberry Finn, we feel the presence of both Huck’s narrative voice and Twain’s voice as author. From the start, Huck speaks to us in a conversational tone that is very much his own but that also serves as a mouthpiece for Twain. When Huck mentions “Mr. Mark Twain” by name, he immediately gains an independence from his author: if he can mention his author, then in some sense he must exist on the same level that the author does. At the same time, Huck links Twain’s new novel to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, although he is careful to note that the two works are independent of one another and that we do not need to have read the previous novel to understand this one. Nevertheless, Twain does seek to take advantage of Tom Sawyer’s popularity by featuring the earlier novel’s characters in this one.
Read an in-depth analysis of Huck.
Beyond establishing a voice, the first paragraph also conveys Huck’s deeper personality. Huck is not just a poor boy with a humorous way of speaking and thinking; he is also a thoughtful young man who is willing and eager to question the “facts” of life and facets of human personality, such as the tendency to lie. The events in Tom Sawyer have already established Huck as a somewhat marginal character in the town of St. Petersburg. Although he is white, he is poor and therefore out of touch with civilized society. The novelty of practices like “grumbling” over food lends Huck’s observations a humorous, fresh perspective on the foibles of society. Though Huck always remains open to learning, he never accepts new ideas without thinking, and he remains untainted by the rules and assumptions of the white society in which he finds himself. Though quick to comment on the absurdity of much of the world around him, Huck is not mean-spirited. He is equally quick to tell us that though the “widow cried over me, and called me a poor lost lamb . . . she never meant no harm by it.”
Read more about intellectual and moral education.
The first chapter begins Twain’s exploration of race and society, two of the major thematic concerns in Huckleberry Finn. We see quickly that, in the town of St. Petersburg, owning slaves is considered normal and unremarkable—even the Widow Douglas, a pious Christian, owns slaves. The slaves depicted in the novel are “household slaves,” slaves who worked on small farms and in homes in which the master owned only a few slaves. Twain implicitly contrasts this type of slavery with the more brutal form of plantation slavery, in which hundreds of slaves worked for a single master, creating greater anonymity between slave and master, which in turn led to more backbreaking labor—and, often, extreme cruelty.
Some critics have accused Twain of painting too soft a picture of slavery by not writing about plantation slaves. However, by depicting the “better” version of slavery, Twain is able to make a sharper criticism of the insidious dehumanization that accompanies all forms of slavery: the “lucky” household slaves, just like their counterparts on the plantations, are also in danger of having their families torn apart and are never considered fully human. Twain’s portrayal suggests that if the “better” slavery is this terrible, the horrors of the “worse” type must be even more awful and dehumanizing. It is important to note here that Twain uses a crude racial slur, which has gotten Huckleberry Finn in trouble with many twentieth-century school boards, with a nonchalance that is certainly troubling to us today.
Read more about racism and slavery as a theme.
Twain’s portrayal of slaveholding in this first chapter also raises questions about the hypocrisy and moral vacuity of society. Throughout the novel, Huck encounters seemingly good people who happen to own slaves—an incongruity that is never easily resolved. We are not meant to think that the Widow Douglas, for example, is thoroughly evil. People like the Widow serve as foils for Huck throughout the novel, as he tries to sort out the value of civilizing influences. Huck is a kind of natural philosopher, skeptical of social doctrines like religion and willing to set forth new ideas—for example, his idea that hell might actually be a better place than the Widow Douglas’s heaven. Beneath the adventure story, Huckleberry Finn is a tale of Huck’s moral development and of what his realizations can teach us about race, slavery, Southern society, and morality.