Study Guide

Hober Mallow in Foundation

By Isaac Asimov

Hober Mallow

Hober Mallow is from Smyrno, a master trader, and the first non-Foundation protagonist of the series. Through trade and political maneuvering, Mallow manages to climb the Foundation's social ladder to become the mayor and eventually its first merchant prince.

To save time, let's put it all out there right now: Mallow has all the characteristics of a typical Foundation protagonist and displays them to the letter. If you've read our character sheets on Salvor Hardin, Limner Ponyets, and Hari Seldon, then you know where this is going. Here's the quick and dirty rundown:

  • He is willing to argue against tradition and custom for right course of action. For example, it's customary for traders to trade the Foundation's religion with their goods, but Mallow actively works against this policy. He sees that new trade markets are now wary of the power of the Foundation's religion. Understanding this, Mallow drops the religion from his sales and creates a system where trade alone is strong enough to protect the Foundation (V.16.44).
  • He uses rational thinking to create innovative solutions to his problems. During his trial for the murder of Jord Purma, Mallow never lets his emotions override his rational judgment, following the letter of the law rather than a nationalistic custom. As he says, "any dogma based on faith and emotionalism, is a dangerous weapon to use on others, since it is almost impossible to guarantee that the weapon will never be turned on the user" (V.13.70).
  • He uses technology wisely. Mallow manages to catch Jord Purma's deception by using the technology of video recording. Busted!
  • He promotes the ideal of nonviolence. Mallow never harms anyone, prefers to think his way through situations, and even prevents the harm of others. The is most evident when Mallow manages to prevent a war with Korell without actually going to war, just as Salvor Hardin did generations before.

We hope this sampling proves Mallow shares all of the characteristics of a Foundation protagonist. But he's also a very different character than we've seen previously. So, let's focus on what makes him different than the other protagonists. You know, just to spice things up a bit.

I've Got that Double Vision

We decided to start with lyrics from a Foreigner song because, hey, Mallow is a foreigner. All the previous protagonists have been Foundation folks—except, of course, Seldon who was native to Trantor where the story took place.

Mallow is in a sad state at the beginning of the story. He is a foreigner, a trader, and poor. He's only managed to receive a "lay education," and just doesn't have much political or social power (V.13.7). That might not be so bad, but the Foundation is a little suspicious of non-Foundation people. In short, Mallow has to deal with good old-fashioned prejudice. Hey, it never goes out of style.

Through Mallow, we get to explore prejudice for the first time in Foundation. According to Asimov, prejudice—like nationalism, faith, and emotionalism—is incompatible with rational thinking. As Ankor Jael puts it, "Since when does prejudice follow any law but its own?" (V.13.8).

Sutt and his political friends are completely against the idea of traders, particularly foreign traders, taking power in the Foundation's dealings. In fact, they're so irrational that they refuse to work with Mallow, even when it's clearly the best option. Even after Mallow has won the mayor's seat, Sutt says:

And I warn you, Hober Mallow of Smyrno, that if you arrest me, there will be no quarter. My men will stop nowhere in spreading the truth about you, and the common people of the Foundation will unite against their foreign ruler. They have a consciousness of destiny that a Smyrnian can never understand—and that consciousness will destroy you. (V.18.70)

So how does Mallow counter prejudice? Well, he doesn't, really. Instead, he just lets the prejudiced people be prejudiced, since he knows that they'll eventually be robbed of their "power of judgment," just like Sutt is (V.18.77). And all Mallow needs to do to overcome such people is use rational judgment. Once again, it's rational decision-making for the win.

Streak of Violence

Okay, like we admitted above, Mallow doesn't actually kill anybody. But he does do a couple of things that have us worried he may not be a pacifist. It's as if his character were trying to make the idea of violence in Foundation a little less cut-and-dry. But Asimov wouldn't do that to us. Would he?

We're referring, of course, to the incident with the missionary Jord Purma. When Mallow decides that Jord needs to go, Twer objects. He figures that that, as members of the Foundation, it's their duty to protect the priest. But Mallow says they have to follow the laws and return the priest to the Korellians.

When the argument gets out of hand, Mallow draws a gun, saying, "I don't know what insubordination is. I have never any experience with it. But if there's anyone here who thinks he can teach me, I'd like to teach him my antidote in return" (V.4.72).

Why the gun? Because Mallow feels loyalty has "no merit in discipline under ideal circumstances"; instead it must be "in the face of death, or it's useless" (V.4.41). In other words—you can only really be loyal if there are a lot of things trying to convince you to be disloyal.

We know that's a lot of quotage, but they lead us to an interesting conundrum. Is Mallow the first protagonist of Foundation to condone violence if necessary? Or does he merely use the appearance of violence to force his point and maintain the upper-hand?

It's a hard one to answer, and we aren't even sure there is a definitive way to look at it. But we have come up with three possibilities for you to ponder. Feel free to consider the following:

  • Being from the Four Kingdoms, Mallow loves his violence. In a way, this means the book supports determinism, the idea that the place you come from determines your outlook on life.
  • It was a bluff the entire time. Mallow only uses the "face of death" to insure obedience from his soldiers. Actual death at his hands would never be an option. In this view, Mallow is more like Hardin: both understand what is necessary to motivate other people.
  • Or maybe it's a character arc kind of deal. Mallow begins the story willing to commit violent acts, but as the story progresses, he starts to adopt nonviolence. Unfortunately for this theory, we never see for sure where the change would have taken place. Maybe after learning about the admiral's vile actions on Siwenna? After returning to the Foundation? We can't say for sure.

Finally, one more question that's never answered: did Mallow know Jord Purma was a Korellian spy when he sent him to his "death" or was that something he figured out later? Depending on how you answer this question could really determine how you read Mallow as a character in relation to violence.