NOVEL (THREE MEN IN A BOAT)
JEROME. K. JEROME
Three Men in a Boat Plot Summary
The novel, narrated by the Englishman J., tells of a boat trip J. takes up with Thames River with his friends George and William Samuel Harris. His prose is rambling, and often digresses into anecdotes or long observational passages.
One night, the three men smoke together in J.’s London apartment, discussing their anxiety over their sicknesses. The reader can discern that they are actually hypochondriacs. After researching diseases at the British Museum, J. has recently concluded that he suffers from every disease known to man except for housemaid’s knee. The men decide that a vacation will be good for their health, and after some deliberating, they decide to spend a week rowing up the Thames with their dog, Montmorency.
The men make arrangements for the trip. They decide to bring a cover for the boat so they can sleep in it, rather than bringing a tent or staying in inns. They compile a long list of items to bring, but quickly realize that they should only pack the essentials. Although they are friends, J. seems to dislike Harris, and compares him at length to J.’s incompetent Uncle Podger. They end up bringing a hamper of food, clothing, a cover for the boat, and a methylated spirit stove for cooking. Packing takes a long time because the men keep forgetting items they need, and prove somewhat ill-fit for the the task.
The men oversleep on the morning they are supposed to leave, and have trouble determining which train to board for Kingston, from which they intend to embark. They eventually make it, though, and begin the journey. J. describes some local landmarks, including Hampton Court and some pubs that Queen Elizabeth dined in. Harris tells a story about getting lost in the hedge maze at Hampton Court.
The men pass through their first lock – that is, a section of the river where the levels are lowered or raised between gates, to regulate traffic and water flow. J. comments on how irritating it is when women wear ‘boating clothes’ that are too delicate to get wet. George separates from the group to do some work for his employer in Shepperton. Harris proposes visiting a cemetery to see an interesting tombstone, but J. rejects this idea, finding cemeteries depressing. Harris falls into the food hamper while trying to get some whiskey.
When J. and Harris stop to lunch on the riverbank, a man accuses them of trespassing and tries to blackmail them. Harris, a large man, physically intimidates the visitor and they journey on. J. warns readers not to be taken in by these thugs, who usually do not work for the landowner they claim to represent.
He then recounts some embarrassing stories, in which he and Harris both make fools of themselves at pretentious parties – Harris by singing a comic song, and J. by pretending to speak German. J. describes a few more local points of interest, and the two men reunite with George in Shepperton.
Harris and J. convince George to tow the boat from the shore; towing is an arduous task that can lead to problems if the tower becomes distracted. J. recalls various incidents when he was boating and the tow-line became tangled or detached entirely.
The men have a satisfying dinner and sleep in the boat. The next morning, they wake up early and George tells J. a story about accidentally starting his day at 3 a.m. because he forgot to wind his watch. Later that morning, J. falls in the water and Harris fails in attempting to make scrambled eggs. As they pass Magna Charta Island, J. describes what it would have been like to be a peasant when the Magna Carta was signed.
When the men pass Datchet, they reminisce about an earlier trip, when all the inns were full there and they had to sleep at a local’s house. That night, they sleep at an inn in Marlow. Montmorency chases a large cat, but is too intimidated to attack it.
The next day, they pass more historical landmarks, including Bisham Abbey. They run out of drinking water, and are disgusted when a local lock-keeper suggests that they drink from the river. Harris falls off the edge of a gulch while trying to eat supper.
The next evening, they cook Irish stew, and George plays the banjo. However, he is a beginner and his music is so awful that Harris and J. persuade him not to play for the rest of the trip. George and J. go for drinks in the town of Henley that night, but get lost on their way back. When they eventually find Harris sleeping in the boat, he explains that he had to move it because he was attacked by a flock of aggressive swans.
- describes some of the mishaps that he and George experienced when they first learned to row. The men pass through Reading without incident, although J. does offer a brief history of the town. As they approach Goring, they discover a woman’s corpse floating in the water. They later learn that she drowned herself after having a child out of wedlock and finding herself unable to support it.
The men attempt to wash their clothes in the Thames, but the clothes only come out dirtier than before. That night, they drink at a pub in Wallingford with a large fish hanging on the wall. All of the patrons claim to have caught the fish themselves, but George accidentally knocks it over, and the men realize that it was made of plaster of Paris.
The friends continue toward Oxford, where they plan to turn around and row back toward London. J. describes a time that he and George went rowing and, by falling over at exactly the wrong moment, managed to ruin a professional photographer’s pictures. J. describes the attractions of Dorchester, Clifton, and Abingdon, which include Roman ruins and the grave of a man who fathered 197 children.
They manage to navigate a difficult stretch of river near Oxford, and spend two days there. J. interrupts the story to warn readers about renting a boat in Oxford because they tend to be of poor quality there.
On the way back from Oxford, it rains terribly, and the men find themselves cold, wet, and miserable. They soon decide to abandon the boat and spend the rest of the trip at an inn. That night, they enjoy a delicious supper and toast their decision to abandon the boat. Montmorency barks in agreement.
The narrator of the novel, most likely based on Jerome himself. J. has a dog named Montmorency, and two friends, George and Harris. He sees himself as intelligent, hard-working, and competent, but his behavior in the novel suggests otherwise. Like his friends, J. is a hypochondriac.
A good-natured banker, and one of J.’s best friends. Of the three men, he is portrayed as the only one who is seriously dedicated to his job. He brings a banjo on the boat trip and tries to learn how to play it.
A friend of George and J., who joins them on the trip. Although the novel’s flashbacks suggest that J. and Harris (full name William Samuel Harris) have known each other for a long time, J. actually dislikes Harris a great deal. He constantly criticizes Harris for being lazy and uncultured, and writes that “there is no poetry about Harris – no wild yearning for the unattainable” (18).
J.’s lively, belligerent fox terrier. He enjoys both fighting with other dogs and hunting.
J.’s accident-prone uncle, who is deceased. J. compares Harris to Uncle Podger because both of them have difficulty performing basic tasks without making mistakes.
J.’s friend, who asked him to transport some cheese.
The local greengrocer in London. He has a tendency to hire lazy and unpleasant errand-boys.
George’s former landlady, who despises his banjo playing.
J.’s friend, with whom he once went sailing.
Tom’s wife demands that Tom get rid of the cheese that J. brings home for them.
J.’s former classmate, who was dedicated to his studies but was often too sick to complete his work.
Preface and Chapters 1-3
Jerome introduces his book as being commendable nor for its style or relevance, but rather for its straightforward truth. He insists that the boat trip he details actually took place, and that the characters he speaks of are actual humans, not literary constructions.
He believes that no other books can claim to be more truthful, and hopes that its simplicity helps his message come across more clearly.
The narrator, J., is smoking in his room with his friends, George and William Samuel Harris, and his dog Montmorency. The men, all hypochondriacs, are chatting about their latest illnesses, each man certain that he is in danger of death or serious disease.
In a flashback, J. recollects how he once went to the British Museum to research a treatment for his hay fever, and after reading about diseases, convinced himself that he was suffering from every illness known to man except for housemaid’s knee. J.’s doctor, clearly recognizing the man’s paranoia, prescribed him beefsteak, beer, walking, and good sleep habits, and urged him not to “stuff up your head with things you don’t understand” (10).
- still believes that he suffers from every disease, but he is especially concerned about his ‘liver condition’ – the main symptom of which is “a general disinclination to work of any kind” (10).
The friends decide that taking a vacation together would restore their health, and debate locations for a week-long excursion. J. suggests a rural, old-world spot, but Harris wishes to avoid remote locations and counters with the suggestion of a sea cruise. J. vetoes that idea because one week is not enough time to overcome seasickness and actually enjoy the trip. He notes to the reader that no one admits to being seasick on land, but that many people have trouble with it when actually on a ship. George suggests taking a boat trip down the Thames, an idea that everyone approves. Though J. worries that Montmorency will get bored in the boat, they decide to bring him along anyway.
The men begin to make plans for their boat trip. George and J. want to camp along the river, believing that sleeping outside will offer a true escape from the city. J. writes sentimentally and poetically about the beauty and power of nature.
However, Harris points out that camping would be unpleasant if it rains, so they decide to camp on nights with good weather and sleep in inns when the weather is poor. J. believes Montmorency will prefer hotels because they offer more excitement and stables that the dog can run around in. J. explains to the reader that Montmorency’s adorable appearance endears him to everyone who meets him, but he is actually a hyperactive troublemaker.
The men leave for a pub, to further discuss arrangements for the trip.
At the pub, they compile a list of what they need to pack. Harris volunteers to write out the list, and J. compares him for the reader to his Uncle Podger, who always volunteers to help others but bungles the job because he is so accident-prone. Further, Uncle Podger ends up causing more work for everyone else because of his general incompetence. To illustrate his point, J. tells a lengthy story about how Uncle Podger once caused chaos for his entire household when trying to complete the simple task of hammering a nail into the wall.
Because the men do not want to leave anything behind, the list soon becomes ridiculously long. George suggests that they bring only the things they cannot do without, and they agree to travel light, even deciding to bring a cover a sleep in the boat so that they do not need to pack a tent. George promises that it will be easy to wash their clothes in the river with a bit of soap, and J. and Harris trust him (although J. notes that they will later regret this).
Three Men in a Boat straddles multiple genres, largely without drawing any attention to its tonal shifts. When the book was published in 1889, critics were not quite sure what to make of it. Superficially at least, it is structured as travel guide. Today, travel guides are often presented as reference works, and are not meant to be read cover-to-cover. In the nineteenth century, however, it was common for works of this genre to be written as one long itinerary. Jerome initially intended Three Men in a Boat to be a serious travel narrative, but his humorous digressions eventually become so prominent that the book was reconceived as a comic novel. What is most fascinating, though, is that there are still serious and honest passages that reflect the original intention, which creates a notable mix of tones. Because of this, modern and nineteenth-century critics alike tend to deride the book as uneven.
Jerome’s two main modes of humor are satire and observational humor. Satire is a mode of writing the uses irony to criticize society. It is often humorous, but does not necessarily have to be. Although some satirical novels are very dark, Jerome’s lighthearted satire is mostly concerned with illustrating and gently mocking the pretensions and hypocrisies of certain social conventions.
Observational humor sometimes overlaps with satire, especially in this case. It is a type of humor that draws its subject matter from human behavior and daily life, attempting to show the absurdity of human behavior by focusing of everyday, banal details. One example of observational humor is Jerome’s discussion of people who claim never to get seasick. The digression is meant to illustrate how most people present themselves as one type of person, in a way that’s almost expected, even if they are all quite different.
In fact, the frequent use of this type of humor does provide a fairly consistent absurdist worldview. Most of Jerome’s irony suggests that people are usually unaware of the extent to which they delude themselves. For instance, J.’s tone reveals that he clearly understands that he does not suffer from so many diseases, and yet he continues to progress as though it were true. Throughout the novel, Jerome revels in illustrating the illusions that men and women construct, usually fooling themselves most of all. Even though the novel remains rooted in everyday concerns, Jerome sees a regular absurdist vein that runs throughout them.
In fact, the Preface itself can be revisited after reading the text and seen as a joke itself. First, Jerome did not actually have a dog that he brought on the trip, which immediately contradicts the preface’s insistence on its simple truth. In fact, the story is as fictional as it is factual. However, even without knowing this fact, the preface’s humility reads as somewhat silly and false, as though he were saying ‘I just wrote what happened.’ He insists he will not use literary tropes, though he does so frequently (although sometimes to mock them). Despite its seeming simplicity, the Preface provides a microcosm of the novel’s contradiction between irony and earnestness.
Chapter 2 features the book’s first significant instance of Jerome’s alternation between lighthearted humor and sentimental description. His long-winded description of nature’s beauty is very different from the humorous passages in both tone and style. One could be forgiven for being momentarily confused, for looking through these descriptions for some sense of irony that they lack. Tonally, the description is very serious, and takes an idealistic, uncritical view of nature. Jerome’s style also changes dramatically. While the humorous passages are clear, concise, and conversational, Jerome uses very formal and flowery diction in the descriptive sections here. He relies heavily on the detailed, syntactically complex writing style that was common in ‘literary’ Victorian prose.
Jerome’s attitude toward nature is strongly influenced by Romanticism, a movement in literature and visual art that peaked in the first half of the nineteenth-century. It emphasized the beauty and majesty of nature, and encouraged people to privilege emotion over logic. Jerome’s Romantic influence can be seen in his sentimental view of nature and his professed distaste for modernity.
And yet it is the foibles of modernity and civilization that provide most of the novel’s push. These are clearest in Jerome’s digressions, which he frequently uses to go on extended comedic ‘riffs.’ These riffs are often quite notable and distinct from anything else in the novel. The Uncle Podger section is a perfect example. Though it initially serves to illustrate a point about Harris, it quickly becomes its own segment, an almost slapstick scene. Once Jerome establishes the irony – that sometimes the most helpful person proves the least helpful – it becomes all about gags. Further, the Uncle Podger section features a very different set of characters. While J. and his friends are privileged, urban gentlemen, Uncle Podger is the head of a large country family. When it was first published, Three Men in a Boat was criticized for pandering to working-class readers (“My Life” 75). Digressions like the Uncle Podger anecdote are what inspired this criticism.
However, Jerome’s digressions are not always overtly comedic. Many of the sentimental passages about the beauty of nature are also digressions, and Jerome’s criticism of materialistic people has a serious edge as well (26-27). Of course, that passage employs a wry irony even despite its formal, serious language, since the speaker is clearly as materialistic as the people he criticizes. J. briefly breaks the fourth wall and acknowledges this irony when the narrator stops himself and writes: “I beg your pardon really. I quite forgot” (27). In other words, he discovers yet another illusion that he uses for himself.
Finally, it is worth noting that the digressive structure gives the novel a stream-of-consciousness style, as though Jerome were constructing it as he went along. While it is possible that this is entirely accurate, it is equally plausible that Jerome means deliberately to explore a variety of approaches and subjects, all with an eye on entertainment. If so, then the style could be more suitably likened to that of a contemporary stand-up comedian than to more ‘traditional’ Victorian novels.
Continuing to plan, the friends discuss what they will need for cooking. Although paraffin oil stoves are more common, they decide to bring a methylated spirit stove, remembering how the paraffin oil had oozed everywhere on a previous boat trip.
For breakfast and lunch, they choose food that is easy to cook – but not cheese, because of its strong smell. J. launches into a long digression about when his friend Tom once asked him to transport some cheese on a train journey. Everyone sitting in J.’s car left because the smell was too strong. When J. delivered the cheese to Tom and his wife, Tom’s wife refused to stay in the house until the cheese was eaten. They could not escape the cheese’s stench until they buried it miles away at the seaside.
Back at his house, J. volunteers to pack the clothes, believing himself an exceptionally efficient packer. However, he keeps forgetting items, and then has to unpack in order to fit them in. To the reader, he expounds briefly on his habit of losing his toothbrush when traveling.
Harris and George watch J. pack with great amusement, and volunteer to pack the food when J. finally finishes. They are no better at it – they constantly forget items, and Harris steps in the butter. Throughout it all, they keep tripping over Montmorency. After some bickering, they finish, and assign George to wake them up at 6:30 the next morning.
However, they oversleep, only waking when Mrs. Poppets comes in at nine. Harris and J. are greatly irritated with George, and their mood grows worse when they learn that the day’s weather forecast is poor. J. digresses to complain about how often weather forecasts are inaccurate. He also concocts a hypothetical story about staying inside when the forecasts predict rain and missing a beautiful day, and then believing the forecast of sun the next day, but ending up wet.
When they finally depart, the greengrocer’s errand-boy mocks them for their immense amount of luggage. As the men wait for a taxi, passers-by speculate about where they are going. Eventually, they hail a taxi to the train station, but none of the conductors there know which train they should take. When one conductor tells them that nobody knows where the trains are supposed to go, they give him a half-crown bribe and luckily end up heading towards Kingston, disembarking when they reach the river.
As the men row through Kingston, J. provides some background on the area. (Although Kingston is now a suburb and part of Greater London, it would have been an independent town when Jerome wrote Three Men in a Boat in 1889.) J. describes how many of the pubs in this area claim that Queen Elizabeth dined there. He also tells about a shop that boasts a beautiful carved oak staircase, which the present owner has covered in blue wallpaper.
- uses this as an occasion to meditate on how people always want what they cannot have, and do not want the things they do have. He recalls a former classmate namedStivvings, who was dedicated to his studies but was often too sick to complete his work. Meanwhile, the other boys hoped to get sick to avoid schoolwork, and became sick only when vacation came around. Returning to the subject of the oak staircase, J. writes at length about how people in the future will consider quotidian objects like dinner-plates and cheap figurines as priceless works of art, much as his contemporaries consider the day-to-day objects of prior civilizations to be priceless.
In the boat, Harris and Montmorency accidentally spill the contents of the food hamper. As they row past Hampton Court, J. initially marvels at the building’s beauty, but then decides that it would be too dark and depressing to live in all the time.
Harris tells his friends about the time he attempted the hedge maze at Hampton Court. The map, given out in advance, seemed quite simple, so that Harris was confident he could easily best the maze. His confidence attracted a mob of 20 people who were lost in the maze, and they turned on him when he realized the maze was more complicated than he thought it was. They wandered for a long time, until a young groundskeeper came to fetch them, and got lost himself. An older groundskeeper eventually guided them out.
The men agree to send George through the maze on their return trip.
J.’s digressions serve multiple functions. Most importantly, they give Jerome the opportunity to experiment with different types of humor. In both the paraffin oil and the cheese stories, Jerome uses hyperbole – that is, exaggeration – to turn mundane experiences into comedy. The difficulty with packing provides an opportunity for slapstick, while the discussion of weather men is one commonly heard even today.
The digressions also help to characterize J. Because the plot of Three Men in a Boat is so tightly focused on George, Harris, and J.’s trip down the river, J.’s digressions and flashbacks give readers a chance to learn about his past and his personal qualities.
One thing we learn about J. is that he is a classic unreliable narrator. Jerome conveys this to readers by using dramatic irony – that is, situations where the readers understand what is going on even when the speaker does not. As previously discussed, one example of this is J.’s discussion of his diseases in Chapter 1. Readers are supposed to understand that J. is a hypochondriac, not that he is actually ill. The dramatic irony is not limited to J.’s understanding of his surroundings; it also applies to his tone. For example, J. writes with apparent earnestness that he “can’t sit still and see another man slaving and working” (36). Attentive readers will know from previous chapters that this is not true. The disconnect is meant to show us that J. is pompous and hypocritical, qualities that Jerome tends to play for laughs. Again, this particular point – that people construct illusions to fool themselves – continues to manifest throughout the novel.
And yet the novel is notable for several more serious digressions as well. Chapter 5, for instance, gives readers a brief glimpse of why J. dislikes urban life so much. As George, Harris, and J. travel through London on their way to the Thames, they encounter a wide variety of people, most of whom are unsavory and vulgar. Rather than helping the men with their bags, they mock them and speculate rudely about where they are traveling. The confusion at the train station is another example of the hectic confusion that J. is trying to escape. Despite the jovial tone of the novel, one can sense a pervasive cynicism about people, a cynicism that often extends even to the people who are ostensibly his friends.
By this point in the text, readers may begin to wonder why J. constantly criticizes Harris. Harris will continue to be J.’s proverbial ‘punching bag’ throughout the text. “On second thoughts,” Jerome writes, “I will not repeat what Harris said. I may have been to blame, I admit it; but nothing excuses violence of language and coarseness of expression, especially in a man who has been carefully brought up, as I know Harris has been” (55).
Part of the reason for this criticism is to demonstrate J.’s hypocrisy; he himself is guilty of many of the character flaws he attributes to Harris. Harris also provides Jerome with an outlet for slapstick and insult comedy, which does not always fit into J.’s wry observational humor. Through Harris, Jerome gets an opportunity to cater to readers who might not be interested in J.’s ironic satire. But finally, by using one of his friends as an antagonist, Jerome is able to more effectively deliver his light but cynical worldview.
Jerome’s editorializing – about both London and about life in general – is typical for a travel narrative from this period. According to the scholar MulreannO’Cinneide, Victorian travel writers often used travel as a platform to express their views on other topics. There was a precedent for this in fiction as well. Gulliver’s Travels and Candide, both immensely popular in England throughout the nineteenth century, are both satires disguised as fictional travel narratives. As the critic Samuel Pickering points out, the travel narrative and the comic novel have similar purposes and structures. Travel narratives make foreign life seem familiar, and comic novels turn a critical eye on the familiar and make it seem foreign (Pickering 678). By this point in Three Men in a Boat, a reader can discern that Jerome was, intentionally or not, pursuing both of these ends at the same time.
After passing Hampton Court, the men row through a lock — that is, a section of the river where the levels are lowered or raised between gates, to regulate traffic and water flow. This particular lock attracts many picnickers and pleasure-boaters, and J. remarks how nice it is to see people dressed up in their summer clothes. However, he criticizes his friends’ outfits – Harris has chosen to wear yellow, which does not suit him, andGeorge has bought an ugly new blazer for the trip.
- digresses to consider how women’s boating clothes tend to be pretty but impractical. He recounts a time he and a friend took several women rowing. The women wore such delicate clothes that even a drop of water would stain them, and they were unable to have fun on the trip because they were concerned about ruining their outfits.
The boat nears Hampton Church, and Harris proposes stopping to visit the graveyard, where someone named Mrs. Thomas is rumored to have a funny tombstone. J. protests, as he finds cemeteries depressing. For the reader, he recounts a time that he visited one with his friends. He refused to enter, and insulted the groundskeeper rudely when the man offered to show him the graveyard’s points of interest.
However, Harris insists on visiting the tombstone. George has gone into town to run some errands for the bank where he works. J. and Harris bicker about whether to visit the cemetery, and Harris decides he needs a drink. While trying to find the whiskey bottle, he falls head-first into the food hamper.
Harris and J. stop to eat lunch by the side of the river. A man appears and accuses them of trespassing, threatening to report them to the landowner. Harris – a large man – physically intimidates the visitor until he leaves. J. explains to the reader that the man was expecting a bribe, and most likely did not work for the landowner at all. He adds that these attempts at blackmail are common along the banks of the Thames, and that tourists should avoid paying people who do this.
- then launches into a diatribe on the violence he would like to inflict on landowners who actuallydoenforce trespassing laws on tourists like himself, since their claim at owning the river is specious in his mind.
- shares his feelings with his friends, and Harris insists that he feels more anger towards the owners than J. does. J. chides Harris for his intolerance, and tries to convince him to be more Christian.
During their conversation, Harris mentions that he would sing a comic song while hunting the owners, so J. then digresses to explain how Harris believes himself a fine singer of comic songs, while he is actually quite terrible at it. He tells the reader of a party where Harris demanded he be allowed to sing, and then embarrassed himself and the piano players who tried to help him. Jerome relates part of this section in play-form.
- then digresses to tell of a time he and others embarrassed themselves at a party. Two German guests, whom everyone was mostly ignoring, interjected to insist that a colleague of theirs could sing the funniest German songs they had ever heard. They offered to fetch him, and the man soon arrived to play. Though it turned out that his song was actually tragic, J. and the other guests laughed constantly, thinking it polite to do so. However, they actually angered the pianist, and the two German liars escaped before the song was finished, having played their practical joke.
The boat approaches Sunbury, where the backwaters flow in the opposite direction. J. recounts another boat trip on which he tried to row upstream in this area, but was only able to keep the boat in the same place. He lists a few points of interest around Sunbury and Reading, including a Roman encampment from the time of Caesar, a church that holds a torture instrument called a ‘scold’s bridle,’ and a dog cemetery.
When Harris and J. arrive at the village of Shepperton, they reunite with George, who surprises them by announcing that he has bought a banjo.
In Chapter 7, Jerome sends up the same Romantic writing conventions that he seemed to embrace in the novel’s earlier chapters. He writes:
It was a lovely landscape. It was idyllic, poetical, and it inspired me. I felt good and noble. I felt I didn’t want to be sinful and wicked any more. I would come and live here, and never do any more wrong, and lead a blameless, beautiful life, and have silver hair when I got old, and all that sort of thing (64).
The lyrical descriptions in this passage are typical of Romantic writing, as is the notion that nature can bring out a person’s best self. Because of these qualities, the passage is similar to other sentimental descriptions that appear in the novel. However, Jerome shows a sense of self-awareness here that he does not always demonstrate elsewhere. By wrapping up the description with “all that sort of thing,” he suggests an ironic distance from Romantic conventions, and gently mocks their sentimentality even as he seems to sincerely embrace their ideas. To connect this to one of the novel’s other primary themes, he seems to gently suggest that this embrace of nature as a manifestation of man’s best self is simply another illusion that we use.
These chapters also reveal more of J.’s meanness of spirit. He mocks the outfits of both of his friends, and mercilessly insults the graveyard custodian in a flashback. In a more serious novel, episodes like these might affect J.’s relatability; however, Jerome instead makes his narrator’s flawed personality a source of comedy. This may be one reason why critics derided Three Men in a Boat as “vulgar” when it was first released (“My Life” 75). In the Victorian era, many readers and critics expected fictional characters to be either role models or explicit villains (Golden 9). Although Jerome was certainly not the only author from this period to write about an unpleasant protagonist, his decision was nevertheless bold in upending contemporary readers’ expectations.
Of course, most of his meanness is reserved for Harris. Even in cases where he mocks Harris, however, Jerome uses the opportunity to make larger satirical points. For instance, his lengthy flashback about the party satirizes the pretensions of the middle class. After Harris concludes his song, the “fashionable and highly cultured party” engaged in a variety of ‘high-class’ activities, including discussing philosophy and speaking German (72). He then connects this latter activity to a later party, where it was revealed that the pretension to speaking German was only an illusion. In fact, when everyone laughed mistakenly at the tragic song, they showed that their behavior was dictated solely by custom, and not by any perception of what was actually happening. Through his wry descriptions of these parties, Jerome suggests that people do these activities not out of a love of learning, but rather to bolster their image and seem more ‘upper-class’ than they really are. Yet again, one can get a glimpse of why proper critics derided this novel as “vulgar,” since it mocks the very pretensions that a Victorian novel was supposed to uphold.
The interlude where Harris attempts to sing also draws extensively on Jerome’s background in the theatre. In his early twenties, Jerome acted in a low-budget, traveling theatre troupe. (In fact, his memoir about the experience was his first book to achieve popular success.) The passage – which is written like a script and even includes stage directions – was undoubtedly inspired by Jerome’s own love of drama. The awkwardness between Harris, the audience, and the pianist also suggests a firsthand knowledge of bad performance. Because Jerome’s troupe was very amateurish, it is entirely possible that Harris’s failed performance has an autobiographical basis.
Finally, it is worth noting that the novel continues to straddle its multiple genres. There are several geographic descriptions in these chapters that conform to the travel genre, there are plenty of comic interludes, and there are more serious discussions, especially that of the landowners who charge for boats that rest on the river. And yet Jerome seems to rely on comedy to provide the transitions – notice the irony of his discussion with Harris about wanting to hurt the landowners. When Harris confesses similar sentiments, J. immediately chides him for his ill will, even though he had only just before confessed such violent thoughts to us. We are not meant to doubt the truth of his feelings, but rather to enjoy and laugh at the discussion even while processing it.
To the reader, J. explains how easily tow-lines become tangled. On long journeys like this, it is common for travelers to take a break from rowing while someone tows the boat from shore. However, J. observes that the towers, on the shore, tend to become distracted by their conversation and stop paying attention to the boat. Whoever is left on the boat is usually uncomfortable or responsible for whatever crisis emerges, but is ignored by the towers.
Over tea, George tells a story about seeing a couple distracted as they towed their boat from land. Sneakily, he tied his boat to their tow-line, thus tricking the couple into dragging the wrong boat for several miles. J. recounts a similar story, about a group of men whose boat ran aground because they were distracted. However, he argues that girls are the worst towers of all because they are so flighty and distractible.
After tea, George tows the boat from the shore. According to J., the last few hours of towing are always the most difficult. He remembers going boating with a female cousin. When towing the boat at the end of the day, they got lost, only to be saved by a group of working-class locals.
Although the friends intended to spend their first night on Magna Charta Island, they are too tired to travel all the way there, and decide to stop earlier. Because they did not bring a tent, they have to pitch the canvas cover over the boat before they can sleep. This task proves more difficult than it seems, and it takes them several attempts to successfully set it up.
They cook dinner, which is very satisfying because they have had such a long and exhausting day. They then prepare to sleep together in the boat’s cramped quarters. J. tells his friends a story about two men who accidentally shared a bed in an inn; during the night, they stumbled into the same bed, and each thought his bed had been invaded by an intruder.
- sleeps badly, and has a dream that doctors are trying to cut him open after he swallowed a sovereign. He begins a serious digression, discussing the beauty and melancholy of night. He concludes the chapter with a story about a knight who gets lost in the woods but manages to find joy in his suffering.
George and J. wake up at six the next morning, and cannot get back to sleep. George tells J. a story about how he once forgot to wind his watch before going to bed, which left him confused when he woke at three in the morning. He only realized the mistake when he arrived at work, and aroused the suspicion of several constables as he walked around London so late at night.
- and George finally wake Harris. They had previously agreed to go for a morning swim, but are now reluctant to jump in the cold water. J. falls in and tries to trick his friends into joining him, but they refuse. J. also accidentally drops a shirt into the river, which George finds hilarious until he realizes it is actually his shirt.
Harris volunteers to make scrambled eggs, promising that they will be delicious. Of course, Harris has no idea how to make scrambled eggs, but George and J. enjoy watching him make a fool of himself in the process. Naturally, the eggs are inedible.
That morning, the men arrive at Magna Charta Island, near Runnymede. As the name suggests, Magna Charta Island is where King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215. J. speculates at length about what it would have been like to be a peasant living in Runnymede at the time of the event.
Poetry occupied an important place in Victorian culture, and it was popular among readers of all classes. Jerome often borrows techniques from poetry for his prose. Personification is one technique he uses that is typically associated with poetry. Early in Chapter 9, Jerome personifies tow-lines at great length. “There may be,” he writes, “tow-lines that are a credit to their profession—conscientious, respectable tow-lines—tow-lines that do not imagine they are crochet-work, and try to knit themselves up into antimacassars the instant they are left to themselves” (80). The effect here is light and humorous; by using personification, Jerome engages the reader and manages to be entertaining even though he is writing at great length about a relatively simple point.
Jerome also continues to juxtapose highbrow with the low in these chapters. In addition to using different types of humor designed to appeal to readers of different levels of education, Jerome also has his characters interact with people from all walks of life. A prime example of this comes at the end of Chapter 9, when J. and his cousin are rescued by a group of “provincial ‘Arrys and ‘Arriets,” whom J. praises effusively for their kindness and earnestness (88). “‘Arry and ‘Arriets’” was a common, slightly derogatory slang term for the working-class during the Victorian period; it references the tendency of lower-class English people to drop H-sounds when speaking. Ironically, Punch Magazine would later mock Jerome for his tendency to pander to lower-class readers by referring to him as ‘Arry K. ‘Arry (“My Life” 75).
In Chapter 10, Jerome returns to the theme of wanting – and often not being able to get – the things that one does not have. He addresses this first in his comic description of the men’s attempt to make dinner. As J. observes, hot water seems to take longer to boil when one most wants a cup of tea. The men comically try to work around this by talking loudly about how much they do not want tea, and J. believes the strategy actually works.
Jerome also explores this theme obliquely through the story of the knight in the woods. This story (and the digression about night that precedes it) is told in the serious, Romantic style that Jerome occasionally uses in the novel’s digressive passages. In it, the knight finds a deeper, more meaningful happiness being lost in the woods than his comrades do after weeks of feasting in the palace. Although the passage’s tone is dramatically different from the novel’s more humorous sections, both address the phenomenon of wanting one does not have – be it physical comfort or emotional fulfillment.
The knight story also emphasizes the novel’s common theme of the illusions men make for themselves. Where the knights in the castle are distracted by the luxury they believe defines them, the lonely night truly finds himself by stripping himself of such illusions. In this way, the story does hearken to the Romantic belief that nature could bring transcendence.
Callbacks to earlier jokes is a common technique used in comedic writing, and Jerome begins to use that technique heavily in these chapters, which are around the novel’s midpoint. An example of a callback can be found early in Chapter 11, when J. explains that “the idea, overnight, had been that we should get up early in the morning . . . and revel in a long delicious swim. Somehow, now the morning had come, the notion seemed less tempting. The water looked damp and chilly: the wind felt cold” (102). This was foreshadowed in Chapter 3 when J. noted that he is always more excited about swimming when he is not immediately faced with the prospect of diving into cold water. And again, this moment touches on the theme of illusions – it is nice to make plans for ourselves, but another thing to actually carry through with those plans.
Chapter 11 concludes with a sentimental historical interlude. As the men approach Magna Charta Island, Jerome imagines what it would have been like to be a peasant when King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. To a certain extent, this passage tips Jerome’s political hand. It is notable that despite his middle-class background (and his patronizing attitude toward ‘Arrys and ‘Arriets in the previous chapters), he identifies with the peasants rather than the bourgeoisie or the nobles. His positive description of the Magna Carta as “the great cornerstone in England’s temple of liberty” also hints at Jerome’s populist sentiments.