Three Men in a Boat

by

Jerome K. Jerome

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The River Symbol Analysis

The River Symbol Icon

The river represents the powerful indifference of nature in contrast to the men’s romantic idealism. It is, of course, the site of the men’s attempt to relax and reach a state of leisure. Because it pre-dates the industrial world that the three men inhabit, the river facilitates their escapism to a purportedly simpler past. It allows them to feel they are returning to nature, and, particularly for J., going back in time. J. also implores the reader to get rid of their “lumber”—the “formalities and fashions … pretence, ostentation and luxuries” that burden people on the “river of life.” He sees the river as a symbol of a more authentic and less materialistic existence. Of course, the men prove themselves incapable of committing fully to those ideals, and their failure to embrace the challenges the river presents makes their journey far more stressful and cathartic. Meanwhile, like life itself, the river just keeps flowing. As with nature more generally, it can’t be made to conform to their preferences. In the most poignant episode of the book, George spots something floating in the water, revealed to be the corpse of woman who has committed suicide. This sudden image of death shakes both the men and the reader; the river, as the site for the woman’s suicide, again shows itself to be intimately linked to the reality of life and death. The river does not bow to the men’s desire for a purely positive, rejuvenating experience, further underscoring the naivete of their romanticizing of the natural world. 

The River Quotes in Three Men in a Boat

The Three Men in a Boat quotes below all refer to the symbol of The River. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Romanticization of Nature Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Penguin edition of Three Men in a Boat published in 1999.
Chapter 2  Quotes

The river, playing around the boat, prattles old tales and secrets, sings low the child’s song that it has sung for so many years … and we fall asleep beneath the great, still stars, and dream the world is young again … sweet as she was in bygone days, ere the wiles of painted civilization had lured us away from her fond arms, and the poisoned sneers of artificiality had made us ashamed of the simple life we led with her, and the simple, stately home where mankind was born so many thousands of years ago.

Related Characters: J. (speaker)
Related Symbols: The River
Page Number: 10-11
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6  Quotes

The quaint back-streets of Kingston, where they came down to the water’s edge, looked quite picturesque in the flashing sunlight, the glinting river with its drifting barges, the wooded towpath … the distant glimpses of the grey old palace of the Tudors, all made a sunny picture, so bright but calm, so full of life, and yet so peaceful, that, early in the day though it was, I felt myself being dreamily lulled off into a musing fit.

I mused on Kingston, or ‘Kyningestun’, as it was once called in the days when Saxon ‘kinges’ were crowned there.

Related Characters: J. (speaker)
Related Symbols: The River
Page Number: Book Page 40-41
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7  Quotes

The river affords a good opportunity for dress. For once in a way, we men are able to show our taste in colours, and I think we come out very natty, if you ask me.

Related Characters: J. (speaker)
Related Symbols: The River
Page Number: Book Page 51
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 8  Quotes

The selfishness of the riparian proprietor grows with every year. If these men had their way they would close the River Thames altogether … The sight of those notice-boards rouses every evil instinct in my nature. I feel I want to tear each 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.

Related Characters: J. (speaker)
Related Symbols: The River
Page Number: Book Page 59
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 16  Quotes

It was the dead body of a woman. It lay very lightly on the water, and the face was sweet and calm. It was not a beautiful face; it was too prematurely aged-looking, too thin and drawn, to be that; but it was a gentle, lovable face, in spite of its stamp of pinch and poverty, and upon it was that look of restful peace that comes to the faces of the sick sometimes when at last the pain has left him.

Related Characters: J. (speaker)
Related Symbols: The River
Page Number: Book Page 145
Explanation and Analysis:
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The River Symbol Timeline in Three Men in a Boat

The timeline below shows where the symbol The River appears in Three Men in a Boat. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
The Romanticization of Nature Theme Icon
George suggests that a river trip might be a better idea. Harris says this would suit him to a “T”,... (full context)
Chapter 2 
The Romanticization of Nature Theme Icon
...tread to chase away the lingering rearguard of the light…And we sit there, by the river’s margin, while the moon, who loves it too, stoops down to kiss it with a... (full context)
Chapter 3 
The Romanticization of Nature Theme Icon
Work and Leisure Theme Icon
Manners, Etiquette, and Appearances Theme Icon
...through on George’s philosophizing, imploring the reader to reject superficiality on their journey down “the river of life.” Get rid of material things (the “lumber”), he insists—“expensive entertainments, formalities and fashions,... (full context)
The Romanticization of Nature Theme Icon
The three friends aspire to go swimming every morning on their river trip, though J. knows this is quite unlikely. George suggests they don’t need many clothes... (full context)
Chapter 7 
Manners, Etiquette, and Appearances Theme Icon
J. says that boating on the river is a “good opportunity for dress.” He talks about the clothes the three men have... (full context)
The Romanticization of Nature Theme Icon
Work and Leisure Theme Icon
Manners, Etiquette, and Appearances Theme Icon
...that sometimes they take it too far and wear things ill-suited to being on a river. He remembers a time when two girls did just that. The girls are “beautifully got... (full context)
Work and Leisure Theme Icon
...Harris clumsily reaches for some alcohol but ends up causing the boat to hit the riverbank and getting his head stuck in the hamper. (full context)
Chapter 8 
The Romanticization of Nature Theme Icon
Manners, Etiquette, and Appearances Theme Icon
J. says that the owners of the land along the Thames infuriate him, as they are trying to make the river more and more private. He’d... (full context)
Work and Leisure Theme Icon
Manners, Etiquette, and Appearances Theme Icon
The boat continues up the river, passing picturesque and historic sights along the way. J. and Harris arrive at Weybridge, where... (full context)
Chapter 11 
The Romanticization of Nature Theme Icon
Work and Leisure Theme Icon
George and J. wake up Harris. The men had previously agreed to jump in the river for an early morning swim. George and Harris quickly make their excuses. J. doesn’t want... (full context)
Chapter 12 
The Romanticization of Nature Theme Icon
Manners, Etiquette, and Appearances Theme Icon
...the process. They get so mad that they end up throwing the pineapple into the river. (full context)
Chapter 13 
The Romanticization of Nature Theme Icon
Manners, Etiquette, and Appearances Theme Icon
Reaching Hambledon lock, the three men realize they are short on drinking water. George asks the lock-keeper if he can spare any. The lock-keeper replies that they take... (full context)
The Romanticization of Nature Theme Icon
Manners, Etiquette, and Appearances Theme Icon
Instead, the three men get water from a little cottage further up the river. They reflect that they did once drink... (full context)
Chapter 15 
Manners, Etiquette, and Appearances Theme Icon
...J. agree, is punting. This involves standing up in the boat and moving along the river by pushing a long pole into the mud. J. remembers one instance when a punter... (full context)
Chapter 16 
The Romanticization of Nature Theme Icon
Their argument is quickly cut short when George notices something black floating on the water. They draw closer and George pulls it in. He lets out a cry: it’s the... (full context)
Chapter 17 
Work and Leisure Theme Icon
The three men try to wash their clothes in the river, but this only makes them dirtier because the water is not clean. To get it... (full context)
Chapter 18 
Manners, Etiquette, and Appearances Theme Icon
The three men continue up the river, going a stretch without encountering any locks. This is a shame, says J., as he... (full context)
History and Heritage Theme Icon
...They go past one inn which J. thinks is the “quaintest, most old-world up the river.” (full context)
The Romanticization of Nature Theme Icon
...Iffley and Oxford, which J. says is the most treacherous and difficult stretch of the river because of competing currents going in different directions. (full context)
Work and Leisure Theme Icon
Manners, Etiquette, and Appearances Theme Icon
Nearing Oxford, J. remarks that being on the river has a bad effect on people’s temper, making them frustrated at the little mistakes of... (full context)
Chapter 19 
Manners, Etiquette, and Appearances Theme Icon
...spends two days in Oxford. J. explains that many people who go boating on the Thames start at Oxford and head downstream towards London. This is the opposite of the three... (full context)
Manners, Etiquette, and Appearances Theme Icon
...that make them sound in better condition than they are, like “The Pride of the Thames.” This was the name of the boat that J. once hired. On first seeing it,... (full context)
The Romanticization of Nature Theme Icon
Manners, Etiquette, and Appearances Theme Icon
...takes a turn for the worse—there’s a steady drizzle of rain falling. J. compares the river on a sunny day to a rainy one: he thinks the sound of the rain... (full context)
The Romanticization of Nature Theme Icon
Manners, Etiquette, and Appearances Theme Icon
...the rain. They insist that they will stick to the full two weeks on the river even if it means they have to die. They plan to get to Pangbourne by... (full context)
The Romanticization of Nature Theme Icon
Manners, Etiquette, and Appearances Theme Icon
...“we have had a pleasant trip, and my hearty thanks for it to old Father Thames—but I think we did well to chuck it when we did. Here’s to Three Men... (full context)