On Being Idle – Summary

The essay ‘On Being Idle’ by Jerome K. Jerome is the first essay in his book ‘Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow’. The essays in this volume range over a number of whimsical subjects. However, referring specific to the essay ‘On Being Idle’, it is wonderful to see the profundity of the statement ‘It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do.’ This statement sums up the underlying seriousness of an apparently light topic.


Jerome K. Jerome begins the essay ‘On Being Idle’ in a humorous tone. He says that the subject of being idle’, is something that he is very updated about and himself feels flattered for having immense knowledge of the subject. Referring to his laziness and idleness, Jerome recalls his childhood when his home tutor, who charged nine guineas per term, would comment about him that he had never witnessed any boy who would work so little in so much time. He recalls the incident when his grandma incidentally learnt that it’s highly improbable that he does more work than what is required of him. Jerome says that his grandma was nonetheless convinced in entirety that it was very likely expected of him to even leave the work undone which he was necessarily required to do. And all this was so just because Jerome was too lazy to ‘act’.

Though Jerome now feels concerned to have shaken the belief of his grandmother that she had held of him. Referring to his success as a writer, he says that despite being lazy, he seems to have done many good things which he normally wouldn’t have done. Yet he feels happy on keeping up his grandmother’s belief that he tends to neglect things which he ideally shouldn’t. The tone in which Jerome narrates is entirely humorous. He feels a sense of absolute pride in being idle. He says,

“Idling always has been my strong point. I take no credit to myself in the matter – it is a gift. Few possess it.”

Considering being idle as an esteemed trait, Jerome says that though innumerable lazy people and slow coaches exist but for someone to be a ‘genuine idler’ is rare. Further speaking, Jerome says that someone who is a genuine idler does not waste his time in slouching about with his hands in his pocket. Rather, “On the contrary, his most startling characteristic is that he is always intensely busy.

Thus, in an absolutely subtle manner, Jerome suggests the underlying theme of the essay ‘On Being Idle.’ In his opinion, in order to enjoy the pleasures of idleness, a man must always be busy. Only if he is always busy, that the moments of idleness will be sweeter for him. He finds no pleasure in doing nothing when he has no task in hand to be done. He says that in such a case, wasting time feels like a mere occupation; a thing to be done just for the heck of doing it, not finding any pleasure in doing it though. Jerome says that in order to relish the ‘sweetness of Idleness’, it should be stolen kisses, he says,

Idleness, like kisses, to be sweet must be stolen.

Jerome then recalls a moment from his childhood when he had fallen ill. He said that he was down with a beastly cold but the doctor who had visited him for consultation had exaggerated his medical health to have become very serious. The doctor felt that Jerome should have consulted him almost a month before. He sounded grave at the mention of the thought as to Jerome’s condition, had he been late for a week more. The doctor said that any further delay, be it by just a day, would have rendered cure to be impossible. Referring to Doctor’s extreme reaction, Jerome calls him to be like the hero in some melodrama who comes in the nick of time as if it is Providence.

Continuing with the episode, Jerome says that he was suggested to be on bed-rest for a month, with strict instructions to do absolutely nothing “Rest is what you require,” said the doctor, “perfect rest.” Initially, the thought of resting for an entire month seemed like a delightful prospect. He began thinking about all the wonderful days that he will have all by himself, especially doing nothing. To Jerome, the doctor seemed to have nailed at the treatment required, which was complete rest. A month full of lazy days with little suffering and loads of laziness.

Jerome says that he began to imagine ways how he would spend his days. He says that he would get up late, drink chocolate and have breakfast in lazy clothing, dressing gown and slippers. He would lie in a hammock placed out in the garden and read emotional novels with sad endings. He would read to the extent till the book slips from his hand and while he its recline in the hammock gazing the sky, watching the floating clouds, listening to the joyous songs of the bird and also the soft rustling of the trees. Though if he turns too weak, Jerome imagines that he would sit at the open front window of the ground floor, propped up with the pillows, look weak yet interesting, so that the girls who would pass by his house, would feel sorry for him and give a sigh.

Further, he says that during this resting phase for recovery of his health, he was taken with the idea of drinking waters. Hence, he used to go down in a bath chair to the Colonnade, twice a day, to drink the waters. All went well for the first few mornings but eventually Sam Weller’s description of the waters ‘having a taste of warm flat-irons’ was a big pull-back. It was believed that in order to recover quickly, one needed to drink a glassful of it every day till the recovery. Jerome drank them for six consecutive days but due to its off – setting taste, he started consuming alcohol directly after having the water. Eventually he started feeling letter.

Continuing with his narration of the ‘one month long proper rest’, Jerome says that ‘drinking the waters’ was just one part of the numerous tortures he experienced during that memorable month. Expressing his feelings, Jerome says,

“… – a month which was, without exception, the most miserable I have ever spent.”

On the brighter side of that one month, all that Jerome did was to simply roam about the house and the garden or go out for two hours a day in a Bath Chair. This routine kept him out of melancholy. The ‘Bath-Chairing’, Jerome says, is an exciting task but an occupant is filled with a sense of danger which no observer can acknowledge. One sitting on it loses his conviction the moment another vehicle comes in sight or a ditch or a stretch of newly made road comes into sight.

Though, Jerome said that even the activity of ‘Bath-Chairing’ eventually became monotonous and the long days of resting phase become ‘perfectly unbearable.’ He wanted to give his mind some rest. So after about nineteen odd days of his resting phase, he got up early on the twentieth morning and walked out to Mayfield after having a good breakfast.

Mayfield was a pleasant, busy little town that lay at the foot of the Kinder Scout. One could reach there by walking through a lovely valley. He saw two ‘sweetly pretty women’; one who passed him on the bridge and smiled at him and another lady who would stand at an open door and shower innumerable kisses on a red-faced baby. Recalling the two ladies now, Jerome says that those sweetly pretty ladies would have now become stout and snappish with the passage of time.

Again referring to the walk to Mayfield, Jerome tells that while returning from there he met with an old man who was breaking stones. This very sight arose an intense desire in Jerome to ‘do something’ and he wished to break the stones for the man. He offered a drink to the old man with the intent to take his place and break the stones. So willing Jerome was that he went about breaking the stones with the accumulated energy of three weeks when he was doing nothing but resting. Within half an hour he ended up doing more work than what the old man had done the entire day.

This one walk to Mayfield relieved Jerome of monotony hence, he started to go out for long walks every morning and every evening he listened to the band in the pavilion. Yet Jerome felt miserable because of doing nothing and experienced utter monotony. Finally, he felt relieved and elated when the last day of his ‘resting phase’ came and he travelled back to life in London. Expressing relief and joy, Jerome says,

“… The lurid glare overhanging the mighty city seemed to warm my heart, and when, later on, my cab rattled out of St. Pancras’ station, the old familiar roar that came swelling up around me sounded the sweetest music I had heard for many a long day.

Jerome confesses that indolence is partaken only during times when it is least required of him. Idling around for the mere sake of it somehow dilutes the whole concept. He says,

I like idling when I ought not to be idling; not when it is the only thing I have to do.”

To relish the idling, one must be completely occupied and engrossed in fulfilling certain role or duty in a limited time. For instance, he says that the time when he wishes to stand near the fire, calculating how much he owes is the time when he has heaps of letters which need to be answered by the next post. He prefers to dawdle longest over his dinner when he has a long evening ahead of him which is loaded with work. Jerome says that when, for some urgent reason, he ought to wake up early in the morning, then that very morning it becomes very important for him to lie an extra half-an-hour in the bed. He feels completely happy to have slept for extra time only when he is expected to be up and running for work at that very instance. Jerome says,

“Ah! How delicious it is to turn over and go to sleep again: “just for five minutes.””

Jerome wonders if there exists any human being who ever gets up from sleep willingly. Probably some hero of a Sunday school “tale for boys” is the only character who gets up willingly from sleep. Jerome speaks about another category of sleepers for whom getting up on time is an absolute impossibility. Such people religiously get up late when its required of them to be up on time. If they are supposed to be up by eight O’clock, then they get up by half-past eight. And if they are expected to be up by half-past eight then they sleep late till it’s nine O’clock. Jerome compares this category of people with the statesman who is identified as a punctual late-comer.

In defense of such people, Jerome clarifies that getting up late is not something that they intentionally do, but is more of an involuntary act. They do try various measures to wake up on time. They buy alarm clocks but unfortunately those clocks go off at the wrong time and alarm some wrong person eventually. They ask their neighbor to knock at the door and call them, who does so, but such people grunt back and go off to sleep again. Jerome then acknowledges about being familiar with a person who would wake up, take cold bath and then would again jump into the bed to warm himself.

Speaking about himself, Jerome says that he can keep himself away from bed but only after he has got out of it once. He says,

It is the wrenching away of the head from the pillow that I find so hard, and no amount of overnight determination makes it easier.

Jerome says that despite making overnight determinations, he still remains unsuccessful in getting up early in the morning. He says that at night when he makes such convictions, he is thoroughly resolved to do so, but that stays only till that very moment and fails to get translated in the morning. He says that by the time it is morning, he feels less enthusiastic about the thought of getting up early. He wishes to have stayed up late the previous night in order to complete the work. Furthermore, the thought of the trouble of dressing up and more, makes him want to go back to sleeping again.

Speaking about the miraculous effect of bed, Jerome calls it to be a ‘mimic grave’ wherein, we stretch our tired body and quietly sink away into the silence of rest. Referring to Hood’s song, Jerome says that bed acts as a kind nurse who calms down the fretful people. Irrespective of how people are by nature, whether they are clever or foolish, naughty or good, the bed lulls everybody off to sleep without being biased. Jerome gives a very poetic description of bed’s care for the tired being. He says,

The strong man full of care – the sick man full of pain – the little maiden sobbing for her faithless lover – like children we lay our aching heads an your white bosom, and you gently soothe us off to by-by.

Though life becomes terrible when sleep turns away from us and refuses to comfort us. Jerome specifies such situations wherein we are left sleepless. He says that it feels really long for dawn to come on a night when we are sleepless. When one is down with fever and pain and keeps tossing in the bed on such a terrible night, it seems similar to us as being dead staring out into the dark hours and it feels ages for sun to dawn. Things get worst when we happen to sit beside an ailing fellow. Every movement in the surrounding can be noticed in complete detail, like, when a lower fire startles us with the falling of the wood, the ticking of the clock seems like a hammer hitting the ailing person and sucking life out of his body with every single ticking. Suddenly, Jerome switches from beds and bedrooms to smoking with the pipe. Pipe seems to be his favourite tool for idling for it wastes the time just like the bed but it makes it look ‘not so bad.’ Smoking pipes seem as a blessing to the idlers in Jerome’s view. He wonders what the clerks did to relish their idle moments, before Sir Walter’s time. He says that the reason why the middle aged young men quarrel a lot is nothing but the want of tobacco for smoking for it soothes them and keeps their temperament cool. With no work to do and no smoke to idle-around, they would always end up fighting, if not amongst themselves, then they indulge in fighting with the neighbour. Even after all these intense activities, they tend to idle around with the discussion about who’s beloved was the best looking, which eventually would end up in a fight.

Jerome continues to say that at times the decision of whose beloved looked more beautiful was not done instantly but rather involved a lot of thinking. Unsatisfactory decision would lead to the fight between men as a result of criticizing each other’s woman’s beauty.

Jerome says, with reference to the current scenario, that now-a-days men avoid indulging in fights. They prefer to idle around with their ‘dear friend’ pipe and let the girls fight among themselves in order to decide as to who was more beautiful. Making a humorous remark at the modern women, Jerome says that women of today excel at fighting out too, just how they are excelling as a doctor, barrister, artist, etc. The women of modern times is getting work opportunities in every field which were earlier limited to men. They even excel at managing theatre, promoting swindles or be it editing newspapers.

Speaking about the joy of idling, once again Jerome expresses his wish to be free from routine work and let men have the opportunity of lying idly. He says, that he is looking forward to those times when men would do nothing but lie in bed till twelve in the noon, when they can idle around by reading two novels in a single day, serve evening snacks to self and indulge in conversation like the latest patterns in trousers or argue over Mr. Jones’ coat. This, Jerome says, is ‘a glorious prospect for idle fellows.’

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