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

by Jerome K. Jerome

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

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) is a novel by Jerome K. Jerome in which three aging men decide to take a boat trip on the Thames River.

  • J., Harris, and George decide to take a boat trip. Each man has been suffering from half-imagined diseases, and they think a vacation will help them recover.
  • The three friends rent a boat and sail along the Thames River.
  • Their efforts to cook their own meals and do their own laundry result in failure, and the weather proves difficult.
  • The men abandon their trip and decide they prefer being on land.


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First published: 1889

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Comic romance

Time of work: Nineteenth century

Locale: England

Principal Characters:

J., the narrator

Harris, his friend

George, another friend

Montmorency, a dog

The Story:

J., Harris, and George were feeling seedy. They sat around idly in J.’s room discussing their ailments. J., especially, was prone to ailments. Once he had gone through a medical book and discovered that he had all the symptoms of typhoid, cholera, and zymosis; in fact, he had all the ills described except housemaid’s knee.

He visited a doctor, intent on giving him practice in diagnosis. After the examination, the doctor gave him a prescription for a pound of beefsteak and a pint of bitter beer every six hours. The prescription must have been efficacious; J. was still alive.

The three friends decided they needed a complete change and rest. Various possibilities were suggested, including a sea voyage. J. knew from experience that nearly everyone became sick on sea voyages. He had a friend who paid two pounds and a half in advance for his board during a week’s trip. By the end of the week, he had eaten so little that the steward had at least two pounds clear. A sea voyage was out. As a compromise, they decided on a boat trip up the Thames to Oxford. Montmorency was opposed to the idea but was outvoted.

They were to start from Kingston. George, who had to work until two on Saturdays, would join them at Chertsey. They discussed sleeping and eating arrangements. Although Harris was doubtful, they agreed to sleep in the boat and cook their own meals. Harris had no poetry in his soul; life in the raw had no appeal for him, for he was the type who always knew the best pub in every town in England.

In making their grocery list, J. remembered the time he was in Liverpool. A friend asked him if he would take two cheeses back with him on the train to London. J. willingly agreed. The train was crowded, and he found a seat in a full compartment. One by one, the others left, overpowered by the odor, and J. had the compartment to himself all the way to London. After he delivered the cheeses to his friend’s wife, she promptly moved into a hotel until her husband could get home. He had to bury them on a deserted beach. That experience showed how careful one should be in selecting provisions.

Although Harris and J. were to get an early start, they overslept. It was well after nine before they got all of their rugs and hampers together. Then they could not get a cab. They stood on the sidewalk, attracting a curious crowd of hangers-on who made unkind remarks about their many bundles. At Waterloo, no one could tell them the platform from which their train would leave. Even the district superintendent was vague. They solved the problem by bribing the engineer of a waiting train to take them to Kingston. The engineer agreed because he had no idea where his train was supposed to go anyway. At last, the Exeter mail train took them to Kingston.

Harris had an experience once in finding his way. He bought a map of Hampton Court maze. It looked simple on the map to visit the place and get out again. A number of innocent bystanders trusted him and his map to their sorrow. The worst of it was that the keeper on duty was new and had little idea how to...

(This entire section contains 1686 words.)

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get out. They all waited hours for the old keeper to come back on duty.

The travelers set out upriver from Kingston. According to J.’s suggestion, they divided the work evenly: Harris sculled, J. steered, and Montmorency was the passenger. All was going well as J. dreamed along. Suddenly, Harris threw away his sculls, left his seat, and threw his legs into the air. J. had daydreamed too long; they had run head-on into the towpath. Shortly afterward, they picked up George, and the three men in a boat were fairly off.

Their boat had a series of hoops and a canvas roof over them so that they could sleep on board at night. The first time they tried to set up the apparatus, the hoops became tangled. The canvas was even worse. George and Harris stood at the bow to unroll the canvas and stationed J. at the stern to receive the end. Somehow both George and Harris got rolled up in the canvas. J. noticed that they were struggling for a long time, but he faithfully stuck by the stern to receive the end and fasten it. Finally, George got his head out and shouted for help. Harris’ face was black by the time they got him unwound.

They made tea on a spirit stove. Their method was to put the kettle on and then make sure not to look at it or show any signs of impatience. Usually, the method worked, and the kettle boiled. Sometimes, however, they had to make loud remarks about not wanting any tea that meal before the water would get hot enough. Montmorency was hostile toward the kettle. The first time it boiled, he took the noise for a challenge and bit the spout. After that, he was content merely to growl at the bubbling steam.

At times, they had trouble getting water. An old lock tender told them he always used river water. Thinking that boiling the water would make it safe, they tried it once for tea. Just as they were sitting down to tea, a dead dog came floating down the stream.

None of them could cook very well, but George proposed an Irish stew one night. They put potatoes, a peck of peas, two heads of cabbage, some bacon, and whatever else they could find in the pot. George rummaged for ingredients and expounded the theory that an Irish stew was a handy dish because it got rid of all the leftovers. Montmorency watched the proceedings with interest. When he understood the theory, he trotted off on his own foraging trip. He proudly brought back a dead rat as his contribution.

At Streatley, they hired a washerwoman to do their laundry. The original idea had been to do their own washing in the Thames, but that idea had not been successful; the clothes caught all the silt in the river. The woman charged them triple rate for what was scarcely an ordinary washing job. It was more in the nature of excavating.

Near Wallingford, George and J. stopped at an inn which displayed an enormous trout in a glass case. One by one, each of the local hangers-on told them how he had caught the big fish. When the landlord came in, he laughed at the wild claims; he himself had caught it when he was a boy. George was excited and climbed up on a chair for a closer look. The chair slipped, George clutched, and the glass case came down. Amid the broken glass on the floor lay the broken trout. It was not stuffed; it was made of plaster of Paris.

The weather was bad on the way downstream from Oxford. To while away a rainy evening they played cards, but they had to quit because George won fourpence. They finally grew so bored that Harris and J. asked George to play his banjo and sing.

They finally gave up their trip. Leaving the boat at Pangbourne, they took a train to London. At a select French restaurant, they had a light dinner and left an order for a late supper. Then, boating clothes and all, they went to the Alhambra. There was some difficulty getting in because of their wet flannels, but they persevered. Then, after a hearty supper, they watched in comfort the rain outside. Harris thought they were three men well out of a boat.

Critical Evaluation:

THREE MEN IN A BOAT, a period piece from a more leisurely and less sophisticated world than that of the twentieth century, is an uneven book, both funny and silly, at once well-observed and haphazardly artificial. The humor at times is labored, more journalistic than satirical, but some action scenes are truly funny. Much of the humor is based on incongruities; when readers can see these incongruities coming, they lose some of their effectiveness. One suspects that the humor of the novel was fresher in 1889.

At times, Jerome K. Jerome does make shrewd observations on human nature, such as his tale about the men who wallpapered his carved oak walls because the oak was so gloomy. Jerome is able to carry the particular observation into a general truth with a light and humorous touch. It is when he feels obliged to enliven a scene by dragging in something funny, whether it belongs there or not, that he becomes arch. Some scenes, such as Harris’ leading the swelling crowd deeper and deeper into the maze of Hampton Court, are funny as far as they go, but they might have been funnier if further developed. At this perspective in time, nearly a hundred years after the publication of the book, it is difficult to judge if the novel itself was dated or if ideas of humor have changed.

The novel’s greatest strength is its wealth of detail about the life, times, and scenes the travelers encounter. With a sense of authenticity, the author’s sharp eye picks out the idiosyncratic detail or startling touch in every landscape and scene. When Jerome focuses on the individuals the three men meet, he is equally precise. Only occasionally does he slip into excessive exaggeration, leaving behind reality in an attempt at humor. He is the funniest when straining the least to be funny. The trio of travelers are not unique personalities in themselves, but the character of the dog, Montmorency, is often original and humorous. A good-natured diversion, the book makes no pretense at possessing message or being anything other than the comedy it is.