The Odyssey for Dummies: Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome
By Marilyn Green Faulkner
To-day a rude brief recitative,
Of ships sailing the seas, each with its special flag or ship-signal,
Of unnamed heroes in the ships–of waves spreading and spreading
far as the eye can reach,
Of dashing spray, and the winds piping and blowing,
And out of these a chant for the sailors of all nations,
Fitful, like a surge.
Ever the stock preserv’d and never lost, though rare, enough for
What is it about men and boats? I have a suspicion that I am treading on some very ancient ground (or rather treading in some very old water) when I venture to speak of the primal need for men to go “down to the sea in ships.” This began, as far as I can tell, when Noah saved the entire race by loading the whole family and all their pets into a boat. That must have been a voyage to remember. Just the smell alone would have been truly remarkable. Bible scholars tell us that “forty days and forty nights” may be a symbolic number, and that the voyage might actually have been longer, but I am certain that forty minutes would have been enough for me.
This was only the beginning of the love affair between men and boats. There are so many great works of literature on this theme: The Odyssey, Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (I know it’s a raft, but still, it’s a boat trip.) Patrick O’Brian’s novels are in the news now that Russell Crowe has brought Jack Aubrey to life on the big screen in Master and Commander, but it was Horatio Hornblower who showed him the ropes. Joseph Campbell taught that all men feel the urge to embark on the mythological journey of the hero, what he termed “the soul’s high adventure.” This often involves a journey across an ocean or down a river, and provides an apt metaphor for the journey of life.
I am as fascinated as any landlubber could be by this persistent literary theme, and I have observed that all books about voyages in boats have two things in common. First, they are all written by men. Women, for the most part, do not share in this obsessive desire to sail off somewhere or other, and then write about it. (Women know that life holds plenty of dangers without charging off to seek for them.) And second, these courageous voyages that become the stuff of literature are all unmitigated disasters. I challenge you to show me one account of a boat trip that went well: smooth sailing, no friction, male bonding. No, when you combine men and boats and the uncertainties of Mother Nature, you generally wind up with a colossal, life-threatening mess.
Jerome K. Jerome
Which brings us to this month’s classic, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog!) by Jerome K. Jerome. This comic masterpiece, first published in 1889, was an instant success and made its author suddenly rich and famous. Jerome Klapka Jerome got his unusual name from an unusual father. (His siblings had names like Blandina Dominica and Milton Melancthon, so he actually came off pretty well.) Jerome Sr. was a part-time farmer and an unorthodox minister, who plunged into financial ruin the year that his youngest child was born. Thus Jerome Jr. was raised in abject poverty, and after the death of his parents was forced to leave school and go to work at the age of fourteen. He worked as a railway clerk, an actor, and as a journalist, and by his early twenties he was penniless and without prospects. Then, inspired by a poem of Wordsworth’s, he had the idea to write about his experiences as an actor. The result was On the Stage – and Off, The Brief Career of a Would-Be Actor. This was published in serial form and later as a book, and with it Jerome found his wry, humorous tone that would make him a beloved chronicler of Victorian life.
In 1888 Jerome married Georgina Marris, and they spent their honeymoon on the river Thames, a popular playground for the idle rich. It was there that Jerome began writing Three Men in a Boat, which was published in 1889 to great acclaim. Though he continued to write books and plays for the rest of his life, he never wrote anything that rivaled Three Men in popularity. He remarked, “It is as the author of Three Men in a Boat that the public persists in remembering me.”
A Confederacy of Dunces
The unlikely hero of this odyssey, known only as “J,” is one of the most useless, ridiculous men on the planet, and his friends, George and Harris, are equally loveable. (Think of Bertie Wooster without Jeeves to rescue him, and you’ve got the measure of these three.) Exhausted from all the work they must daily avoid, the threesome decides that it’s time for a holiday and determine to row up the Thames for a couple of weeks. They take along J’s dog, a reprehensible cur named Montmorency, and the fun begins. The delight of this first-person narrative is how blissfully ignorant these men are of their ignorance: they believe they are jolly good fellows who just happen to fall into one disaster after another. In his portrayal of “J,” Jerome neatly skewers the typical young Victorian gentleman, the kind with a moderate allowance and nothing to do but potter about getting into scrapes. “J” begins by telling us all about his youth, how he suffered from several tragic illnesses, among them a serious liver complaint that was misdiagnosed until he happened upon a brochure for a liver ailment that cleared up the mystery and let him know how sick he really was:
“I had all the symptoms, beyond all mistake, the chief among them being ‘a general disinclination to work of any kind.’
What I suffer in that way no tongue can tell. From my earliest infancy I have been a martyr to it. As a boy, the disease hardly ever left me for a day. They did not know, then, that it was my liver. Medical science was in a far less advanced state than now, and they used to put it down to laziness.
‘Why, you skulking little devil, you,’ they would say, ‘get up and do something for your living, can’t you?’ – not knowing of course, that I was ill.
And they didn’t give me pills; they gave me clumps on the side of the head. And, strange as it may appear, those clumps on the head often cured me – for the time being. I have known one clump on the head have more effect upon my liver, and make me feel more anxious to go straight away then and there, and do what was wanted to be done, without further loss of time, than a whole box of pills does now.” (10 – 11)
I noticed this book when it appeared on two different lists of favorite selections for book clubs, and quickly saw why. The voyage of life is treacherous, choppy, and full of mishaps. How marvelous when someone as witty as Jerome K. Jerome helps us see the humor in it as well. If the holidays are wearing you down, I prescribe a few moments in a cozy corner with this book and a mug of hot chocolate. It will do you a world of good.
Three Men in a Boat is the November selection for the Best Books Club. Our selection for December is Taylor Caldwell’s fascinating portrayal of the life of Luke, the Apostle, Dear and Glorious Physician.
Our October selection was Kristin Lavransdatter, by Sigrid Undset. It evoked some sweet memories for several of our readers:
This hardbound book caught my eye at a garage sale. Only 50 cents, so I decided to take it. I had just returned from visiting long lost relatives in Sweden, as had the lady that had the book for sale, & she assured me it was excellent. I do not care for fiction, as my back ground is steeped in the sciences. However, I could not put this book down! It opened my eyes to the life & hardships of the Scandinavian people, the medieval jargon & habits, women’s issues, & a new desire to look into reading more fiction. I have been looking for more books by this author, who died in about 1943. Kristin Larsdotter did win a Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1928 I believe. Most definitely a MUST to read! Lois
I am so excited to see the reading choice for this month is “Kristen Lavransdatter”. I am 70 years old, and first read this novel when I was 15. (an older friend had been given the assignment in her school). Since then I have read it at least 3 times, at different stages in my life. I am eager to read it again.. now, in my older age. I have recommended this trilogy to everyone I could over all these years, yet never found a single person to have read it. Such a shame. It truly is a story for all women, and timeless in its scope.
My copy, in three volumes, was printed in 1946. The translator was Archer. I am going to find the new translation for my next read.
Thank you for making my day! Joan
I read Kristin Lavransdatter just prior to my marriage in 1960. I was so touched by the reality of Kristin’s life…that three years later when we had our first daughter…we named her Kristin. She loves and appreciates her name and has brought honor to her name and to ours. I believe that a film was made in Norway following the Olympics that were held in Lillehammer, Norway (not sure of the exact year). They used some of the buildings that were erected on the old Nordic fashion for the film. It was “Kristin Lavransdatter”. I have, however, not heard much about the film or how one might obtain a copy. Do any of you fellow readers know about this? I am happy to have found that there are others who appreciate the greatness of this trilogy. Frequently when I mention the title…I am met with a blank stare. I have often longed to be part of a book club…but time constraints prevented such a diversion…so now I can do it. Thank you! Pat
While searching for a copy of the book online, I found that a movie does exist, written and directed by Liv Ullman, released in 2000 and available on VHS from BarnesandNoble.com. I’ve not seen it, though, so can’t make a personal review.
I picked up a copy of the book at my University Library (the original translation, published in 1926) while waiting for my own copy to arrive, and love the author’s style of writing! I am intrigued by the mix of religion and magic in the lives of the people, and find the descriptions of the events as they unfold to be brilliant. This is my first time reading the book, and I’m truly thankful for your recommendation of it! Jenni
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