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).
J. 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.