Three Men in a Boat

by

Jerome K. Jerome

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Three Men in a Boat: Chapter 4  Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The three men move on to the important question of what food to take with them. They agree they should take a methylated spirit stove, because when they last used paraffin oil it spilled everywhere and ruined their trip. Everything had stunk of oil, even the cities and sights they visited along the journey.
Food plays an important role throughout the book. The men’s main concern is often when, where, and what their next meal will be. They want to eat a food of a certain standard—luxury, even—but it proves time and again to be impractical for the trip. The paraffin oil ruined their last trip because it reminded them of the city, seeping everywhere and spoiling the illusion of their return to nature.
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They think of plenty of food to take but agree not to bring any cheese. Like the paraffin oil, it tends to “make too much of itself” and give everything—even the apple pie—a cheesy flavor. This prompts J. to tell an anecdote about one of his friends.
Cheese is again not one of the most practical items that the men could choose to take with them. It doesn’t respond well to being damp and can easily make everything else taste of cheese, as J. knows. At least the men have some practical awareness.
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His friend buys a couple of “ripe and mellow” cheeses with a “two-hundred horse power scent…that could knock a man over at two hundred yards.” This friend asks J. if he would transport the cheeses back from Liverpool to London for him, and J. agrees. He then takes a horse-drawn cab to the station and the smell of the cheeses makes the horse run scarily fast to try and get away from the odor. At the station, people try and avoid the smell. On the train, they complain and vacate the seats surrounding J.
J.’s friend has bought cheese because it’s a luxury item, but he hasn’t factored in quite how smelly it is. Spending money on cheese shows that his friend has disposable income to spend for pleasure. Unfortunately for J., as its transporter, the cheese becomes a source of embarrassment. Considering how preoccupied J. and the other men are with their own presentation, being embarrassed is one of the worst things that could happen to them.
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Arriving in London, J. takes the cheeses to his friend’s wife. She can’t stand the odor either. She wonders if she can pay someone to take them away, or if J. could keep them. He says he can’t because they might offend his landlady (also because of the smell). As a solution to get away from the cheeses, his friend’s wife checks into a hotel with her children, making the total amount of money spent on the cheeses very high. When J.’s friend eventually returns to London, he can’t stand the cheeses either and buries them at the seaside.
This cheese is so pungent that even the original purchaser doesn’t want them any more. This is truly disposable income then—money spent on absolutely nothing.
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Food list complete with meat and fruit pies, butter, cold meat, and an array of kitchen utensils, the three friends meet the next day to pack their bags. J. prides himself on his packing and tells the others to let him be in charge. They take him at his word and put their feet up, leaving him to do it all, much to J.’s annoyance.
When J. says he’ll take charge, he really means that he wants to instruct the others on what to do so that he can sit back and relax. Of course, they take him a bit too literally and instead leave him to it. The list has a lot on it, not exactly following J.’s philosophy to reject the “lumber” of life. Food (of a certain caliber), as a symbol of disposable income, is a clear marker of leisure time, being consumed not just to satisfy basic bodily needs but also to provide that crucial aspect of leisure: enjoyment.
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Related Quotes
J.’s packing quickly starts to frustrate him as George and Harris keep reminding him of things he’s forgotten. This goes on for so long that, at 10.30 p.m., with departure looming, Harris and George decide to take over the packing.
The men aren’t good at packing because they don’t know what they need. They have competing ideas and a lack of practical skills. The preparations for leisure time are quickly starting to look like work.
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George and Harris have to pack the kitchenware—and they’re just as bad as J. The other two break a cup, tread on butter, and squash the pies, much to J’s amusement. The dog makes a nuisance of himself by getting in their way. Finally, at twenty minutes past midnight, the packing is done. The three men go to bed, with George saying that he’ll wake the others up at 6.30 a.m.; he has to work in the morning and will meet the men in the afternoon. He falls asleep instantly, and J. and Harris put the bath next to him so can wash first in the morning.
The packing continues to be calamitous, as the men basically try to pack the entire kitchen. If they can’t cope with all of these items at home, they’re hardly going to fare better once on the river. This is the first of many points in the book where food and drink get the men into trouble.
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