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

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) Summary and Analysis of Chapters 7-8


Chapter 7

After passing Hampton Court, the men row through a lock — that is, a section of the river where the levels are lowered or raised between gates, to regulate traffic and water flow. This particular lock attracts many picnickers and pleasure-boaters, and J. remarks how nice it is to see people dressed up in their summer clothes. However, he criticizes his friends’ outfits – Harris has chosen to wear yellow, which does not suit him, and George has bought an ugly new blazer for the trip.

J. digresses to consider how women’s boating clothes tend to be pretty but impractical. He recounts a time he and a friend took several women rowing. The women wore such delicate clothes that even a drop of water would stain them, and they were unable to have fun on the trip because they were concerned about ruining their outfits.

The boat nears Hampton Church, and Harris proposes stopping to visit the graveyard, where someone named Mrs. Thomas is rumored to have a funny tombstone. J. protests, as he finds cemeteries depressing. For the reader, he recounts a time that he visited one with his friends. He refused to enter, and insulted the groundskeeper rudely when the man offered to show him the graveyard’s points of interest.

However, Harris insists on visiting the tombstone. George has gone into town to run some errands for the bank where he works. J. and Harris bicker about whether to visit the cemetery, and Harris decides he needs a drink. While trying to find the whiskey bottle, he falls head-first into the food hamper.

Chapter 8

Harris and J. stop to eat lunch by the side of the river. A man appears and accuses them of trespassing, threatening to report them to the landowner. Harris – a large man – physically intimidates the visitor until he leaves. J. explains to the reader that the man was expecting a bribe, and most likely did not work for the landowner at all. He adds that these attempts at blackmail are common along the banks of the Thames, and that tourists should avoid paying people who do this.

J. then launches into a diatribe on the violence he would like to inflict on landowners who actually do enforce trespassing laws on tourists like himself, since their claim at owning the river is specious in his mind.

J. shares his feelings with his friends, and Harris insists that he feels more anger towards the owners than J. does. J. chides Harris for his intolerance, and tries to convince him to be more Christian.

During their conversation, Harris mentions that he would sing a comic song while hunting the owners, so J. then digresses to explain how Harris believes himself a fine singer of comic songs, while he is actually quite terrible at it. He tells the reader of a party where Harris demanded he be allowed to sing, and then embarrassed himself and the piano players who tried to help him. Jerome relates part of this section in play-form.

J. then digresses to tell of a time he and others embarrassed themselves at a party. Two German guests, whom everyone was mostly ignoring, interjected to insist that a colleague of theirs could sing the funniest German songs they had ever heard. They offered to fetch him, and the man soon arrived to play. Though it turned out that his song was actually tragic, J. and the other guests laughed constantly, thinking it polite to do so. However, they actually angered the pianist, and the two German liars escaped before the song was finished, having played their practical joke.

The boat approaches Sunbury, where the backwaters flow in the opposite direction. J. recounts another boat trip on which he tried to row upstream in this area, but was only able to keep the boat in the same place. He lists a few points of interest around Sunbury and Reading, including a Roman encampment from the time of Caesar, a church that holds a torture instrument called a ‘scold’s bridle,’ and a dog cemetery.

When Harris and J. arrive at the village of Shepperton, they reunite with George, who surprises them by announcing that he has bought a banjo.


In Chapter 7, Jerome sends up the same Romantic writing conventions that he seemed to embrace in the novel’s earlier chapters. He writes:

It was a lovely landscape. It was idyllic, poetical, and it inspired me. I felt good and noble. I felt I didn’t want to be sinful and wicked any more. I would come and live here, and never do any more wrong, and lead a blameless, beautiful life, and have silver hair when I got old, and all that sort of thing (64).

The lyrical descriptions in this passage are typical of Romantic writing, as is the notion that nature can bring out a person’s best self. Because of these qualities, the passage is similar to other sentimental descriptions that appear in the novel. However, Jerome shows a sense of self-awareness here that he does not always demonstrate elsewhere. By wrapping up the description with “all that sort of thing,” he suggests an ironic distance from Romantic conventions, and gently mocks their sentimentality even as he seems to sincerely embrace their ideas. To connect this to one of the novel's other primary themes, he seems to gently suggest that this embrace of nature as a manifestation of man's best self is simply another illusion that we use.

These chapters also reveal more of J.'s meanness of spirit. He mocks the outfits of both of his friends, and mercilessly insults the graveyard custodian in a flashback. In a more serious novel, episodes like these might affect J.’s relatability; however, Jerome instead makes his narrator’s flawed personality a source of comedy. This may be one reason why critics derided Three Men in a Boat as “vulgar” when it was first released (“My Life” 75). In the Victorian era, many readers and critics expected fictional characters to be either role models or explicit villains (Golden 9). Although Jerome was certainly not the only author from this period to write about an unpleasant protagonist, his decision was nevertheless bold in upending contemporary readers’ expectations.

Of course, most of his meanness is reserved for Harris. Even in cases where he mocks Harris, however, Jerome uses the opportunity to make larger satirical points. For instance, his lengthy flashback about the party satirizes the pretensions of the middle class. After Harris concludes his song, the “fashionable and highly cultured party” engaged in a variety of ‘high-class’ activities, including discussing philosophy and speaking German (72). He then connects this latter activity to a later party, where it was revealed that the pretension to speaking German was only an illusion. In fact, when everyone laughed mistakenly at the tragic song, they showed that their behavior was dictated solely by custom, and not by any perception of what was actually happening. Through his wry descriptions of these parties, Jerome suggests that people do these activities not out of a love of learning, but rather to bolster their image and seem more ‘upper-class’ than they really are. Yet again, one can get a glimpse of why proper critics derided this novel as "vulgar," since it mocks the very pretensions that a Victorian novel was supposed to uphold.

The interlude where Harris attempts to sing also draws extensively on Jerome’s background in the theatre. In his early twenties, Jerome acted in a low-budget, traveling theatre troupe. (In fact, his memoir about the experience was his first book to achieve popular success.) The passage – which is written like a script and even includes stage directions – was undoubtedly inspired by Jerome’s own love of drama. The awkwardness between Harris, the audience, and the pianist also suggests a firsthand knowledge of bad performance. Because Jerome’s troupe was very amateurish, it is entirely possible that Harris’s failed performance has an autobiographical basis.

Finally, it is worth noting that the novel continues to straddle its multiple genres. There are several geographic descriptions in these chapters that conform to the travel genre, there are plenty of comic interludes, and there are more serious discussions, especially that of the landowners who charge for boats that rest on the river. And yet Jerome seems to rely on comedy to provide the transitions - notice the irony of his discussion with Harris about wanting to hurt the landowners. When Harris confesses similar sentiments, J. immediately chides him for his ill will, even though he had only just before confessed such violent thoughts to us. We are not meant to doubt the truth of his feelings, but rather to enjoy and laugh at the discussion even while processing it.