Jerome K. Jerome

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In Three Men in a Boat by Jerome, what is the meaning of the subtitle, "A Fishy Tale"?  

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The "Fishy Story" subtitle is used in chapter 17. It is a great subtitle because it carries a real, concrete meaning as well as the more figurative meaning of the word "fishy." During this chapter, George and J. go to a local pub, and the men in the pub regale George and J. with stories about how each man supposedly caught the enormous fish that is on display in the pub. It is fairly well known that fishermen are prone to exaggeration, lies, and detailed embellishments, and J. points that out to the readers at the start of the chapter:

Some people are under the impression that all that is required to make a good fisherman is the ability to tell lies easily and without blushing; but this is a mistake. Mere bald fabrication is useless; the veriest tyro can manage that. It is in the circumstantial detail, the embellishing touches of probability, the general air of scrupulous—almost of pedantic—veracity, that the experienced angler is seen.

The men in the bar are doing exactly that regarding the displayed fish, and that is why the subtitle is so perfect. The men are quite literally telling a fish story; however, the stories themselves seem unbelievable. Their fish stories seem "fishy"— something is off about them. One man says,

"I’d gone out pike fishing, bless you, never thinking of a trout, and when I saw that whopper on the end of my line, blest if it didn’t quite take me aback. Well, you see, he weighed twenty-six pound. Good-night, gentlemen, goodnight.”

George and J. come to discover that the most "fishy" part of those stories is the fact that not a single part of the stories was true. The fish is fake, as they discover when it breaks:

We thought it strange and unaccountable that a stuffed trout should break up into little pieces like that.

And so it would have been strange and unaccountable, if it had been a stuffed trout, but it was not.

That trout was plaster-of-Paris.

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Some editions of Three Men in a Boat include summary prompts at the beginning of each chapter. One of these tags at the start of Chapter XVII is “A fishy story.” Here J. describes the encounters he and George experience at a local inn in Wallingford. A large trout was mounted in a glass case. Every fisherman that came in had a different story to tell about how he had caught it, how much technique and struggle were involved in the catch, and how much it had weighed. J. and George were amazed at the stories. But when George finally climbed up to get a closer look at the fish, the case fell, and the fish broke into hundreds of pieces. It had been made of plaster of Paris. The narrator played on the dual meanings of the word “fishy.” Yes, the story was about a fish. But it was also odd, suspect, and questionable as far as the truth was concerned. Fishermen are known to exaggerate.

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