Jerome’s portrayal of the relationship between urban life and the natural world is complex, and at times contradictory. Early in the book, the men decide to take a river trip because they believe that nature’s calmness and beauty will give them an escape from the stress of living in London. To some extent, this is true – the men do seem to forget their hypochondria when they are on the river, and they enjoy many calm moments. However, they also discover that the countryside is not as peaceful as it seems. The men have great difficulty performing basic chores such as cooking and navigating the boat, and they quickly cease the trip when it begins to rain on their way back to London. Ultimately, they come to accept that country life can be every bit as demanding as life in the city.
Much of the humor in Three Men in a Boat is derived from the characters’ hypocritical behavior – especially that of J., the narrator. J. frequently digresses from the narrative to write long, scathing takedowns of people and behaviors that annoy him. While the rants themselves are often quite witty, Jerome adds another layer of humor by having J. himself be guilty of the behaviors he criticizes. One of the novel’s many examples of this comes when he grows angry at George and Harris for being lazy, while he himself avoids chores as often as possible. By making his narrator unreliable in this way, Jerome ensures that the negative, critical aspects of the story remain enjoyable and lighthearted. And yet the point remains apt, especially since characters almost everywhere in the book show a tendency to speak a certain way while acting in an opposite manner.
According to Jerome, impossible desires are a part of human nature. Although this worldview sounds somewhat bleak, he conveys it through comedy about his characters wanting what they cannot have, and then losing interest on occasions when they do get what they wish for. The most important example of this is how the three men’s attitude toward rowing changes over the course of the novel. At the beginning, they see the boat trip as a welcome escape from their stressful routines. However, by the end of the novel, they are so tired of living in the boat that they end the trip early to stay at an inn. Jerome suggests that although we all must cope with impossible desires, the best way to live a satisfying life is to pursue variety but ultimately return to the lifestyle that suits who we actually are.
Much of Jerome’s satire targets pretension, especially the pretensions of the middle and upper classes. His treatment of pretension is similar to his treatment of hypocrisy, and the two themes are themselves closely related. Pretension has more to do with how people present themselves to the world. One of the most scathing sequences in the novel comes when Jerome skewers the pretensions of J. and his friends, who discuss philosophy and pretend to speak German in an effort to be ‘high-class.’ In this passage, Jerome is not mocking the activities, but rather the fact that they are pursuing them not out of genuine interest, but rather in hopes of bolstering their reputations among their friends. Overall, Jerome presents a world of people who develop illusions about themselves that are easily punctured if they are closely examined.
Jerome's examination of social class is both nuanced and interesting for its time. Throughout his life, Jerome did not fit easily into one social class. His father was a skilled worker and a lay preacher, and before Jerome’s birth, his family was solidly middle-class. However, they were plunged into poverty when he was two years old, and he had to take several menial jobs as a young man. Nevertheless, he remained immersed in arts and letters, and managed to support himself through his creative work. (After Three Men in a Boat became successful, he was set for life – and thus experienced life in England from many different socioeconomic perspectives.) Three Men in a Boat is unique in that it features characters from all walks of life, generally portraying them positively. The titular men are white-collar, middle-class workers, but they encounter many members of the lower classes on their trip, and even witness some of the privations caused by extreme poverty. While Jerome does not overtly criticize the English class system, he does portray characters from different social classes with skill and sensitivity.
In Three Men in a Boat, Jerome presents a nuanced, humanistic view of morality. The episodes in the novel show that everyone is guilty of sin to a greater or lesser extent, and he even makes this point explicitly when the men find the corpse of a woman who committed suicide. Because of this universal tendency, Jerome argues that people should refrain from judging each other for their moral lapses. We are all guilty of seeing ourselves differently from how we actually are, and hence should be careful to assume we have authority to judge others. Indeed, J.’s judgments of the people around him are often written to reflect poorly on him for judging, even though they also provide much of the novel’s humor.
Three Men in a Boat can be understood as an exploration of what it takes for humans to be truly happy. For the novel’s characters – and for many real laborers in Victorian England – a holiday presents a very special occasion that is anticipated all year. As he chronicles the men’s trip up the Thames, Jerome parses what it means to have a satisfying holiday – and by extension, to be happy. The men bicker constantly and are incompetent at performing even basic tasks, which makes the trip just as stressful – if not more so – than their lives in London do. However, through his humorous and serious digressions, Jerome conveys that happiness is not about doing particular activities or being with certain people, but rather about appreciating one’s current situation and surroundings. One should explore variety but then return to who one actually is.
Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) Questions and Answers
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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.