The titular men of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, friends J., Harris, and George, are united in the simple goal of boating up the river Thames, an attempt to restore their health and well-being by escaping the allegedly toxic influence of London and getting back to nature. The men quickly struggle with the river environment, however, finding it difficult to control the boat, prepare their meals, and get a good night’s sleep. Whenever a sense of communion with nature is reached, it isn’t long before it’s interrupted. The men imagine nature as a return to a purer, more wholesome way of living, but this is an ideal it rarely lives up to. Jerome explores this tension between idealism and reality to suggest the men have bought into an overly-romanticized version of the natural world, the search for which leads only to frustration and disappointment.
J., the novel’s narrator, is especially prone to personifying nature—as “Night,” or the “Sun,” or the “River” itself—and ascribing to it a kind of radiant benevolence that sends him into “deep thought.” Before the men have even set off, J. discusses how camping would be “wild and free.” He also slips into a richly descriptive passage that idealizes the simplicity of the natural world while criticizing modernity: “we fall asleep beneath the great, still stars, and dream that the world is young again … sweet as she was in those bygone days when, a new-made mother, she nursed us, her children, upon her own deep breast—ere the wiles of painted civilization had lured us away from her fond arms...” Journeying up the river, J. thinks, will let the men reconnect with an earlier, purer time. This attitude is in part inherited from the Romantic poets, who placed nature at the center of their work. But whereas Romantic poetry gives pride of place to nature in opposition to the negative effects of city living, J. and the three men are constantly coming into contact with the same petty concerns that they face on land.
The men live in London at a time of rapid urban expansion in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, and the stresses of modernity intensify their longing to return to nature. They believe that city life is superfluous and ridiculous, and that their trip will somehow allow them to rise above it. But, as creatures of comfort, the men prove ill-equipped to truly live “wild,” and instead take the stresses of modern life with them. In one of the book’s most important passages, J. describes the trappings of this life—its “formalities and fashions … pretence, ostentation and luxuries that only cloy—as “lumber, man—all lumber!” He implores the reader to “throw it overboard,” because it makes the metaphorical boat of life “so cumbersome and dangerous to manage.” This speech comes as the men pack for their “return to nature,” loading themselves up with immense amounts of “lumber”—including luxurious, impractical food, clothes, and equipment. Though they profess to be leaving the city behind, they are in fact packing it up and taking it with them.
Not only do the men prove constitutionally unsuited to the lifestyle beyond the city limits, but the natural world itself often fails to conform to the conditions required for a successful boat trip. More specifically, nature doesn’t behave the way the men want it too—and to expect it to do so would, of course, be unnatural. In a series of anecdotes before they set off, J. discusses people’s obsession with the weather, implying that it never behaves as people predict: “The weather is a thing that is beyond me altogether … But who wants to be foretold the weather? It is bad enough when it comes.” J. sees the weather as almost conspiratorial—that it usually does the opposite of what he wants it too. In truth, the three men just want a very specific type of weather—and it is perfectly natural, given the climate in Britain, that this desire is regularly frustrated. In addition to the weather getting in the way of their Romantic ideals, the river itself throws up disturbing surprises. Along the journey the men encounter both a dead dog and the floating corpse of a young woman—both arrive as symbols of death, as integral a part of nature as sunshine or water. Nature, then, isn’t just predictably erratic in terms of the weather—here it brings stark images of death to the three men just when they are trying to feel most alive.
Rain ultimately pushes the men to give up on their trip and return to London, seeking out the familiar comfort of their favorite theatre and restaurant. Jerome ultimately suggests, then, the naïveté and hubris of believing that nature ought to conform to man’s needs; if the three men had been more realistic in their expectations of the river environment, and more pragmatic and flexible in their preparations, they would likely have had a more successful and rewarding trip. People have to adapt to nature, the book suggests, and not the other way around. What’s more, in order for the trip to have been genuinely restorative, the three men should have examined their Romantic ideas more closely. Romantic poetry at its best, for example, is concerned with witnessing the sublime in nature—respecting its immense power and limitless forms. If the men had been more respectful and honest in their conceptualization of nature, rather than blindly hoping it would conform to their own comfort, the trip would have had the rejuvenating effect they sought.
The Romanticization of Nature ThemeTracker
The Romanticization of Nature 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.
You know we are on the wrong track altogether. We must not think of the things we could do with, but only of the things we could without.
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.
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.
George said why could not we be always like this—away from the world, with its sins and temptation, leading sober, peaceful lives, and doing good … and we discussed the possibility of our going away, we four, to some handy, well-fitted desert island, and living there in the woods. Harris said that the danger about desert islands, as far as he had heard, was that they were so damp; but George said no, not if properly drained.
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.
Dorchester, like Wallingford, was a city in ancient British times; it was then called Caer Doren, ‘the city on the water’. In more recent times the Romans formed a great camp here … It is very old, and it was very strong and great once. Now it sits aside from the stirring world, and nods and dreams.