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The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy | Discussion Questions 41 - 50

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In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, how is Earth's destruction by the Vogons an example of situational irony?

Situational irony occurs when there is a clash between expectation and reality. In Chapter 3, the Vogon Constructor Fleet demolishes Earth to make way for a hyperspatial express route through its star system. In Chapter 24, Slartibartfast tells Arthur Dent that if Earth's destruction had come five minutes later, it wouldn't have mattered so much. As Arthur learns, Earth was commissioned, paid for, and run by hyperintelligent pandimensional beings that took the form of mice. The expectation was that its ten-million-year-long computer program would discover the Ultimate Question to fit the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. Contrary to expectations, it was destroyed by the Vogons five minutes before completing the purpose for which it was built. The destruction of Earth destroyed the Ultimate Question, as well. As Slartibartfast sums it up in Chapter 30: "Ten million years of planning and work gone just like that ... Well, that's bureaucracy for you."

What indications are there in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that an Ultimate Question to match the Ultimate Answer is possible?

The supercomputer Earth together with the electronic book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy indicate an Ultimate Question to match the Ultimate Answer may be found. According to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, throughout the Universe of Time and Space, intelligent life-forms have been asking the same existential questions about life that humans ask. In fact, a race of hyperintelligent pandimensional beings many millions of years ago "got so fed up with the constant bickering about the meaning of life" that they built a supercomputer to solve the problem once and for all. It was called Deep Thought. After seven-and-a-half million years of running the program, Deep Thought announced the Ultimate Answer: "Forty-two." Unfortunately, it made no sense to anyone because the Ultimate Question was unknown. The subsequent program run by the supercomputer Earth was intended to discover this Ultimate Question. This implies that an Ultimate Question to fit the mysterious Answer does exist. If there is an answer, there must be a question. The Guide itself is a symbol of the search for knowledge and wisdom. The fact that it exists suggests that the galaxy and the life in it can be understood and explained somehow. This includes an Ultimate Question that will fit the known Ultimate Answer.

How is Arthur Dent a foil to the absurdity of the galactic world in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?

Arthur Dent is an ordinary fellow: an Englishman who leads a quiet, orderly life in a house outside of London. He works at a local radio station, and he enjoys a cup of tea and a trip to the pub now and then. His life, in general, is predictable and normal. Like all humans, Arthur believes the Universe—as he understands it—is ordered and under control. The limitations of his knowledge, however, soon become apparent. He is the perfect foil for the absurdity of the galactic world in which strange alien races build and destroy planets, starships are powered by Infinite Improbability, small in-ear fish serve as universal language translators, and an actor friend from Guildford is really an alien from a planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse. Beginning with the demolition of Earth, Arthur finds everything expected and ordinary has vanished as well. He shows how an everyday human dropped into this unpredictable and absurd situation might react.

In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, what assets help Ford Prefect cope with life as a galactic hitchhiker?

One of Ford Prefect's assets is his ability to make the best of any situation. When stranded on Earth for 15 years while doing research for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, he does his best to blend in, makes friends, and have a good time gatecrashing university parties. He drinks too much, which sometimes gets him into trouble, and at the same time, keeps an eye out for passing flying saucers. He's realistic yet cheerful, even when things look bad, and he may even inject dark humor into the situation. When he and Arthur Dent are soon to be shot out of an airlock on Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz's spaceship to die in space, Ford is resigned to his fate. He calmly sits back and begins to hum an old Betelgeusian battle hymn. Then suddenly, he cries, "Wait a minute! ... What's this switch?" and lunges for something behind Arthur's line of vision. But it's only a bit of gallows humor: "I was only fooling," says Ford, "we are going to die after all." Ford also has a great enthusiasm for adventure, which would be vital for a galactic hitchhiker. When he and Arthur are rescued by the starship Heart of Gold, he is thrilled to be on the move again. After 15 years of virtual imprisonment on Earth, "knocking about with Zaphod for a bit promised to be fun." Upon arriving at Magrathea, he is excited to see a strange new planet, although it is something of a disappointment once he sees it up close. Perhaps the most important asset that helps Ford cope with life as a galactic hitchhiker is that he always knows where his towel is. The practical and psychological value of a towel is immeasurable. His possession of one proves that he is a fully prepared hitchhiker—a truly "hoopy frood"—and a man to be reckoned with.

What are three characteristics that help Arthur Dent cope with events in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?

A sense of humor, occasional quick-thinking, and the ability to adjust are characteristics that help Arthur Dent cope with events as he hitchhikes the galaxy. While Arthur serves as a straight man for the absurdity of the Universe, his sarcastic sense of humor helps him deal with some situations. For example, after being rescued from Earth, Ford Prefect assures Arthur that they are now safe aboard one of the spaceships of the Vogon Constructor Fleet. Arthur dryly replies, "Ah ... this is obviously some strange usage of the word safe that I wasn't previously aware of." Most of the time, Arthur is content to follow along and let others handle the dire situations that arise. Nevertheless, on occasion, he shows an ability to react quickly himself. He impresses Ford with his inspired idea to praise Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz's poetry. Had it worked, the two hitchhikers might have avoided being tossed into space. Later, Arthur demonstrates a similar ability to act under stress when the Heart of Gold is threatened by missiles from Magrathea. On impulse, he engages the Infinite Improbability Drive and saves the starship and crew from certain destruction. From the moment he gets out of bed on Thursday, Arthur is faced with a string of absurd and unexpected events. Somehow he manages to keep his sanity and adjust, even while stubbornly trying to put his life back in order. When overwhelmed by events, he goes looking for a cup of tea or turns to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy for enlightenment. By the end of the novel, he has accepted his new life, and he settles down to try to learn what he can about the galaxy.

What is Ford Prefect's relationship to Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?

An archetypal character in journey stories is "the helper" who accompanies the hero on his journey. This is the character with the experience and expertise to see the hero through to the end. The helper understands what the hero is dealing with and is able to provide him with the best perspective. Ford Prefect is the helper who accompanies Arthur Dent. He is an alien who has been stranded on Earth for 15 years and a researcher for the electronic book The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. During the past five years, he has befriended Arthur and has rescued him from Earth on the day of its demolition. This begins their strange journey together through the galaxy. While aboard the Vogon Constructor Fleet flagship, Ford begins to introduce Arthur to the assorted elements of this new Universe. As a starting point, he gives Arthur his copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and shows him how to use it. To assist him with any language problems, Ford pops a Babel fish into Arthur's ear. He then introduces him to numerous concepts, such as the extraordinary usefulness of a towel, the truth behind UFO sightings ("teasers"), and the dangers of Vogon poetry. He also serves as Arthur's link to the major characters of Zaphod Beeblebrox, Trillian, and Marvin.

How does Arthur Dent demonstrate the ability to be a man capable of action in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?

For most of the story, Arthur Dent is a passive victim of circumstances, pulled along on an adventure he neither wants nor understands. He does his best to cope. On two occasions, however, he reveals a surprising knack for quick thinking and action. In Chapter 7 while aboard the Vogon Constructor Fleet flagship, he and Ford Prefect are strapped into Poetry Appreciation chairs and forced to listen to excruciatingly painful Vogon poetry. Next, they will be thrown out into space. When Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz asks the two what they think of his poetry, Arthur has the sudden inspiration to give it a glowing critique. If Jeltz likes what he hears, maybe he won't shove them off the ship. Arthur pulls out every catch phrase he can think of and gushes with enthusiasm for "the metaphysical imagery" and the rhythmic devices that seemed to "counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor," and so on. Ford is taken by surprise, but he soon catches on and helps out. Despite Arthur's quick thinking, however, the ploy doesn't work. The second instance in which Arthur shows himself to be a man capable of action takes place aboard the Heart of Gold in Chapter 17. The starship is orbiting Magrathea, and missiles launched from the planet are speeding toward it. There is no time for an evasive maneuver; death is imminent. As everyone desperately tries to think what to do, Arthur is struck by the thought, "Why doesn't anyone turn on this Improbability Drive thing?" While the others argue the point, Arthur takes matters into his own hands. The next thing everyone knows, the ship is safe and they are all still alive.

What is the significance of the cultural allusions to music in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Chapters 3, 7, 17, and 32?

The initial allusions are two scripts for light-hearted musicals—Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Godspell—that Ford tosses away before escaping Earth. They provided proof of his occupation as an actor, but they will be useless in space. Though he respected religion, Douglas Adams was a professed atheist and may have referenced these musicals because of their biblical subject matter. From his perspective, they would have no universal meaning. The next allusion occurs as Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect are being hauled to an airlock by a Vogon guard. Ford attempts to talk the young guard into quitting his job. He argues that there's a whole world of things he could tell the Vogon about, if he lives. Desperate to pique the guard's interest, Ford hums the first bar of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony; da, da, da, dum! The heavily ominous notes have been described as Fate knocking at the door—an appropriate choice, considering the situation. It fails to stir the guard, however, so the hitchhikers are shoved into the airlock anyway. Another allusion comes as missiles from Magrathea speed toward the Heart of Gold. As they approach, Eddie, the ship's computer, sings verses from "You'll Never Walk Alone." The lyrics are intended to offer comfort, but Eddie's hysterical rendition does just the opposite. His Genuine People Personalities program knows he should react to the situation, but the result is completely inappropriate. The final allusion is from the song "Blowin' in the Wind" by Bob Dylan. The line, "How many roads must a man walk down" is used by the mice as a substitute for the illusive Ultimate Question. The original song asks meaningful philosophical questions. The mice turn the line into an empty question for an answer they don't understand—"Forty-two,"—and don't care to figure out.

What is the significance of allusions to historical figures in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the Prologue and Chapters 1 and 6?

In the Prologue, an allusion to the historical figure Jesus appears. In context, it relates to the description of general unhappiness and meanness that is plaguing the world. The narrator states that nearly 2,000 years ago, a man "had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change." This corresponds to the biblical and historical Jesus. The idea of someone being killed for suggesting that people be kind sums up the problems the world has been facing for a very long time. In Chapter 1, the Mongolian warlord Genghis Khan is alluded to in relation to civil servant Mr. L. Prosser, whose job it is to knock down Arthur Dent's house. Khan was a feared conqueror and a brutal ruler. Mr. Prosser is his direct male-line descendant. Unlike Khan, however, Mr. Prosser is a nervous, worried man who wishes only to avoid difficulties while doing his job. The allusion to ferocious Genghis Khan provides an amusing contrast to Mr. Prosser's timidity and is the source of the visions of violence that add to his general nervousness. In Chapter 6, readers discover that Horatio Lord Nelson is another allusion to a historical figure. As Vice Admiral of the British navy, he inspired the absolute defeat of the French in the 1800s and died in battle aboard his flagship HMS Victory. To honor Nelson and his greatest triumph, a column topped by his statue was erected in England. As Arthur Dent tries to grasp the reality that Earth is entirely gone, he recalls this iconic memorial to a great man and a great moment in the United Kingdom's history. It begins to sink in that everything Nelson's Column represents has been demolished.

How does Douglas Adams combine absurdity with similes to create unexpected comparisons in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Chapters 3 and 17?

A simile is a figure of speech that makes a direct comparison between two seemingly unrelated items to suggest a similarity. It draws this resemblance with the help of the words like or as. Adams adds his own special touch to this form of comparison. He chooses something lacking any resemblance to the main object of comparison, such as spaceships versus bricks, and uses their opposition to create an absurd comparison: "The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't." He also uses the less precise phrase "much the same way" to further play with the comparison. The result is humorous as well as descriptive. Yet, it paints an oddly accurate picture. Another unexpected and absurd comparison is produced when Adams exchanges the comparative word like for unlike when describing a machine aboard the Heart of Gold that presumably makes a cup of tea: "It invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea." Once again, Adams's twist on the expected pattern for creating a simile adds humor to the description and shows just how poorly the machine's concoction matches a real cup of tea.

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