In Three Men in a Boat, what problems do the three friends have?

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sciftw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The opening paragraph of the story has the narrator, J., tell readers about the "problems" that he, Harris, and George all have.

We were sitting in my room, smoking, and talking about how bad we were—bad from a medical point of view I mean, of course.

J. believes that he and his friends are suffering from some kind of medical ailment that causes each of them to feel "seedy." Harris and George both say that they experience "fits of giddiness," while J. explains that he believes his problems are liver-related.

With me, it was my liver that was out of order.

As the reader continues to read the first chapter, it becomes clear that the narrator's problem is that he is a hypochondriac. He believes he suffers from the most extreme case of any ailment or disease he reads about.

It is a most extraordinary thing, but I never read a patent medicine advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with in its most virulent form. The diagnosis seems in every case to correspond exactly with all the sensations that I have ever felt.

By the end of the chapter, readers have likely come to the conclusion that the men's problem is that they are basically feeling restless. They decide that a river trip on the Thames will help them feel all-around better.

“Let’s go up the river.”

He said we should have fresh air, exercise and quiet; the constant change of scene would occupy our minds (including what there was of Harris’s); and the hard work would give us a good appetite, and make us sleep well.

From that point forward, the men experience problems related to the fact that none of them really know much about boating, camping, cooking, navigating, etc. The story is hilarious because the three men are simply incapable of overcoming any simple problem in an efficient manner. Packing is a total fiasco, cooking eggs for breakfast is basically an insurmountable obstacle, setting up a tent proves troublesome, and opening a tin of fruit is a major task.

Then Harris tried to open the tin with a pocket-knife, and broke the knife and cut himself badly; and George tried a pair of scissors, and the scissors flew up, and nearly put his eye out. While they were dressing their wounds, I tried to make a hole in the thing with the spiky end of the hitcher, and the hitcher slipped and jerked me out between the boat and the bank into two feet of muddy water, and the tin rolled over, uninjured, and broke a teacup.

chsmith1957 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

If you refer to the problems the three men have at the beginning of the book -- the ones that set them on this journey -- then the answer is one of perceived ailments. All of them say they suffer from listlessness, from feeling “seedy,” from experiencing "fits of giddiness," and from being overworked. We readers are led to doubt whether or not these illnesses are real or are merely imagined.

During the actual river trip itself, the group has only minor problems. The trouble is that narrator J. likes to make mountains out of molehills, and he embellishes every story with salient details and a humorous bent. Additionally, he throws in episodes from a variety of past problems and stories, representing every member of the traveling party, including Montmorency. Nevertheless, along the River Thames the friends have these problems:

  • Deciding how to travel and what to take (Chapters II-III)
  • Packing (Chapter III)
  • Setting up the tent (Chapter X)
  • Making breakfast (Chapter XI)
  • Opening a can of pineapple (Chapter XII)
  • Washing clothes in the river (Chapter XVII)
  • Traveling in the rain (Chapter XIX)

This last one does them in. They are on the return trip, moving downriver, when they have a few days of solid rain. This circumstance leads them to cut their travel plans short, to take a train back to the city, and to take in a good dinner and a show.

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