My first thought on finishing Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) was, these people managed to conquer a fifth of the globe? It’s a wonder they manage to get downstairs for breakfast. The entirety of the book can best be described as a comedy of errors, with a dollop of absurd hubris ladled over the top. Even though its clear that this book was written to make its contemporaries laugh—and is no doubt making fun of stereotypes that no longer exist (maybe)—it can still get modern readers going. I snorted and chuckled and snickered my way through the whole book.
We meet our protagonists as they sit about one evening comparing their diseases. It’s clear that the only thing wrong with them is laziness, boredom, and a lack of ambition. None of the three men really has any goals beyond avoiding work for as long as humanly possible. Weirdly, this book helped me understand Freud a little better. When you have people of means without any real problems, they will invent things to be wrong. To help with their ennui, the three decide to boat up the Thames from London to Oxford, in the hope that the fresh air and exercise will restore them. Our narrator, Jim, also plans to bring his dog Montmorency–a fox terrier with “more than the usual amount of original sin in him.”
From there, nothing goes right. Not only do they have inclement weather and unhelpful locals to deal with, they also have their own incompetence messing up their plans. In every chapter, at least one thing goes wrong (usually more than one). I’m surprised they didn’t drown on the first day. Our narrator does try to raise the tone every now and then by writing, in the most grandiose terms, about the history of various points of interest or particularly beautiful vista. But something always happens to Jim to interrupt these flights of intellectual fancy–such as steam launches trying to run them down on the river, Montmorency trying to fight all the village dogs at once, all the food ending up in the river, etc. etc.
Three Men in a Boat is a frivolous delight and I mean that in a good way. Sometimes you just need to read something silly.