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 9-11


Chapter 9

Since George has been away from the boat all day, Harris and J. assign him to untangle the tow-line while they make tea.

To the reader, J. explains how easily tow-lines become tangled. On long journeys like this, it is common for travelers to take a break from rowing while someone tows the boat from shore. However, J. observes that the towers, on the shore, tend to become distracted by their conversation and stop paying attention to the boat. Whoever is left on the boat is usually uncomfortable or responsible for whatever crisis emerges, but is ignored by the towers.

Over tea, George tells a story about seeing a couple distracted as they towed their boat from land. Sneakily, he tied his boat to their tow-line, thus tricking the couple into dragging the wrong boat for several miles. J. recounts a similar story, about a group of men whose boat ran aground because they were distracted. However, he argues that girls are the worst towers of all because they are so flighty and distractible.

After tea, George tows the boat from the shore. According to J., the last few hours of towing are always the most difficult. He remembers going boating with a female cousin. When towing the boat at the end of the day, they got lost, only to be saved by a group of working-class locals.

Chapter 10

Although the friends intended to spend their first night on Magna Charta Island, they are too tired to travel all the way there, and decide to stop earlier. Because they did not bring a tent, they have to pitch the canvas cover over the boat before they can sleep. This task proves more difficult than it seems, and it takes them several attempts to successfully set it up.

They cook dinner, which is very satisfying because they have had such a long and exhausting day. They then prepare to sleep together in the boat's cramped quarters. J. tells his friends a story about two men who accidentally shared a bed in an inn; during the night, they stumbled into the same bed, and each thought his bed had been invaded by an intruder.

J. sleeps badly, and has a dream that doctors are trying to cut him open after he swallowed a sovereign. He begins a serious digression, discussing the beauty and melancholy of night. He concludes the chapter with a story about a knight who gets lost in the woods but manages to find joy in his suffering.

Chapter 11

George and J. wake up at six the next morning, and cannot get back to sleep. George tells J. a story about how he once forgot to wind his watch before going to bed, which left him confused when he woke at three in the morning. He only realized the mistake when he arrived at work, and aroused the suspicion of several constables as he walked around London so late at night.

J. and George finally wake Harris. They had previously agreed to go for a morning swim, but are now reluctant to jump in the cold water. J. falls in and tries to trick his friends into joining him, but they refuse. J. also accidentally drops a shirt into the river, which George finds hilarious until he realizes it is actually his shirt.

Harris volunteers to make scrambled eggs, promising that they will be delicious. Of course, Harris has no idea how to make scrambled eggs, but George and J. enjoy watching him make a fool of himself in the process. Naturally, the eggs are inedible.

That morning, the men arrive at Magna Charta Island, near Runnymede. As the name suggests, Magna Charta Island is where King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215. J. speculates at length about what it would have been like to be a peasant living in Runnymede at the time of the event.


Poetry occupied an important place in Victorian culture, and it was popular among readers of all classes. Jerome often borrows techniques from poetry for his prose. Personification is one technique he uses that is typically associated with poetry. Early in Chapter 9, Jerome personifies tow-lines at great length. “There may be,” he writes, “tow-lines that are a credit to their profession—conscientious, respectable tow-lines—tow-lines that do not imagine they are crochet-work, and try to knit themselves up into antimacassars the instant they are left to themselves” (80). The effect here is light and humorous; by using personification, Jerome engages the reader and manages to be entertaining even though he is writing at great length about a relatively simple point.

Jerome also continues to juxtapose highbrow with the low in these chapters. In addition to using different types of humor designed to appeal to readers of different levels of education, Jerome also has his characters interact with people from all walks of life. A prime example of this comes at the end of Chapter 9, when J. and his cousin are rescued by a group of “provincial ‘Arrys and ‘Arriets,” whom J. praises effusively for their kindness and earnestness (88). “‘Arry and ‘Arriets’” was a common, slightly derogatory slang term for the working-class during the Victorian period; it references the tendency of lower-class English people to drop H-sounds when speaking. Ironically, Punch Magazine would later mock Jerome for his tendency to pander to lower-class readers by referring to him as ‘Arry K. ‘Arry (“My Life” 75).

In Chapter 10, Jerome returns to the theme of wanting – and often not being able to get – the things that one does not have. He addresses this first in his comic description of the men's attempt to make dinner. As J. observes, hot water seems to take longer to boil when one most wants a cup of tea. The men comically try to work around this by talking loudly about how much they do not want tea, and J. believes the strategy actually works.

Jerome also explores this theme obliquely through the story of the knight in the woods. This story (and the digression about night that precedes it) is told in the serious, Romantic style that Jerome occasionally uses in the novel’s digressive passages. In it, the knight finds a deeper, more meaningful happiness being lost in the woods than his comrades do after weeks of feasting in the palace. Although the passage’s tone is dramatically different from the novel's more humorous sections, both address the phenomenon of wanting one does not have – be it physical comfort or emotional fulfillment.

The knight story also emphasizes the novel's common theme of the illusions men make for themselves. Where the knights in the castle are distracted by the luxury they believe defines them, the lonely night truly finds himself by stripping himself of such illusions. In this way, the story does hearken to the Romantic belief that nature could bring transcendence.

Callbacks to earlier jokes is a common technique used in comedic writing, and Jerome begins to use that technique heavily in these chapters, which are around the novel's midpoint. An example of a callback can be found early in Chapter 11, when J. explains that “the idea, overnight, had been that we should get up early in the morning . . . and revel in a long delicious swim. Somehow, now the morning had come, the notion seemed less tempting. The water looked damp and chilly: the wind felt cold” (102). This was foreshadowed in Chapter 3 when J. noted that he is always more excited about swimming when he is not immediately faced with the prospect of diving into cold water. And again, this moment touches on the theme of illusions - it is nice to make plans for ourselves, but another thing to actually carry through with those plans.

Chapter 11 concludes with a sentimental historical interlude. As the men approach Magna Charta Island, Jerome imagines what it would have been like to be a peasant when King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta in 1215. To a certain extent, this passage tips Jerome’s political hand. It is notable that despite his middle-class background (and his patronizing attitude toward ‘Arrys and ‘Arriets in the previous chapters), he identifies with the peasants rather than the bourgeoisie or the nobles. His positive description of the Magna Carta as “the great cornerstone in England’s temple of liberty” also hints at Jerome’s populist sentiments.