Last Updated on May 20, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1213
The first-person narrator begins by remarking that the reader will not know who he is without having read a book called The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mr. Mark Twain. Twain, says the narrator, told the truth for the most part, though he stretched the truth sometimes, as almost everyone does. At the end of that story, the narrator (who is Huckleberry Finn himself, hereafter known as Huck) and Tom Sawyer each found $6,000 in gold. Huck went to live with the Widow Douglas, a rich old woman, but he soon finds the respectability of his new life irksome after the freedom of his old one. His annoyance is exacerbated by the widow’s sister, Miss Watson, who has just come to live with her and who makes it her mission to teach Huck to spell and to behave in a civilized manner. Miss Watson keeps telling him that he will have to change his ways if he is to go to Heaven, but he sees no advantage in going there if it means he will have to put up with Miss Watson for eternity.
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After Miss Watson has finished with her homilies, everyone in the widow’s house goes to bed, and Huck feels lonely. When everything is quiet, he hears a “me-yow,” which he correctly identifies as a signal from Tom Sawyer. He slips out of the window and finds Tom waiting for him.
Tom and Huck tiptoe to the end of the garden, where they are heard by Miss Watson’s slave, Jim. He asks who is there and gets so close to Huck and Tom that he is between the two and almost touching them. Presently, however, he falls asleep, and the boys escape. They meet with a group of other boys and row down the river for a couple of miles to a hideout in the side of a hill. There, Tom proposes that they start a band of robbers called “Tom Sawyer’s Gang.” Each member has to take an oath and write his name in blood. They agree that anyone who divulges the secrets of the gang will be killed, and some of them think the traitor’s family should be killed, too. One of their number, however, objects that Huck has no family, making this unfair. Huck offers Miss Watson instead.
The boys discuss what the gang will do. Its principal activities will be robbery and murder. Captives may also be ransomed, though Tom has only read about this and is not sure how to do it. They will not kill their female captives but will be “as polite as pie to them.” Tom is elected first captain of the gang, and Jo Harper second captain. Huck heads home and climbs back through his window just as day is breaking. His clothes are covered in mud.
In the morning, Miss Watson scolds Huck for the state of his clothes, but the Widow Douglas merely looks sorrowful, which has more effect on Huck. Miss Watson prays with him and tells him to pray every day, and he will get whatever he asks for. However, Huck has tried this and can confirm that it does not work. If it did, he reasons, people would be able to satisfy all their desires quite easily.
Huck’s father, to whom he refers as “Pap,” has not been seen for more than a year. People say that he has been drowned and that his body has been discovered, but the corpse in question has been in the water too long for it to be identified properly. Huck says that the drowned person must have been a woman, in any event, because the corpse floated on its back, whereas a drowned man floats face downward.
After about a month, Huck and the other boys become bored with Tom’s robber gang, which never does any actual robbing. Tom imagines battles between Arabs and Spaniards, complete with trains of camels and elephants, and fabulous jewels, all of which he has read about in books. Huck, however, has not read these books and has little time for fairytales. He is particularly unimpressed by the story of a powerful genie who comes and performs magical tasks when one rubs a lamp or a ring. He actually goes so far as to try rubbing a lamp and a ring himself one day, but nothing happens, and Huck concludes that this story was “only just one of Tom Sawyer’s lies.”
The first sentence makes it clear that this book will be quite different from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It is a first-person narrative by Huck himself, whereas the previous volume was narrated by Mark Twain, whom Huck goes so far as to name, though he does not make it clear how Twain found out about the boys’ adventures. His judicious weighing of Twain’s truthfulness is an oblique claim to veracity on his own account.
Huck says that it does not matter whether the reader is familiar with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but he assumes familiarity, as he does not even trouble to introduce himself, despite mentioning Tom Sawyer, Aunt Polly, the Widow Douglas, and Mary, as well as Mark Twain himself, all in the first paragraph. His own first name is given fairly soon after this, since Miss Watson calls him Huckleberry, but only the reader who has already encountered Huck in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer will realize quite what a significant social metamorphosis he has undergone. In that story, he was a lawless vagrant, blessed in the eyes of the respectable children because he did not attend school but held up as an awful warning by parents and teachers. Now he is under the guardianship of one of the wealthiest and most strait-laced women in St. Petersburg.
Huck’s narrative voice is naïve and confiding, as though he expects the reader to share his perspective and his tastes. He is also skeptical, however, and is quick to distinguish his worldview from Tom’s, as well as this book from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. This distinction is underlined early on by the formation of Tom’s gang of robbers in chapter 2 and its almost immediate abandonment in chapter 3. Tom is still a child who wants to play games based on fantasies from The Arabian Nights and Don Quixote. The gang that meets at midnight in a secret hideout, where its members sign an oath in blood, is a staple of the “boys’ book.” However, Huck, who has always had a harder life than Tom, as well as a less romantic view of it, has grown out of such fantasies. He treats Tom’s stories about magic lamps and genies with the same skepticism he applies to Miss Watson’s claims about prayer. First, he applies logic. Why would a huge and powerful genie, “as high as a tree and as big as a church,” obey someone’s orders just because he rubs a lamp? Second, as with prayer, he conducts an experiment, which fails to produce a genie. This demonstrates Huck’s simple, practical attitude to life, separating him from the romantic, imaginative views of Tom Sawyer and this book from fantasy literature intended primarily for children.