The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn begins where the The Adventures of Tom Sawyer leaves off. At the end of the previous novel, Huck and Tom find a treasure of twelve thousand dollars, which they divide. Judge Thatcher takes their money and invests it in the bank at six percent interest, so that each boy earns a dollar a day on their money. Huck Finn moves in with the Widow Douglas, who has agreed to care for him.
Huckleberry Finn is the narrator of this story, and he starts off by describing his life to the reader. After moving in with the Widow Douglas, who buys him new clothes and begins teaching him the Bible. Huck is uncomfortable with all of these "restrictions" on his life, and soon runs away to avoid being "civilized". Tom Sawyer goes after Huck and convinces him to return to the Widow's house after promising that they will start a band of robbers together. Huck agrees to return, but still complains about having to wear new clothes and eat only when the dinner bell rings, something he was not used to while growing up with his Pap.
The Widow Douglas teaches Huck the Bible and forbids him from smoking. Her attentions towards him are complemented by her sister, Miss Watson, who also lives in the house. Miss Watson is a spinster who decides that Huck must get an education. She tries to teach him spelling and lectures him on how to behave well so that he will be welcomed into heaven. Miss Watson warns Huck that if he does not change his ways, he will go to hell. Ironically, Huck finds the description of hell far more enticing and exciting than the description of heaven, and decides he would rather go to hell, but doesn't tell Miss Watson of his decision.
That night, Huck goes into his bedroom and lights a candle before falling asleep. He starts to feel very lonely and equates every night sound, including an owl, dog and whippowill, with death. At one point, Huck flicks a spider away, and accidentally burns it up in the candle flame, which he thinks is a very bad omen. Huck lies awake until midnight, at which time he hears a soft meow from below his window. The meow is a signal from Tom Sawyer, and Huck replies with a similar meow. He climbs out of the bedroom window and drops to the ground to meet his friend.
While the boys are sneaking away, Huck trips over a root and makes a noise when he falls. Miss Watson's slave Jim hears the sound and comes outside to look around. Huck and Tom hunker down to hide, and Jim ends up sitting down right between them to wait to hear the sound again. At first, Huck thinks they will never get away, but Jim soon gets tired and falls asleep against a tree.
While Jim sleeps, Tom wants to play a trick on him. He and Huck climb into the house and steal three candles, for which they leave a nickel as "pay". Then Tom quietly makes his way to Jim, takes off Jim's hat, and places it on a tree branch above Jim's head. He soon returns and tells Huck what he did.
After Jim wakes up, he believes he has been bewitched, and keeps the nickel as a token around his neck for the rest of his life. According to Huck, Jim tells all the other slaves that he had been ridden around the world by some witches, and that the nickel was given to him by the devil.
Tom and Huck sneak down to the river and meet some of the other boys who are supposed to be members of Tom's robber band. Together, they steal a skiff and float down the river several miles to an area where Tom has discovered a cave. Tom shows the boys a hidden room in the cave which they make their robber headquarters. Tom then reads them an oath that he has written, taken mostly from robber books and pirate stories. The boys argue over what Huck Finn's role in the gang will be, because Huck does not have a family for them to kill in case he reveals any of the gang's secrets. Huck finally offers them Miss Watson in place of his real parents, and the boys then sign an oath in blood to join the band. Tom is elected captain.
Tom explains that as robbers, they will only attack carriages and take the things inside. The men will be killed and the women will be brought back to the cave. He also mentions that they will ransom some of the people, because that is what they do in books, although he has no idea what "ransom" means. After that, all the boys agree to meet again soon. They return home exhausted and Huck climbs into bed having muddied up his new clothes, and feeling dead tired.
The morning after his robber gang adventure, Huck receives a lecture from Miss Watson for dirtying his clothes. She takes him into a closet to pray, and tells him to pray every day so he will get what he wants. Huck tries to pray daily, but becomes disillusioned when all he gets is a fish-line with no hooks, when he prayed extra hard for hooks. When he asks Miss Watson about it, she tells him praying brings spiritual gifts. Unable to see any use for that sort of thing, Huck decides praying is probably not worth his time.
A drowned man is found in the river, and the townspeople believe is Huck's Pap. Huck is unconvinced after he hears the man was found floating on his back. He remarks that everyone knows dead men float face down, so this must have been a woman in man's clothing that looked like his Pap.
Tom Sawyer's robber band falls apart after a few weeks because the boys get bored of pretending they are robbing people. The only real escapade is when they wreck a Sunday School picnic and chase some of elementary school children away. Tom pretends that during this 'battle' there were Arabs and elephants and that the boys were attacking a large army, but Huck is too practical to follow Tom's fantastical imaginations. When Huck asks why they could not see all the elephants, Tom explains that some magicians must have turned the whole army into a Sunday School picnic. Tom then tells Huck all about genies in bottles, and how the genies must obey whoever rubs the bottle. Huck gets an old lamp and tries to find a genie, but when it fails he decides that the genies were just another of Tom's lies.
Huck spends the next three months living with the widow and getting acclimated to his new life. He starts to attend school and remarks, "I liked the old ways best, but I was getting so I liked the new ones, too."
Everything goes fairly well until one day when Huck accidentally overturns a salt-shaker at the breakfast table. Miss Watson does not let him throw any salt over his left shoulder (as a way of avoiding the bad luck), and as a result Huck starts to get worried that something bad will happen. As soon as Huck leaves the house, he notices boot prints in the fresh snow. Upon closer inspection he realizes that there is a cross on the left boot-heel, which he has only ever seen in his Pap's. Huck's Pap has returned.
Aware that Pap is probably after his money (the $6,000 that he got from sharing the treasure with Tom), Huck goes to Judge Thatcher and begs the Judge to take all his money as a gift. The Judge is quite surprised by the request, but when Huck refuses to reveal why he wants to give away his money, Judge Thatcher agrees to "buy" it for one dollar, saying he will take the money "for a consideration."
Huck, still quite worried over what is going to happen now that Pap has returned, goes to the Miss Watson's slave Jim for advice. Jim takes out a hair-ball in order to do some magic with it for Huck. When the hair-ball refuses to work properly, Jim suggest that Huck give it some money. Huck offers a counterfeit quarter, which Jim takes and places under the ball. Jim tells Huck that Pap is torn between two angels, a good white angel and a bad black angel. He also explains that Huck will have considerable pain in his life and at the same time considerable joy. Huck returns to his room that night and finds his Pap sitting there.
Huck arrives back at his room and sees his Pap sitting in a chair. Huck describes Pap as a filthy, poor man who used to scare him a great deal. Now, however, Huck is no longer scared of Pap, and instead notes how old his father has grown.
Pap harasses Huck for wearing good clothes and going to school. He then accuses Huck of putting on airs and acting better than his own father. Pap remarks that no one in his family could ever read, and that he certainly does not want his son to be smarter than he is. He demands that Huck read him something, and soon becomes quite furious when he realizes that Huck is in fact able to read. Pap threatens to beat Huck if he ever catches him near the school again. He makes Huck hand over the dollar that Judge Thatcher "paid" him and then climbs out the window to go drinking in the town.
The next day, Pap goes to Judge Thatcher and tries to make the Judge give him Huck's money. The Judge refuses, and he and the widow take a case to court in an effort to get Huck legally placed with one of them. The custody judge is unfortunately new to the town and refuses to separate Huck from his father. Judge Thatcher, realizing he cannot win, gives Huck some money, which Huck immediately turns over to Pap. Pap gets extremely drunk and is placed in jail for a week.
The new judge then sympathetically takes Pap into his home, dresses him well, and tries to reform him. After thinking that he has reformed Pap, the Judge goes to bed. That night, Pap sneaks out of the new judge's house and buys some alcohol. By morning he is so drunk that he breaks his arm in two places and nearly freezes to death on the porch. The new judge is livid at this betrayal of his trust and comments that the only way to reform Pap is with a shotgun.
The first sentence introduces Huck in a colloquial, friendly manner: "You don't know about me." From the very first words of the novel, Twain makes it clear that Huck is the narrator, and that the reader will hear the story of his adventures directly from him. In addition, to make it clear to readers unfamiliar with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer that this novel exists independently, Huck explains that if they haven't read Twain's earlier work, it "ain't no matter."
The Widow Douglas is an honorable woman who hopes to nurture Huck into a civilized child. Here, the reader immediately understands the main theme of the novel, the conflict between civilization and freedom. In agreement with Rousseau, Twain tends to suggest that civilization corrupts rather than improves human beings. For example, in the first chapter, Huck is forced to change his natural character into the mold the Widow Douglas demands from him. He feels cramped in new clothes, and hates being limited to eating dinner only when the dinner bell rings. Twain cleverly contrasts this new lifestyle with Huck's old way of life. For example, Huck compares eating dinner off a plate to eating from a "barrel of odds and ends," which implies a pig's slop bucket. Here, Twain explains that in his earlier life, Huck competed for food with pigs, but also notes that Huck enjoyed eating from the slop bucket more than eating from the plate. Huck's relationship with food is a prominent theme throughout the novel, and during his time on Jackson's Island and working his way down river, Huck revels in and enjoys his ad hoc dining.
In the first chapter, we observe Huck is ironically trapped in a "civilized" world, when he would prefer to live freely in nature. Irony appears in other areas of the novel as well. For example, Huck explains that the Widow Douglas wouldn't let him smoke, even though, ironically, she secretly uses snuff herself. Irony appears yet again when Miss Watson tries to warn Huck about hell. This warning is juxtaposed by her painful academic lessons. Huck finds spelling very difficult to learn and hates the lessons so much, that he remarks hell sounds more enjoyable. In this ironic reference, Twain reminds the reader of Huck's childhood innocence. Only a child would rationally choose hell over heaven.
Superstition permeates the novel. The first chapter provides several examples of Huck's superstitious side, specifically in his interpretation of the night sounds (as death), and in how he believes the spider burning to death in the flame of his candle is a serious omen of bad luck. After killing the spider, Huck immediately attempts a counter-charm, even though he knows there is no way of undoing bad luck.
Typically, Huck is a very sensible person, making his adherence to superstition slightly ironic. Huck is very logical and reasonable. For example, in determining that he would prefer heaven over hell after Miss Watson describes the two to him, Huck uses very logical reasoning that the reader can understand. Superstition, on the other hand, is completely irrational. Thus, when confronted by superstition Huck behaves contrary to his usual manner, perhaps a reminder that he is just a child, or an allusion to typical sensibilities of the time. Moreover, superstition symbolizes Huck's fear of the unknown; Huck is most superstitious whenever he is extremely worried about his future, such as in this opening chapter and later while on Jackson's Island. Superstition also serves to foreshadow events throughout the novel, as Huck knows the bad luck will return to haunt him. For example, after Huck accidentally brushes the spider into his candle flame, Pap returns to town.
This chapter serves to introduce the other boys in Huck's town. It is important to notice that although Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer are best friends, the other boys are more than willing to cut Huck out of Tom's gang. Understanding that Huck is not very popular helps explain his feelings of isolation in the town; the adults keep trying to "sivilize" him, and the other boys tend to ignore him.
Here, Twain interestingly juxtaposes theft and honor. These contradictory ideas are conveniently merged by Tom Sawyer, who logically explains to the other boys that robbery is honorable. Tom's definition appears to be complete nonsense. However, as the reader will see by the end of the book, this scene actually parallels the novel's ending, where Huck and Tom "steal" Jim out of slavery. Thus, Twain truly demonstrates how honor and robbery can coexist.
Tom Sawyer's gang can be viewed as a childish representation of society as a whole, an example of a synecdoche. Tom creates a set of rules, ideas, and morals that he expects the boys to adhere to, all of which he gets from books. Thus, books form a foundation for civilization; using books, Tom creates a society for his gang of friends. Ironically, Twain mocks the adult world in this chapter by showing that although the adult world relies on books such as the Bible to define civilization, pirate and robber books might also suffice.
Slavery is introduced in this chapter through Tom and Huck's interactions with Miss Watson's slave, Jim. As the novel progresses, slavery gradually becomes a larger issue. It is important to note Huck's views towards slavery at this point so that they may be compared to his views later on. In this chapter, Huck comments that Jim, "was most ruined, for a servant," thus demonstrating he supports the idea of slavery. Only later in the novel does Huck start to question whether Jim should be a servant at all.
Huck's rationality and literalness appear here. Twain goes to great lengths to show that Huck is a logical thinker who only believes what he can see with his own eyes. Thus, Tom's band becomes boring when all they do is attack turnip wagons and Sunday School picnics. Unlike Tom Sawyer, Huck is unable to make-believe that the picnic is really an Arab army. The same thing happens with respect to Huck's Pap; Huck decides that Pap cannot be dead because the dead person was floating on its back rather than its face, meaning that it must have been a woman.
This focus on rationality and literalness is used by Twain to further attack religion. Huck is told to pray for what he wants, but when he prays and does not get anything, he decides that praying is pointless. Huck also thinks about the Christian concept of always helping other people. When he realizes that Christianity seems to offer him no personal advantage in life, he quickly rejects it as quite pointless.
Superstition appears again when Huck asks Jim to help him decide what to do about Pap. Jim uses a large hairball he believes to have magical abilities to help Huck. This is the first time that Twain foreshadows the happenings of the rest of the novel. Jim mentions "two gals flyin'" around Huck's life, a light one and a dark one, a rich one and a poor one. This is of course a reference to Huck and to Jim, since Huck is rich and Jim is poor. Jim's comment that Huck should avoid the water will go unheeded when both of them end up running away downriver.
Huck reinforces a split between what can be termed "natural learning" versus "book learning." He has been brought up with only "natural learning," such as how to survive in the wild. This can be contrasted with Tom Sawyer's "book learning," which has little actual application in Huck's life, and which Twain makes fun of by portraying the silliness of Tom's robber band. The usefulness of Huck's type of learning is constantly tested, for instance when he spots Pap's boot marks in the snow. This split between natural and book learning will be brought to a head when Huck encounters Pap directly.