Study Guide

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Tone

By Douglas Adams

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Gallows Humor—Dry and Dark

Here is the best memorial service you will ever see. It's Monty Python's tribute to Graham Chapman. (We can get away with this since Douglas Adams worked with the Pythons at some point; Adams actually worked with Chapman for a failed TV show called "Out of the Trees".)

Notice how John Cleese takes a terribly sad moment and makes it funny by saying some terrible things about Chapman. That's dark. And although he's saying some silly things, he never smiles or laughs. That's dry. That's a pretty good definition of gallows humor: the dark humor you use to lighten a serious and sad moment without going out of your way to point at yourself and say "I'm making a joke here."

A gallows by the way, is a place where people are hanged. Humor is a man slipping on a banana peel.

And that's pretty much the tone of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It's terrible, like a gallows: Arthur loses his house and his planet, gets threatened with asphyxiation and nuclear missiles—and then some mice want to dice up his brain. That's a rough week.

But Adams doesn't want us to feel bad for Arthur. He doesn't let us cry over the loss of Earth, because that wouldn't be funny. The way that Arthur deals with his loss is a pretty good example of turning a sad, serious moment into a funny one.

Warning: long, dark, funny quote:

There was no way his imagination could feel the impact of the whole Earth having gone, it was too big. He prodded his feelings by thinking that his parents and his sister had gone. No reaction. He thought of all the people he had been close to. No reaction. Then he thought of a complete stranger he had been standing behind in the queue at the supermarket before and felt a sudden stab—the supermarket was gone, everything in it was gone. Nelson's Column had gone! Nelson's Column had gone and there would be no outcry, because there was no one left to make an outcry. From now on Nelson's Column only existed in his mind. England only existed in his mind—his mind, stuck here in this dank smelly steel-lined spaceship. A wave of claustrophobia closed in on him.

England no longer existed. He'd got that—somehow he'd got it. He tried again. America, he thought, has gone. He couldn't grasp it. He decided to start smaller again. New York has gone. No reaction. He'd never seriously believed it existed anyway. The dollar, he thought, had sunk for ever. Slight tremor there. Every Bogart movie has been wiped, he said to himself, and that gave him a nasty knock. McDonald's, he thought. There is no longer any such thing as a McDonald's hamburger.

He passed out. When he came round a second later he found he was sobbing for his mother. (6.29-31)

Check that out. No, really, go on. We'll wait. Even though the narrator is giving us a play-by-play account of Arthur's feelings, we don't get sucked in to despair, though that would be a normal reaction to losing your planet. The narrator starts off by making it humorous instead: Arthur can't even react to losing his parents, but he starts to get the idea when he thinks about his local supermarket. The narrator also drops in a joke or two along the way—Nelson's Column is gone but nobody is going to protest that now, and Arthur never really believed in New York anyway.

And then we get the final punch line to this horrible, terrible, no-good situation. Sure, Arthur's parents are dead, but what really knocks him down is the idea that there's not a single McDonald's left. That makes a weird sort of sense: Arthur only has one mom and dad, but there are thousands of McDonald's, so you know something is serious when all of them are gone.

Arthur does cry for his mother at the end, of course, and that might seem serious and make you sad. But here's the narrator's trick: it is a sad situation, but after two whole paragraphs joking about the end of the world, we only get one line about Arthur's sadness. That's enough to make him seem like he's not a monster, but not so much that we start crying with him. In that way, we're kind of kept at a distance from serious feelings, and that allows us to enjoy the dark humor of the situation.

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