Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) Essay Questions

  1. 1

    What purpose do Jerome's digressions serve?

    Jerome's digressions allow him to broaden the scope of a novel that would otherwise be tightly focused on a single journey from London to Oxford and back. By giving J. a highly digressive narrative style, Jerome allows himself to write comically about topics that would otherwise be difficult to address in a travelogue. The digressions also characterize George, Harris, and J. by providing flashbacks about their lives before the trip. Finally, while the digressions have inspired criticisms about the novel's wandering style, they also define that style as truly singular, one which attempts to deliver a larger message about human nature and happiness through myriad approaches.

  2. 2

    J. frequently calls Harris ‘vulgar’ and ‘common’. Why do you think this is? Do you agree with his characterization?

    J. and George tend to scapegoat Harris whenever anything goes wrong on the trip. This has a comic effect, but it also highlights their own hypocrisy, since they are often guilty of the same mistakes of which they accuse Harris. Ironically, J.'s insults reveal more about himself than they do about Harris. J. repeatedly returns to the theme of Harris being uncouth and uncreative, which shows that J. prizes these qualities in his own personality (even though readers can tell that they are not truly present). Finally, J.'s misanthropy about Harris touches on one of the novel's primary themes: the human tendency to want what we do not have. By attacking the friend he purposefully chose to bring on the trip, J. mirrors the human tendency to criticize our lot and imagine something different.

  3. 3

    How does Jerome portray women?

    Modern readers might find Jerome's portrayal of women politically problematic. He relies heavily on stereotypes of women as vain, shallow, and excessively emotional. This portrayal is particularly clear in his comic riffs, such as the one about women's boating clothes. Although Victorian writers such as Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot wrote about strong female characters who challenged these stereotypes, Jerome's attitude toward women was nonetheless an extremely common one in 1889. On the other hand, Jerome does demonstrate empathy for the problems faced by unwed mothers. The episode in which the men find a woman's corpse in the river exposes the injustices that these women face when trying to provide for their children. Ultimately, Jerome shows some sensitivity to women, but mostly reflects his era's prejudices.

  4. 4

    Is Three Men in a Boat autobiographical? What elements of Jerome’s life might have influenced the text?

    Jerome states in his autobiography that his honeymoon with his first wife was the immediate inspiration for Three Men in a Boat. In 1888 (one year before the novel was published), Jerome and his new wife rowed the same route that J. and his friends follow in the novel. And yet the novel's Preface insists that this trip is factually accurate, meaning that the degree of autobiography ought to be questioned. However, other aspects of Jerome's life also influence the text. As a member of the lower middle class who was nonetheless striving to make a living in the arts, Jerome had a unique perspective on social class and pretension. Both his insights into pretension and the party flashbacks may well have been inspired by Jerome's own experiences with bourgeois pseudo-intellectuals.

  5. 5

    What kinds of humor does Jerome use in Three Men in a Boat? Why do you think he varies his style of comedy?

    Jerome uses a wide variety of comedic styles in Three Men in a Boat, including slapstick, observational comedy, social satire, and black comedy. The book was written to appeal to readers of all education levels and walks of life, and thus includes humor for different audiences. For example, uneducated audiences and children might appreciate the novel's slapstick scenes, while Jerome's wry social commentary is more directed at higher-brow readers. But the audience appeal does not entirely explain these various approaches, since the multiplicity mirrors the novel's general trend towards style variations. Overall, it seems as though Jerome wanted the style to be deliberately rambling, as though to suggest it truly was the result of J.'s inner monologue. Although critics did not approve of Jerome's variegated style, it brought the book immense popularity and made it one of the bestselling titles of the Victorian period.

  6. 6

    What is Montmorency’s significance? Why does Jerome feature him so prominently?

    Montmorency provides opportunities for slapstick humor that Jerome would not have had with an all-human cast of characters. More importantly, he serves as a foil to George, J., and Harris. While the men are easily discouraged and pathologically lazy, Montmorency is always in a lively mood, managing to obtain his own food and defend himself with confidence and competence (at least most of the time). Often, Jerome underscores the men's foolish behavior by contrasting them unfavorably with Montmorency. Especially considering that Jerome did not actually have a dog, one can see how Montmorency as a literary construction allows him to better characterize the human foibles that he criticizes both explicitly and implicitly.

  7. 7

    Discuss the novel's tonal shifts. Why do you think they happen?

    Three Men in a Boat features many abrupt shifts in tone. While most of the novel is written in a sparse, comic style, Jerome occasionally writes serious digressions, often about history or human nature. These digressions are stylistically distinct from the rest of the text: they are syntactically complex, somber in tone, and heavily influenced by Romanticism. There are several possible explanations for their presence. They may be an attempt to cater to audiences who would be uninterested in a book that is purely humorous. They may also be a reflection of a sensibility that favors multiple approaches over internal consistency, or a preference for a rambling, internal monologue. Jerome also wrote that Three Men in a Boat was initially intended to be a serious travelogue, so the more subdued passages might be remnants of earlier drafts.

  8. 8

    Discuss the novel's historical passages. What do they reveal about Jerome's worldview?

    The novel includes many passages about the history of the places the characters visit. Jerome addresses well-known topics such as the Magna Carta and Henry VIII's courtship of Anne Boleyn, but he also discusses some profoundly obscure local history, such as the Duchess of York, who had fifty dogs. The lighthearted tone of these passages suggests that Jerome does not take history too seriously, and does not believe that important historical figures are so very different from himself and his audience. His irreverent writing style suggests a laid-back attitude toward social class that would have been highly unusual in nineteenth-century England. By speaking of high-brow historical concerns right next to low-brow locations, he suggests that England is constructed of all its people, and not just its most venerated figures.

  9. 9

    Discuss George, Harris, and J. Does Jerome adequately differentiate his main characters? Why or why not?

    Jerome's characterizations of George, Harris, and J. are relatively shallow. While the men have different jobs and somewhat different personalities (for example, Harris is the most accident-prone and George is the most dedicated to his work), their behave and speak in much the same way. Jerome writes in this way because nuanced characterization and character development is less important in comic novels than witty observations and an amusing plot are. Further, by stressing their shared foibles - such as hypochondria or laziness - he suggests that certain issues are universal to all men, regardless of personality or class. In particular, he wishes to suggest that all men are effected by the tendency to see themselves as different than they are. In other words, the criticisms he suggests through his characters are leveled at all of us, an effect that would perhaps be less clear if the characters were more psychologically distinct.

  10. 10

    Discuss how Jerome portrays rural and urban life. Which one does he seem to endorse?

    Jerome describes the perils of London life in great detail: the rude inhabitants, the horrible sanitation, and the stress of working an office job. He initially portrays the country lifestyle as one of peace and beauty. However, the men quickly learn that life in the countryside can be just as physically demanding as life in the city is mentally and emotionally tiring. Jerome does not endorse either lifestyle, but instead suggests that people should seek variety to remind themselves to be happy where they are. We ought to explore everything to better appreciate the lifestyle to which we are naturally drawn.