Summer Class 2010, Day 3: Three Men in a Boat (Review)

Previously: Day 1 | Day 2

So if yesterday was somewhat boring, today was even more so. The best part was when we got to see a bit of the movie version with Tim Curry; the book discussion left something to be desired. At this point I’m more enamored with the books we’re reading than the professor, so instead of doing a review of what we did in class I’m going to do a review of the first book we read, Three Men in a Boat.

Tomorrow: Some P.G. Wodehouse short stories, which I haven’t read yet. Don’t tell my prof!

143. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
Publication: Penguin Book (1978) originally published 1889, Paperback, 185pp / ISBN 0140012133
Genre: Fiction, Travel, Humor
Read: July 5-6, 2010
Source: Bought
Summary from Amazon:

Martyrs to hypochondria and general seediness, J. and his friends George and Harris decide that a jaunt up the Thames would suit them to a ‘T’. But when they set off, they can hardly predict the troubles that lie ahead with tow-ropes, unreliable weather-forecasts and tins of pineapple chunks – not to mention the devastation left in the wake of J.’s small fox-terrier Montmorency.


I had tried reading Three Men in a Boat before this class, a few months ago when I was looking for something short and amusing. I suppose I wasn’t in the right mode of thought or something, because three pages in I flung it away from me and pretended it didn’t exist. And then it was assigned as reading for my class. Oh, the horror.

Well obviously I made it past the first three pages and must have been in a much better frame of mind because I absolutely ADORE this book! It has its rough points, some places where the translation doesn’t go well from Yesterday to Today, but I honestly can’t remember laughing this much because of a book since the last time I read a David Sedaris memoir. Even just remembering some funny scene in Three Men in a Boat will make me laugh– my most favorite being the scene where the three men are trying to open a can of pineapple without aid of a can opener, knife, or any other sort of useful instrument. I’ll reproduce it here:

We are very fond of pine-apple, all three of us. We looked at the picture on the tin; we thought of the juice. We smiled at one another, and Harris got a spoon ready.

Then we looked for the knife to open the tin with. We turned out everything in the hamper. We turned out the bags. We pulled up the boards at the bottom of the boat. We took everything out on to the bank and shook it. There was no tin-opener to be found.

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.

Then we all got mad. We took that tin out on the bank, and Harris went up into a field and got a big sharp stone, and I went back into the boat and brought out the mast, and George held the tin and Harris held the sharp end of his stone against the top of it, and I took the mast and poised it high up in the air, and gathered up all my strength and brought it down.

It was George’s straw hat that saved his life that day. He keeps that hat now (what is left of it), and, of a winter’s evening, when the pipes are lit and the boys are telling stretchers about the dangers they have passed through, George brings it down and shows it round, and the stirring tale is told anew, with fresh exaggerations every time.

Harris got off with merely a flesh wound.

After that, I took the tin off myself, and hammered at it with the mast till I was worn out and sick at heart, whereupon Harris took it in hand.

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.

For the majority of the book I laughed myself into cramps, the only tough bits being when JKJ lapses into the horrible purple prose about nature and whatnot. They aren’t funny, at least not at first glance, and to be honest I skimmed through most of them. Turns out that he was making fun of books who did slush like that for real, but having that style in the middle of the more obviously witty stuff threw me for a loop.

I really love JKJ’s humor techniques. One of his favorite techniques to use is giving animals and inanimate objects personalities, to great comedic effect. For instance, this story about swans and Harris had me in stitches for several minutes:

It seemed we had moored close to a swan’s nest, and, soon after George and I had gone, the female swan came back, and kicked up a row about it. Harris had chivied her off, and she had gone away, and fetched up her old man. Harris said he had had quite a fight with these two swans; but courage and skill had prevailed in the end, and he had defeated them.

Half-an-hour afterwards they returned with eighteen other swans! It must have been a fearful battle, so far as we could understand Harris’s account of it. The swans had tried to drag him and Montmorency out of the boat and drown them; and he had defended himself like a hero for four hours, and had killed the lot, and they had all paddled away to die.

“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.

Reproducing a few paragraphs isn’t good enough, though, because you really have to read the whole book and go through it yourself to get the full effect. If you need something to lighten up your day, definitely get Three Men in a Boat!


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3 thoughts on “Summer Class 2010, Day 3: Three Men in a Boat (Review)”

    1. I was actually really surprised by how well the humor has stood up in the 100+ years since it was written! And I didn’t even notice any horribly out-of-date slang, although apparently it was lambasted for that very thing when it was first published.

  1. I love the passages you quoted! I’d seen this reviewed elsewhere some months ago, and it seems like it would be a great comic novella to pick up.

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