The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy | Study Guide

Douglas Adams

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Course Hero. "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Study Guide." Course Hero. 28 Nov. 2016. Web. 20 Sep. 2018. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Hitchhikers-Guide-to-the-Galaxy/>.

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Course Hero, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Study Guide," November 28, 2016, accessed September 20, 2018, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Hitchhikers-Guide-to-the-Galaxy/.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy | Themes

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Douglas Adams blends comedy and science fiction as a way to approach philosophical topics like the meaning of life and its absurdity. The result is witty, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny that, at the same time, raises interesting and important questions. Adams rarely offers answers, expecting readers to think for themselves.

Absurdity and Point of View

Absurdity is a major theme in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Throughout the novel, things seem to happen randomly, without cause or meaning. Some are highly improbable, while others simply stand reason on its head. These shifts in point of view often take the seemingly normal and show it in a new, thought-provoking light. A small yellow fish becomes a useful means of communication as well as the cause of bloody wars and a proof against God's existence. An ordinary towel becomes "the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have."

Absurdity is also used to spoof the general silliness of society, beginning with the bureaucratic nonsense that hushes up the destruction of Arthur's house until the day before its demolition. In a perfect parody of a bureaucratic nightmare, Arthur finds that the demolition plans were "on display" in the unlit cellar of the local planning office, at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet, in an unused lavatory hung with a sign warning "Beware of the Leopard." The Vogons use a similar ploy to excuse the abrupt destruction of Earth in order to make way for a hyperspatial express route.

Humankind's point of view that they are all important is shown to be foolish when contrasted with the enormity of the well-populated galaxy. The home planet's insignificance is established by the ease and contempt with which it is destroyed by the Vogons. Having rendered as silly this point of view of humans, however, Adams flips the perspective again. He reveals that Earth and its inhabitants are part of a great quest to find the Ultimate Question to the Ultimate Answer ("Forty-two"). What becomes truly absurd is the bureaucratic fumbling that destroys the planet five minutes before the question is revealed.

The novel also takes aim at politics, using the character of Zaphod Beeblebrox to highlight the absurdity of political systems. In his role of President of the Imperial Galactic Government, Zaphod is seen by many "as clinching proof that the whole of known creation had finally gone bananas." Farcically, he is incompetent and valued for being so, and he wields no power whatsoever. His job is to draw attention away from whoever (or whatever) is really running things.

Absurdity is applied even to the basic facts of life. Planet Earth turns out to be a giant computer with organic components (people) that is run by mice who are, in fact, bored with the assignment.

Throughout, mild-mannered Englishman Arthur Dent either struggles for reason or tries to ignore the chaos around him by drinking a nice cup of tea. This underscores the irrationality of events. He is the straight man in a comedy, showing how an average, everyday person might react to the absurdities faced when forced to hitchhike the galaxy.

Intelligence

The theme of intelligence—humanoid, animal, alien, and artificial—runs throughout The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. As expected, Douglas Adams's slant on the topic is humorous and surprising. Through characters and events, he poses questions such as What is the nature of intelligence? and How do you measure intelligence? Readers learn that things are not always what they seem, and the answers to these questions are not what humans might assume.

The most significant example is found in Chapter 23, which explains that "on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons." Clearly, human intelligence was unable to save mankind from annihilation when the intellectually inferior (but technologically superior) Vogons showed up. Dolphins, on the other hand, had known about the impending destruction of Earth for some time and tried to warn mankind before safely leaving. It seems that, despite appearances, dolphin intelligence was better suited than human intelligence for survival. Furthermore, as Arthur Dent learns, a human's true place on the scale of intelligence is not first, but third in line, after mice and dolphins.

Other types of intelligence are characterized by the infinitely curious Ford Prefect, the educated and adventurous Trillian, and the very clever, but possibly stupid, Zaphod Beeblebrox. How do their particular brands of intelligence serve them?

Depicting artificial intelligence are Marvin, the chronically depressed robot; Eddie, his cheerful computer counterpart; the great computer Deep Thought; and the supercomputer Earth. They raise different questions, such as the link between intelligence and emotions. Marvin's "brain the size of a planet" seems to be a source of great unhappiness, while Eddie is thrilled to put his intelligence to work. Deep Thought shows empathy when he warns the philosophers they are not going to like the Ultimate Answer. And of course, organic life, with all its inherent emotion, is part of the operational matrix of Earth.

Rather than offering answers, Adams prods readers to consider the questions and to have a great deal of fun along the way.

Philosophy

Philosophy is a particular set of ideas about knowledge, truth, and the nature and meaning of life. It's a term based on a Greek word meaning "love of wisdom." Douglas Adams loved philosophical ideas, so it's not surprising that The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy contains a number of thoughts on life, the universe, and everything. Characters and events throughout the novel give voice to or represent various philosophical ideas and questions. For example, on the subject of life, Marvin dolefully declares, "Life ... loathe it or ignore it, you can't like it." The unfortunate whale in Chapter 18 asks, "Er, excuse me, who am I? ... Why am I here? What's my purpose in life?" Other topics include the value and nature of art (especially as the Vogons see it), the ability of machines to think and have emotions (Marvin and Eddie), and the relationship between knowledge and wisdom (Deep Thought and The Guide versus the great questions of life).

Adams also pokes fun at the nature of philosophical debate taken too far or applied improperly. In Chapter 6, the evolution of the mind-bogglingly useful Babel fish is used by "thinkers" to prove the nonexistence of God. They state that such a bizarrely improbable coincidence could not have happened by chance, but by divine design. Yet belief in God demands faith. If the Babel fish proves God's existence, then faith is eliminated, and God "vanishes in a puff of logic." These same thinkers, however, arrogantly proceed to then prove that black is white and get themselves killed at the next zebra crossing (a crosswalk painted with broad white stripes).

Finally, Adams takes aim at the profession itself, and presents philosophers in a somewhat unflattering light. For example, the philosophers Vroomfondel and Majikthise, who "demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty," threaten a national philosopher's strike if Deep Thought's program is allowed to run. While they, of all people, should welcome an answer to the question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, they are concerned only about job security. Once Deep Thought assures them that they will have millions of years of employment and celebrity while it figures things out, the philosophers relent and let things proceed without further argument.

Nature of Life

Arthur Dent says, "All through my life I've had this strange unaccountable feeling that something was going on in the world, something big, even sinister, and no one would tell me what it was." For Arthur Dent, this sums up the nature of life—another common theme throughout The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Douglas Adams uses humorous situations and commentary to present the unpredictability and frequent absurdities of life. Characters are subject to seemingly random series of events, and their responses reflect the nature of existence as each sees it. For Arthur, life is puzzling—even more so when his ordered world is "boiled away into space." Things go from puzzling to bewildering as he begins hitchhiking across the galaxy with Ford Prefect. On the other hand, Ford sees life, with all its unpredictability and danger, as an adventure to be enjoyed. Slartibartfast seems more of a kindred spirit with Arthur, but he is too old and tired to figure things out. He tells Arthur, "I always think that the chances of finding out what really is going on are so absurdly remote that the only thing to do is to say hang the sense of it and just keep yourself occupied." Of course, Marvin presents an altogether different view: "Life," he moans."Don't talk to me about life."

At the core of the novel, beginning with the destruction of Earth, is the quest for the Ultimate Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. Deep Thought's perplexing response, "Forty-two," suggests there is some final and knowable truth—the essential nature of life can be determined. By the end of the novel, however, it's clear the search for it is far from over.

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