“I agreed with George, and suggested that we should seek out some retired and old-world spot, far from the madding crowd, and dream away a sunny week among its drowsy lanes – some half-forgotten nook, hidden away by fairies, out of reach of the noisy world – some quaint perched eyrie on the cliffs of Time, from whence the surging waves of the nineteenth century would sound far-off and faint.”
Jerome was heavily influenced by Romanticism, an aesthetic movement that focused on nature and the beauty of human emotion. Although he sends up some Romantic tropes elsewhere in the text, Jerome here appears to sincerely embrace nature's rejuvenating potential. The novel's frequent conflict between focus on human foibles and exultation of nature's possibility provides some of its most fascinating tonal shifts. No matter how cynical he is at times, Jerome clearly has an optimistic streak as well, as evidenced by passages like this.
It is also worth noting the phrase "far from the madding crowd", which is drawn from Thomas Gray's 1742 poem, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." That poem praises the beauty of nature and depicts rural graveyards as a good place for reflection. In Three Men in a Boat, Harris repeatedly asks to stop in rural churchyards to reflect, although J. and George always turn him down. The phrase later provided the title for Thomas Hardy's novel; Jerome pays homage to Hardy in other sections of the text as well.
"And we sit there, by its margin, while the moon, who loves it too, stoops down to kiss it with a sister’s kiss, and throws her silver arms around it clingingly; and we watch it as it flows, ever singing, ever whispering, out to meet its king, the sea—till our voices die away in silence, and the pipes go out—till we, common-place, everyday young men enough, feel strangely full of thoughts, half sad, half sweet, and do not care or want to speak—till we laugh, and, rising, knock the ashes from our burnt-out pipes, and say 'Good-night,' and, lulled by the lapping water and the rustling trees, we fall asleep beneath the great, still stars, and dream that the world is young again—young and sweet as she used to be ere the centuries of fret and care had furrowed her fair face, ere her children’s sins and follies had made old her loving heart—sweet as she was in those bygone days when, a new-made mother, she nursed us, her children, upon her own deep breast—ere the wiles of painted civilization had lured us away from her fond arms, and the poisoned sneers of artificiality had made us ashamed of the simple life we led with her, and the simple, stately home where mankind was born so many thousands years ago."
This passage is a prime example of the flowery, serious style that Jerome adopts when he departs from his comic style, which is faster-paced and more concise. In the nineteenth century and today, the novel's critics take issues with its rapid shifting between styles. In some sections, Jerome affects a serious, Romantic style as a parody, rather than in earnest. In other sections, it is unclear whether he is writing this way ironically or sincerely. However, it is known that Jerome initially intended Three Men in a Boat as a serious travelogue, and so these passages might best be understood as remnants from earlier drafts. Either way, the novel's inconsistent style provides both its greatest strengths and weaknesses. Jerome clearly prized myriad approaches over internal consistency.
"How they pile the poor little craft mast-high with fine clothes and big houses; with useless servants, and a host of swell friends that do not care twopence for them, and that they do not care three ha’pence for; with expensive entertainments that nobody enjoys, with formalities and fashions, with pretence and ostentation, and with—oh, heaviest, maddest lumber of all!—the dread of what will my neighbour think, with luxuries that only cloy, with pleasures that bore, with empty show that, like the criminal’s iron crown of yore, makes to bleed and swoon the aching head that wears it!"
Here, Jerome seems to put aside comic writing to seriously critique the foibles and pretensions of the upper classes. Of course, the critique is ironically funny because in the previous pages, J. himself created a long list of items to bring on the trip. However, Jerome's criticism of upper-class materialism is at least somewhat sincere. He grew up poor and had struggled with money for most of his life when he wrote Three Men in a Boat. The passage also fits well with Jerome's assertions elsewhere in the text that true happiness can be found not through stoicism or spending large amounts of money, but by simply enjoying one's company and surroundings. Ultimately, then, while this passage is focused on skewering the upper class, it touches on the novel's more universal criticism of mankind's tendency to complicate ourselves with illusions and possessions rather than finding simple peace with ourselves.
“We are creatures of the sun, we men and women. We love light and life. That is why we crowd into the towns and cities, and the country grows more and more deserted every year. In the sunlight—in the daytime, when Nature is alive and busy all around us, we like the open hill-sides and the deep woods well enough: but in the night, when our Mother Earth has gone to sleep, and left us waking, oh! the world seems so lonesome, and we get frightened, like children in a silent house. Then we sit and sob, and long for the gas-lit streets, and the sound of human voices, and the answering throb of human life.”
J.'s praise of urban life here contradicts what he says earlier in the novel, about the beauty and healthful qualities of nature being essential to the human experience. This type of contradiction appears frequently in Three Men in a Boat. It is not a result of poor characterization, but rather a consequence of wanting what one cannot have – a problem with which each of Jerome's characters struggles. Throughout the book, he suggests that people constantly present themselves as different than they are, and are always seeking to change, sometimes at the expense of their own peace and happiness. The style of this passage varies significantly from the rest of the novel – it is syntactically complex and apparently earnest in its meditations on human happiness. It may be a remnant from earlier drafts of the novel, which were more serious in tone.
“The late Duchess of York, who lived at Oatlands, was very fond of dogs, and kept an immense number. She had a special graveyard made, in which to bury them when they died, and there they lie, about fifty of them, with a tombstone over each, and an epitaph inscribed thereon. Well, I dare say they deserve it quite as much as the average Christian does.”
Jerome's comic digression about the eccentric Duchess of York is certainly humorous, but it also contains biting satire of human nature. Jerome's comment that "the average Christian" is on the same moral plane as a dog reflects his cynical worldview. According to Jerome, everyone is more or less guilty of sin, and because of this, people should refrain from judging each other. While he does not overtly criticize religion, he does strongly imply that he believes many Christians are hypocritical. It is worth noting, of course, that these claims of hypocrisy are not reserved solely for religious types in the novel, but are leveled at pretty much every type of person. Finally, the mention of the dogs draws attention to Jerome's use of Montmorency. Jerome did not actually bring a dog on the trip he details, but uses the dog as comic foil through which to skewer the characters' pretensions and absurdities.
"A grim fraternity, passing grim lives in that sweet spot, that God had made so bright! Strange that Nature’s voices all around them—the soft singing of the waters, the whisperings of the river grass, the music of the rushing wind—should not have taught them a truer meaning of life than this."
In this passage, J. critiques the notion that austere living gives people greater moral insight. Instead, he argues that people should embrace the sensory pleasures of the human experience and allow themselves to enjoy happy moments. This secular, humanistic worldview would have placed Jerome somewhat out of the Victorian mainstream, although it was shared by certain other contemporary authors, such as Oscar Wilde and Thomas Hardy. Overall, Jerome's point here is not to criticize those who live austerely, but to suggest that all men tend to limit themselves through judgments and assumptions. Both city and country folk should endeavor to explore the opposite of their experience. His overall message - that we should explore new things in order to better appreciate who we are - is applied to everyone, including those who are seemingly more in touch with nature already.
"Just when we had given up all hope—yes, I know that is always the time that things do happen in novels and tales; but I can’t help it. I resolved, when I began to write this book, that I would be strictly truthful in all things; and so I will be, even if I have to employ hackneyed phrases for the purpose.”
On several occasions throughout Three Men in a Boat, Jerome breaks the fourth wall – that is, he addresses the reader directly and acknowledges that he is writing a book. Although modern readers might associate this technique with postmodern fiction, it was actually used quite frequently in the Victorian period by authors including Jerome, George Eliot, and William Makepeace Thackeray. This passage is typical of Jerome's style in that it mocks literary clichés even as it uses them to move the story along. It also conforms to his general approach towards pretensions, which he attacks even while having his protagonist display them himself.
“I like to watch an old boatman rowing, especially one who has been hired by the hour. There is something so beautifully calm and restful about his method. It is so free from that fretful haste, that vehement striving, that is every day becoming more and more the bane of nineteenth-century life.”
The men justify the boat trip by claiming that they need an escape from the hustle and bustle of modern life. Here, Jerome reiterates that sentiment, describing how the beauty and peace of rural life still exists in the countryside. Of course, much of the humor in Three Men in a Boat is derived from the fact that country life is often not peaceful at all. Indeed, even the somber moments, such as when the men find the dead woman's corpse floating in the river, suggest that physically leaving London does not guarantee an escape from worry and trouble. The novel's ultimate message - that we should find peace with ourselves and our situations - is not dependent on location, but rather on personality. Because every person is capable of hypocrisy and unnecessary pressures on himself, the struggle for peace is not contingent on whether one chooses the country or city.
"I never knew anybody catch anything, up the Thames, except minnows and dead cats, but that has nothing to do, of course, with fishing!"
In the nineteenth century, most English cities were extremely unsanitary, and London was the epicenter of this public health crisis. Although Jerome plays the appalling condition of the Thames for laughs here, Three Men in a Boat is nevertheless an excellent document of the effects that London's pollution had on the surrounding countryside. Shortly after Jerome makes this observation, J. and his friends find a woman's corpse floating in the river. Jerome seems to suggest that escaping the filth and stress of urban life requires more than simply leaving London. These implications also provide insight into the way the novel provides a serious, cynical worldview even through its largely comic tone.
“It would not be a good place for the heroine of a modern novel to stay at. The heroine of a modern novel is always 'divinely tall,' and she is ever 'drawing herself up to her full height.' At the 'Barley Mow' she would bump her head against the ceiling each time she did this.”
Once again, Jerome sends up fiction's stylistic conventions. By mocking these clichés, Jerome encourages the reader to take Three Men in a Boat as a more honest, unguarded form of fiction than one would find in a typical novel. By distancing himself from hack writing, he may also be hinting at his ambitions to write substantial (if humorous) literature. Throughout his life, Jerome aspired to write serious literature, and lamented that the immense popularity of Three Men in a Boat prevented his later work from being taken seriously. This passage also touches on one of the novel's primary themes, the way that we mistake our illusions for real life. His point here is that the way we want to see the world - with ourselves as heroes or heroines - often does not have any place in day-to-day life.
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Study Guide for Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)
Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) study guide contains a biography of Jerome K. Jerome, literature essays, a complete e-text, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.