The men try to wash their clothes in the Thames, but only succeed in making them dirtier than before. They pay a washerwoman in Streatley to do their laundry, and she charges them three times the normal rate because the clothes are so dirty. They do not complain.
After describing Streatley as a fishing town, J. advises readers not to fish in the Thames because there is nothing to be caught there but minnows and dead cats. J. explains that being a good angler has nothing to do with fishing, and everything to do with one’s ability to tell believable lies about the number of fish one has caught. He provides several examples of men he has met who have lied convincingly about their catch.
George and J. go to a pub in Wallingford. There is a large trout hanging on the wall there, and three different patrons (plus the bartender) each claim they were the one to catch it, each with a different story and description of its weight. At the end of the night, George trips and grabs the trout to steady himself. The trout falls to the ground and shatters, and the men realize that it is made of plaster of Paris.
J. discusses how “the Thames would not be the fairyland it is without its flower-decked locks” (170).
He recalls another rowing trip he took with George to Hampton Court. A photographer was taking pictures of a steam-launch, and called out to George and J. to try to stay out of his photograph. In attempting to keep their boat out of the frame, George and J. fell over and were photographed lying in the boat with their feet in the air. Their feet took up nine-tenths of the image, and the owner of the steam-launch – who had commissioned the photos – refused to pay for them.
J. describes the sights and attractions of Dorchester, Clifton, and Abingdon. These include Roman ruins, a pleasant park, and the grave of a man who is said to have fathered 197 children. J. warns readers about a challenging stretch of river near Oxford.
The friends spend two days in Oxford. Montmorency has a wonderful time fighting with the many stray dogs there. J. explains that many who vacation on the Thames start in Oxford and row downriver to London, so that they travel with the current the whole time. He recommends bringing one’s own boat rather than renting one in Oxford, however, because the boats there are of low quality. He remembers once hiring a boat in Oxford and mistaking it for an archeological artifact.
On the journey back from Oxford, it rains incessantly. The men, miserable, pass the time by playing penny nap, a card game, and listening to George play the banjo. Although J. describes him as an unskilled player elsewhere in the book, George here plays a mournful rendition of “Two Lovely Black Eyes” that plunges the men further into depression.
Though they swore to complete the trip, the men decide to abandon the boat and spend the rest of the trip in an inn in Pangbourne. They enjoy a delicious supper there, and tell the other guests about their travels. As the novel ends, they toast their decision to end the trip when they did, and Montmorency barks in agreement.
The nineteenth century was a time of elevated awareness about public health concerns. England was becoming an increasingly urban society, and the growing cities had to deal with both internal population growth and an influx of rural migrants seeking work in the factories. Between 1800 and 1900, the population of London grew from one million to six million (Isola et al.). Sewage overflowed and leaked into both the streets and the Thames, and smoke from coal-powered appliances and factories polluted the air. The public health crisis was well-documented at the time, and many Victorian writers – including Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell - discussed it in their fiction. White-collar workers like George, J., and Harris would have been able to live in relatively tolerable conditions. However, Jerome’s vivid depiction of the polluted Thames shows that the sanitation crisis affected even London’s wealthier residents.
The incident with the plaster fish is another example of Jerome’s liberal attitude toward social class. In the bar, several patrons from different social backgrounds all claim to have caught the fish. In spite of their differences in background, they behave similarly. Through this incident, Jerome seems to suggest that pretension cuts across social classes. In other words, all people lie to themselves, regardless of their levels of comfort.
The humor of Three Men in a Boat is generally lighthearted, but does occasionally veer into very dark territory. One example of this comes in Chapter 18, when J. notes that “the pool under Sanford lasher . . . is a very good place to drown yourself in” (174). The comment is especially abrupt because it comes after a relatively prosaic description of Nuneham Park, and because it appears only pages after the episode where the men find the body of a woman who did drown herself. Jerome’s wild vacillations in tone are one reason why contemporary critics were not sure what to make of Three Men in a Boat, and it is a quality of the text that some readers continue to find challenging today.
All in all, these final chapters (and sections) continue to suggest the idea that Jerome was constructing the novel as he went along. Not only does the tone veer wildly, but the book also becomes significantly more focused on travel descriptions in its final chapters, and the plot becomes rather rushed. The sudden ending has a certain comic quality in its suddenness, but also provides the sense that Jerome has run out of steam much as J. and his friends did.
However, the ending does provide some resolution to its recurring question about what it means to be happy. Jerome suggests throughout the novel that people always want precisely what they cannot have, and see themselves as different from they actually are. The basic set-up reflects these ideas; the men believe they are unhappy in their urban lives and are actually outdoorsmen. Of course, through the journey, they finally accept that spending time off of the boat is more desirable than spending time in it. Ironically, they end up happy in the same urban environment that they found tiresome at the beginning of the novel. According to Jerome, this perennial dissatisfaction with one’s lot is part of human nature, and is what motivates people to keep trying new things. However, we always find our greatest happiness when we explore the new things and then accept who we actually are.