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.”
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 the word nigger, which has gotten Huckleberry Finn in trouble with many twentieth-century school boards, with a nonchalance that is certainly troubling to us today. The word would not have been disturbing in Twain’s time, however, and is sadly necessary to any novel claiming to paint a realistic portrait of the slaveholding South at the time.
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.