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Literature / Three Men in a Boat

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Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) is a comic novel written by Jerome K. Jerome. Published in 1889, it is a humorous account of a boating holiday on the Thames between Kingston and Oxford. Despite being over 130 years old, its humor still holds up quite well to anyone with a preference for dry, British wit.

The three men are based on Jerome himself (the narrator J.) and two real-life friends, George Wingrave (who went on to become a senior manager in Barclays Bank) and Carl Hentschel (the founder of a London printing business, called Harris in the book), with whom Jerome often took boating trips. The dog, Montmorency, is entirely fictional, but "as Jerome admits, developed out of that area of inner consciousness which, in all Englishmen, contains an element of the dog." The trip is a typical boating holiday of the time in a Thames camping skiff. This is just after commercial boat traffic on the Upper Thames had died out, replaced by the 1880s craze for boating as a leisure activity.

Because of the overwhelming success of Three Men in a Boat, Jerome later published a sequel, about a cycling tour in Germany, titled Three Men on the Bummel.

Provides examples of:

  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking
    The sight of those [private property] notice-boards rouses every evil instinct in my nature. I feel I want to tear each one down, and hammer it over the head of the man who put it up, until I have killed him, and then I would bury him, and put the board up over the grave as a tombstone.

    I mentioned these feelings of mine to Harris, and he said he had them worse than that. He said he not only felt he wanted to kill the man who caused the board to be put up, but that he should like to slaughter the whole of his family and all his friends and relations, and then burn down his house. This seemed to me to be going too far, and I said so to Harris; but he answered:

    “Not a bit of it. Serve ’em all jolly well right, and I’d go and sing comic songs on the ruins.”
    • And of course, it's the comic songs that bother Jerome the most. Harris is one of the world's most Dreadful Musicians.
  • Canine Companion: The chaps have the canine delinquent Montmorency.
  • Doom It Yourself: Uncle Podger seems prone to this, as illustrated by the story of his hanging a painting.
  • Dreadful Musician: When people laugh at Harris's comic songs, he takes it as a compliment. But it's not the lyrics that they are laughing at.
  • Epic Fail:
    • Uncle Podger again. There are a few more examples of his approach to doing things in the sequel.
    • Jerome, Harris, and George are useless in most practical matters. When trying to open a can of pineapples, Harris and George use sharp implements and nearly maim themselves. Banging a rock against the can only dents it. Finally, they bash it in fury but only succeed in flattening it with its contents still sealed inside.
  • Everything's Louder with Bagpipes
  • Gaslighting: Done by Jerome and Harris to George in Prague in the sequel Three Men on the Bummel. In an attempt to stop him drinking so much, they exploit the fact that the Czechs have been putting up temporary statues of King Wenceslas all around the city to work out where the real one would look best, convincing George he's having drunken hallucinations.
  • The Gay '90s
  • Giftedly Bad: Harris singing comic songs. He appears to be capable of single-handedly giving the pianist a nervous breakdown.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Use of the word queer to describe seasickness. However, in many ways, the book seems undated to the modern reader, with the jokes seeming fresh and witty even today.
  • Horrible Camping Trip: Well, occasionally. Most of the time, they are enjoying themselves just fine, but some days are quite bad.
  • Hypocritical Humour: Quite a bit. In one passage the author breaks into an indignant speech against motor boats, and how they are unsportsmanlike and polluting, and make waves that flood your boat, and how those "boatsmen", who have them being towed by motorboats, are the shame of the honest boat-folk, and gives advice on how you should take every chance to annoy them by getting in their way. Later a friend with a motor boat offers to take them on a tow, and, naturally, before long he breaks into another indignant speech about those clumsy assholes on their stupid rowboats, who cannot see where they are going and get in the way of respectable people and how he'd like to murder them all.
  • Induced Hypochondria: Jerome does this to himself after accidentally reading an entire medical dictionary, and becoming convinced that he has every disease described in it (except housemaid's knee).
  • Inflationary Dialogue: Harris vs. the swans.
    “How many swans did you say there were?” asked George.
    “Thirty-two,” replied Harris, sleepily.
    “You said eighteen just now,” said George.
    “No, I didn’t,” grunted Harris; “I said twelve. Think I can’t count?”
    What were the real facts about these swans we never found out. We questioned Harris on the subject in the morning, and he said, “What swans?” and seemed to think that George and I had been dreaming.
  • In Which a Trope Is Described
  • Lemony Narrator
  • The Mind Is a Plaything of the Body: There's a passage several pages long detailing how a person's mood depends entirely on what he is eating, and what this food is doing to the body.
  • Mood Whiplash: Because of the above, the serious and somewhat sentimental passages sometimes seem a distraction to the comic novel. Many others are a leftover from the book's original concept, where it was a straight travel guide.
  • No Can Opener: On a boat trip. Played very much for laughs, with what seems to be the world's most indestructible tin of pineapple. The protagonists use every implement they can lay their hands on, including, finally, the boat's mast.
    We beat it out flat; we beat it back square; we battered it into every form known to geometry—but we could not make a hole in it. Then George went at it and knocked it into a shape, so strange, so weird, so unearthly in its wild hideousness, that he got frightened and threw away the mast. Then we all three sat round it on the grass and looked at it. There was one great dent across the top that had the appearance of a mocking grin, and it drove us furious, so that Harris rushed at the thing, and caught it up, and flung it far into the middle of the river, and as it sank we hurled our curses at it, and we got into the boat and rowed away from the spot, and never paused till we reached Maidenhead.
  • Non-Standard Prescription: In Chapter 1, J. tells of going to his doctor after having convinced himself that he has every disease known to mankind (except housemaid's knee). His doctor gives him one of these:
    "I read the prescription. It ran:
    1 lb. beefsteak, with 1 pt. bitter beer every 6 hours.
    1 ten-mile walk every morning.
    1 bed at 11 sharp every night.
    And don’t stuff up your head with things you don’t understand.”
  • Noodle Incident: We never know what exactly happened when J hit the can with the tree for the first time. We know only that Harris got a superficial wound, while the straw hat saved George's life.
  • Nostalgia Filter: Invoked, sort of. There is a sequence in which J muses on how his contemporary Victorians love pottery and sculpture from the past that would have been very ordinary in its day. He wonders if in the 20th and 21st centuries people will similarly adore very ordinary things from his own period, with Japanese tourists coming to buy them and take them home as precious antiques—a surprisingly accurate prediction.
  • Nothing Is Funnier: Provides one of the classic literary examples with the story of trying to get food out of a stubborn can by use of a tree. The reader is left to imagine precisely what the hell happened once J tried to hit the can, and how it led to such disastrous results.
  • Stop Drowning and Stand Up: J describes this happening in a story about getting up early to swim on vacation.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: J comments that when he first got Montmorency, he would think: "Oh, that dog will never live. He will be snatched up to the bright skies in a chariot, that is what will happen to him." It's immediately subverted.
    But, when I had paid for about a dozen chickens that he had killed; and had dragged him, growling and kicking, by the scruff of his neck, out of a hundred and fourteen street fights; and had had a dead cat brought round for my inspection by an irate female, who called me a murderer; and had been summoned by the man next door but one for having a ferocious dog at large, that had kept him pinned up in his own tool-shed, afraid to venture his nose outside the door for over two hours on a cold night; and had learned that the gardener, unknown to myself, had won thirty shillings by backing him to kill rats against time, then I began to think that maybe they’d let him remain on earth for a bit longer, after all.