Continuing to plan, the friends discuss what they will need for cooking. Although paraffin oil stoves are more common, they decide to bring a methylated spirit stove, remembering how the paraffin oil had oozed everywhere on a previous boat trip.
For breakfast and lunch, they choose food that is easy to cook - but not cheese, because of its strong smell. J. launches into a long digression about when his friend Tom once asked him to transport some cheese on a train journey. Everyone sitting in J.’s car left because the smell was too strong. When J. delivered the cheese to Tom and his wife, Tom’s wife refused to stay in the house until the cheese was eaten. They could not escape the cheese's stench until they buried it miles away at the seaside.
Back at his house, J. volunteers to pack the clothes, believing himself an exceptionally efficient packer. However, he keeps forgetting items, and then has to unpack in order to fit them in. To the reader, he expounds briefly on his habit of losing his toothbrush when traveling.
Harris and George watch J. pack with great amusement, and volunteer to pack the food when J. finally finishes. They are no better at it – they constantly forget items, and Harris steps in the butter. Throughout it all, they keep tripping over Montmorency. After some bickering, they finish, and assign George to wake them up at 6:30 the next morning.
However, they oversleep, only waking when Mrs. Poppets comes in at nine. Harris and J. are greatly irritated with George, and their mood grows worse when they learn that the day’s weather forecast is poor. J. digresses to complain about how often weather forecasts are inaccurate. He also concocts a hypothetical story about staying inside when the forecasts predict rain and missing a beautiful day, and then believing the forecast of sun the next day, but ending up wet.
When they finally depart, the greengrocer’s errand-boy mocks them for their immense amount of luggage. As the men wait for a taxi, passers-by speculate about where they are going. Eventually, they hail a taxi to the train station, but none of the conductors there know which train they should take. When one conductor tells them that nobody knows where the trains are supposed to go, they give him a half-crown bribe and luckily end up heading towards Kingston, disembarking when they reach the river.
As the men row through Kingston, J. provides some background on the area. (Although Kingston is now a suburb and part of Greater London, it would have been an independent town when Jerome wrote Three Men in a Boat in 1889.) J. describes how many of the pubs in this area claim that Queen Elizabeth dined there. He also tells about a shop that boasts a beautiful carved oak staircase, which the present owner has covered in blue wallpaper.
J. uses this as an occasion to meditate on how people always want what they cannot have, and do not want the things they do have. He recalls a former classmate named Stivvings, who was dedicated to his studies but was often too sick to complete his work. Meanwhile, the other boys hoped to get sick to avoid schoolwork, and became sick only when vacation came around. Returning to the subject of the oak staircase, J. writes at length about how people in the future will consider quotidian objects like dinner-plates and cheap figurines as priceless works of art, much as his contemporaries consider the day-to-day objects of prior civilizations to be priceless.
In the boat, Harris and Montmorency accidentally spill the contents of the food hamper. As they row past Hampton Court, J. initially marvels at the building’s beauty, but then decides that it would be too dark and depressing to live in all the time.
Harris tells his friends about the time he attempted the hedge maze at Hampton Court. The map, given out in advance, seemed quite simple, so that Harris was confident he could easily best the maze. His confidence attracted a mob of 20 people who were lost in the maze, and they turned on him when he realized the maze was more complicated than he thought it was. They wandered for a long time, until a young groundskeeper came to fetch them, and got lost himself. An older groundskeeper eventually guided them out.
The men agree to send George through the maze on their return trip.
J.’s digressions serve multiple functions. Most importantly, they give Jerome the opportunity to experiment with different types of humor. In both the paraffin oil and the cheese stories, Jerome uses hyperbole – that is, exaggeration – to turn mundane experiences into comedy. The difficulty with packing provides an opportunity for slapstick, while the discussion of weather men is one commonly heard even today.
The digressions also help to characterize J. Because the plot of Three Men in a Boat is so tightly focused on George, Harris, and J.’s trip down the river, J.’s digressions and flashbacks give readers a chance to learn about his past and his personal qualities.
One thing we learn about J. is that he is a classic unreliable narrator. Jerome conveys this to readers by using dramatic irony – that is, situations where the readers understand what is going on even when the speaker does not. As previously discussed, one example of this is J.'s discussion of his diseases in Chapter 1. Readers are supposed to understand that J. is a hypochondriac, not that he is actually ill. The dramatic irony is not limited to J.’s understanding of his surroundings; it also applies to his tone. For example, J. writes with apparent earnestness that he “can’t sit still and see another man slaving and working” (36). Attentive readers will know from previous chapters that this is not true. The disconnect is meant to show us that J. is pompous and hypocritical, qualities that Jerome tends to play for laughs. Again, this particular point - that people construct illusions to fool themselves - continues to manifest throughout the novel.
And yet the novel is notable for several more serious digressions as well. Chapter 5, for instance, gives readers a brief glimpse of why J. dislikes urban life so much. As George, Harris, and J. travel through London on their way to the Thames, they encounter a wide variety of people, most of whom are unsavory and vulgar. Rather than helping the men with their bags, they mock them and speculate rudely about where they are traveling. The confusion at the train station is another example of the hectic confusion that J. is trying to escape. Despite the jovial tone of the novel, one can sense a pervasive cynicism about people, a cynicism that often extends even to the people who are ostensibly his friends.
By this point in the text, readers may begin to wonder why J. constantly criticizes Harris. Harris will continue to be J.’s proverbial ‘punching bag’ throughout the text. “On second thoughts,” Jerome writes, “I will not repeat what Harris said. I may have been to blame, I admit it; but nothing excuses violence of language and coarseness of expression, especially in a man who has been carefully brought up, as I know Harris has been” (55).
Part of the reason for this criticism is to demonstrate J.’s hypocrisy; he himself is guilty of many of the character flaws he attributes to Harris. Harris also provides Jerome with an outlet for slapstick and insult comedy, which does not always fit into J.’s wry observational humor. Through Harris, Jerome gets an opportunity to cater to readers who might not be interested in J.’s ironic satire. But finally, by using one of his friends as an antagonist, Jerome is able to more effectively deliver his light but cynical worldview.
Jerome’s editorializing – about both London and about life in general – is typical for a travel narrative from this period. According to the scholar Mulreann O’Cinneide, Victorian travel writers often used travel as a platform to express their views on other topics. There was a precedent for this in fiction as well. Gulliver’s Travels and Candide, both immensely popular in England throughout the nineteenth century, are both satires disguised as fictional travel narratives. As the critic Samuel Pickering points out, the travel narrative and the comic novel have similar purposes and structures. Travel narratives make foreign life seem familiar, and comic novels turn a critical eye on the familiar and make it seem foreign (Pickering 678). By this point in Three Men in a Boat, a reader can discern that Jerome was, intentionally or not, pursuing both of these ends at the same time.