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.