The Victorian era saw the rapid rise of holidaying, pleasure-seeking, and self-improvement as ways for the emergent middle class to use their time. J. and his friends live in a moment in which work and leisure became two clearly separate concepts. But as the text makes clear, leisure is not quite the clearly marked route to happiness that the characters hope for. Instead, these new pursuits come with their own pitfalls, ironically often creating, in the place of leisure, something very close to resembling work.
The three men frequently talk up their own idleness, at times even suggesting that they might be medically inclined to doing less work. Yet this is all a kind of superficial affectation adopted to suit the fashion of the day. In the opening of the book, for example, George makes the case that the three men need “rest and a complete change.” Sitting around smoking their tobacco, they are unanimous that whatever is the matter with them has been brought about by “overwork.” But, J. tells the reader, “I had the symptoms, beyond all mistake, the chief among them being a general disinclination to work of any kind.” Later in the book he adds, “I like work; it fascinates me, I can sit and look at it for hours…I take a great pride in my work; I take it down now and then and dust it.” The joke is that work is some kind of object of curiosity merely for looking at—that is, work isn’t something that J. has to do. The characters are simultaneously painting a picture of themselves as “overworked” and idle. Of course, both can’t be true, and though the reader learns little of the working habits of the three men, it can be assumed that they probably work the average amount befitting their status in society.
It seems it is not really a state of idleness that the men are after, but one of clearly recognized leisure—they want to be seen using their time for the pursuit of pleasure. Idleness is a kind of performance requiring an audience. That’s why, when George oversleeps on the morning of their departure, J. and Harris are anxious that he is wasting time that could be used to appear idle: “There was George, throwing away in hideous sloth the inestimable gift of time; his valuable life, every second of which he would have to account for hereafter, passing away from him, unused.” Obviously Harris and J. don’t believe this too strongly, given that they, too, try to get plenty of sleep throughout their journey.
This attitude towards leisure also informs the men’s choices of what to take with them on their river trip. In packing certain food and equipment to aid their affectation of idleness, the men unwittingly demonstrate how their choices can lead to the same consumerism that they purportedly want to escape. The food they take especially underscores their deliberate, methodical approach to leisure. Their meals are not solely about survival or sustenance, and the foodstuffs they carry are meant to be demonstrably pleasurable rather than functional. Indeed, though they ought to be travelling light, the men pack much more—and much more luxurious—food than they need. When they re-stock halfway through their journey, they make a big display of their shopping by walking back to the boat followed by lots of helpers carrying hampers of cheese, drinks, and fruit. They also bring pineapple, exotic and expensive for the time. They are trying to indulge in the luxuries—or lumber—of life that J. earlier implored the reader to do away with. Because they forget to pack a can-opener, however, it’s impossible to open their beloved pineapple, and after great stress and pain they throw it out of sight into the water. Bringing so much of city life with them simply makes it even harder to truly relax.
That relaxation requires effort is particularly true of the journey itself. Though floating up the Thames might sound laidback and easy—indeed, that is part of the escapist motivation for the trip—it takes a great deal of physical exertion to simply move the boat. The men need to tow, row and scull the vessel and its excessive cargo to get anywhere, and, despite expressing pride in their supposed predisposition to idleness, frequently accuse one another of shirking their duties: “In a boat, I have always noticed that it is the fixed idea of each member of the crew that he is doing everything,” J. notes. The men claim to be idle, but when things need to be done to maintain this state, they all suddenly claim to be doing more work than the others.
These tensions come to a head of the end of the book. Far from being restored and rejuvenated, the men end their journey exhausted and irritated. Because they can’t achieve a genuine, sustained sense of relaxation, all three are relieved to cut their trip short, as Harris neatly sums up: “I think we did well to chuck it when we did. Here’s to Three Men well out of a Boat.” They’re much happier back in the comfort of a restaurant in London, where their needs are taken care of, and they feel a sense of achievement that they’ve stuck it out on the river for as long as they did. This a kind of confession, then, that all that leisure has, for much of the time, been a kind of work.
Work and Leisure ThemeTracker
Work and Leisure 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.
In the present instance, going back to the liver-pill circular, I had the symptoms, beyond all mistake, the chief among them being ‘a general disinclination to work of any kind.’
What I suffer in that way no tongue can tell. From my earliest infancy I have been a martyr to it. As a boy, the disease hardly ever left me for a day.
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.
I don’t know why it should be, I am sure, but the sight of another man asleep in bed when I am up maddens me. It seems to me so shocking to see the precious hours of a man’s life—the priceless moments that will never come back to him again – being wasted in mere brutish sleep.
There was George, throwing away in hideous sloth the inestimable gift of time; his valuable life, every second of which he would have to account for hereafter, passing away from him, unused.
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.
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.
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.
You cannot give me too much work; to accumulate work has almost become a passion with me; my study is so full of it now that there is hardly an inch of room any more … Why, some of the work that I have by me now has been in my possession for years and years, and there isn’t a finger-mark on it. I take a great pride in my work; I take it down now and then and dust it.
‘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.