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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.