Closely connected to the book’s dissection of leisure is its examination of excessive social preening. J. accuses his contemporaries of being overly concerned with the perception of others, and throughout the book people’s preoccupation with “keeping up appearances” is a rich source of humor. Such humor is rarely intentional on the part of the characters, who are unable to transcend “formalities and fashions ... pretence and ostentation.” More often than not, Jerome shows that the pursuit of social perfection is a fruitless task, in danger of reducing people to perfunctory gestures and shallow ways of being. Rather than facilitating a freedom from the superficial concerns of city life, boating on the river seems only to push the men into a heightened state of self-awareness.
The boaters make a special effort with the clothes that they wear, for example, and dress to impress rather than taking clothing practically suited to the river environment. They judge one another on their outfits and worry about what other people on the river will think. J. thinks he dresses very well, while Harris chooses the wrong colors. Both agree that George’s blazer is too “loud,” mocking his jacket by questioning if it is intended to be “an object to hang over a flower-bed in early spring to frighten the birds.” According to the three men, girls on the river are very “prettily dressed” in boating costumes. Though the girls’ clothes look great visually, they are totally unsuited to being on the river according to J.: “It was ridiculous, fooling about in them anywhere near real earth, air and water.” Of course, the men aren’t carefree either. In one incident early in the journey, J. accidentally knocks one of the group’s shirts into the river. George laughs hysterically, thinking it’s one of J’s shirts—upon the shirt being revealed to actually be George’s, J. is sent into his own fit of laughter. They are both clearly attached to their belongings, anxious to keep them in a good state, and quick to laugh at the other’s inconvenience.
The characters’ preoccupation with appearances is further evidenced by the fact that they they’d rather pretend to be culturally aware than perceived as lacking education or knowledge. J. tells one anecdote about a “fashionable and highly cultured party” that the three men once attended. At the party, two German students ask if the group wants to hear a song (in German) by an old German master who happens to be downstairs. The students insist that it is the funniest thing the other guests will ever hear. The guests hardly understand a word of German but want to appear sophisticated. Thinking they are hearing a comedic song, they all start laughing, upsetting the singer greatly: unbeknownst to the guests, the song the German master sings for them is a tragic love story, and not meant to be funny at all. This prank by the two German students has revealed the guests to be shallow and self-concerned. Etiquette takes precedence over honesty—people would rather pretend to understand something than express the truth that they don’t.
Harris, too, fancies himself a singer, yet can never remember the words to the popular songs of the day. Despite this lack of knowledge, he frequently volunteers to sing at parties, mixing up verses from different songs and leaving the audience in a state of confusion. His priority is being perceived as culturally learned, much like when George buys a banjo that he has no idea how to play. Harris can claim to be a singer in public simply by getting up in front of people, just as George can tenuously claim to be a banjo player by virtue of owning the instrument.
The three men are also guilty of a kind reverse snobbery, viewing their rowing boat to be the most authentic way to travel on the river. Whenever the three men encounter a steamboat (a relatively new technological advancement), they launch into a tirade about the “aristocratic” people that use such conveyances. During one encounter, J. tells the reader, “There is a blatant bumptiousness about a steam-launch, that has the knack of rousing every evil instinct in my nature, and I yearn for the good old days, when you could go about and tell people what you thought of them with a hatchet and a bow and arrows.” J. and his friends believe that the steamboat is less authentic than their vessel, which they have to row themselves, showing that they are at least as concerned with looking like they are returning to nature as they are with any kind of genuine natural communion. J.’s harking back to the “good old days” of bows and arrows—which, of course, he never experienced—further demonstrates that their river cruise is as posed and affected as the passengers on the steamboat with whom the men profess to have little in common.
Though characters often express noble intentions in Three Men in a Boat—whether of communing with nature, rising above artifice, or improving oneself through the acquisition of knowledge—their governing desires are frequently shown to be more about being liked or respected. Just like the coffee shops and bars of the city that the three men are trying to escape, the river becomes a kind of gallery for people to display their refined manners, etiquette, and cultural cache—in short, another theatre to perform their self-perceived superiority. Rather than moving beyond the “lumber” of life, the three men can’t leave the city, or who they are there, behind; in fact, nature seems to make their superficialities all the starker, because it throws these aspects of their life into greater relief against the backdrop of an indifferent environment.
Manners, Etiquette, and Appearances ThemeTracker
Manners, Etiquette, and Appearances Quotes in Three Men in a Boat
There were four of us—George, and William Samuel Harris, and myself, and Montmorency. We were sitting in my room, smoking, and talking about how bad we were—bad from a medical point of view I mean, of course.
I call that downright wisdom, not merely as regards the present case, but with reference to our trip up the river of life generally. How many people, on that voyage, load up the boat till it is in danger of swamping with a store of foolish things which they think are essential to the pleasure and comfort of the trip, but which are really only useless lumber … expensive entertainments that nobody enjoys, with formalities and fashions, with pretence and ostentation, and with – oh, heaviest, maddest lumber of all! – the dread of what will m neighbor think … It is lumber man – all lumber! Throw it overboard.
I rather pride myself on my packing. Packing is one of those many things that I feel I know more about than any other person living … I impressed the fact upon George and Harris and told them that they had better leave the whole matter entirely to me. They fell into the suggestion with a readiness that had something uncanny about it. George put on a pipe and spread himself over the easy-chair, and Harris cocked his legs on the table and lit a cigar. This was hardly what I intended.
Why, all our art treasures of today are only the dug-up commonplaces of three of four hundred years ago. I wonder if there is any real intrinsic beauty in the old soup-plates, beer-mugs, and candle-snuffers that we prize so now, or if it is only the halo of age flowing around them that gives them their charms in our eyes … Will it be the same in the future? Will the prized treasures of today always be the cheap trifles of the day before?
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.
I noticed, as the song progressed, that a good many other people seemed to have their eye fixed on the two young men, as well as myself. These other people also tittered when the young me tittered, and roared when the young men roared; and, as the two young men tittered and roared and exploded with laughter pretty continuously throughout the song, it went exceedingly well. And yet that German professor did not seem happy.
We beat it out flat; we beat it out square; we battered it into every form known to geometry—but we could not make a hole in 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.
We went to a good many shops … by the time we had finished, we had as fine a collection of boys with baskets following us around as heart could desire; and our final march down the middle of the High Street, to the river, must have been as imposing a spectacle as Marlow had seen for a day.
‘Well,’ said Harris, reaching his hand out for his glass, ‘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 well out of a boat!’ And Montmorency, standing on his hind legs, before the window, peering out into the night, gave a short bark of decided concurrence with the toast.