Study Guide

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Defeat

By Douglas Adams

Defeat

As soon as Mr. Prosser realized that he was substantially the loser after all, it was as if a weight lifted itself off his shoulders: this was more like the world as he knew it. He sighed. (1.143)

When you come to see defeat as your natural position, it might be comforting to be defeated. Unlike his Khan ancestors, Prosser isn't a great conqueror; he's just a bureaucrat who probably gets pushed around by the bureaucratic laws as much as he pushes other people. It's almost enough to make you sad for him. Almost.

"I thought," he said, "that if the world was going to end we were meant to lie down or put a paper bag over our head or something."
"If you like, yes," said Ford.
[…]
"Will that help?" asked the barman.
"No," said Ford and gave him a friendly smile. (3.41-5)

If this were Independence Day or some other alien invasion movie, there might be something to do to fight off the aliens. (Luckily, in Independence Day, the aliens' computers are Mac-compatible.) But in Hitchhiker's, there's nothing to do—Earth was defeated before it even knew it. All of which is emphasized by the ridiculousness of the only suggestion made: "lie down or put a paper bag" on your head. What disasters could a paper bag over the head possibly help with other than a disastrously bad hair day?

By this time somebody somewhere must have manned a radio transmitter, located a wavelength and broadcasted a message back to the Vogon ships, to plead on behalf of the planet. Nobody ever heard what they said, they only heard the reply. The PA slammed back into life again. The voice was annoyed. It said:
"What do you mean you've never been to Alpha Centauri? For heaven's sake mankind, it's only four light years away you know. I'm sorry, but if you can't be bothered to take an interest in local affairs that's your own lookout." (3.77-8)

The attempt to convince the Vogons not to destroy the Earth goes about as well as Arthur's attempt to convince Prosser not to destroy his house: it goes badly. This is a defeat for common sense and decency. But let's look at it the other way: it's a victory for bureaucratic politics and general jerkiness. Yay?

"Oh yes, I thought of something," panted Ford.
Arthur looked up expectantly.
"But unfortunately," continued Ford, "it rather involved being on the other side of this airtight hatchway." He kicked the hatch they'd just been through. (7.108-10)

Not everyone takes defeat lying down, or with a paper bag over the head. Here, for instance, Ford heroically kicks the hatchway that's in the way of his plan. Of course, that doesn't actually change anything, though it does probably hurt Ford's foot. We've already seen Arthur and Ford fail to convince Jeltz and a Vogon guard; now they're facing certain death with no hope of escape. That's funny, right?

"Hey this is terrific!" he said. "Someone down there is trying to kill us!" (17.41)

Okay, so defeat can be funny, but an endless string of defeats can also be depressing, and it can lead to the death of your characters. One way Adams keeps defeat funny in Hitchhiker's Guide is to make people's reactions to defeat and danger a little ridiculous. That's Zaphod's cue to come on: here, he's faced with nuclear missiles launched from Magrathea. If he panicked, we might get a little nervous, as Arthur does. But when Zaphod says that it's "terrific" that someone is trying to kill him, we probably laugh at the mismatch.

"OK, Ford," he said, "full retro thrust and ten degrees starboard. Or something ..." (17.69)

It's no wonder that our heroes are so often defeated. (We're using the terms "heroes" and "defeated" pretty loosely here.) They're not brave space rangers with lots of skills or cool gadgets. They're a bunch of bumbling fools most of the time, as we can see here: Zaphod has stolen a ship that he can't really drive, and he's captain (sort of) of a crew that can't really do their job.

"It's the computer," explained Zaphod. "I discovered it had an emergency back-up personality that I thought might work out better."
"Now this is going to be your first day out on a strange new planet," continued Eddie's new voice, "so I want you all wrapped up snug and warm, and no playing with any naughty bug-eyed monsters." (19.15-6)

This is just a tiny joke, but we see what happens when our foolish heroes (or heroic fools) try to solve a problem. The original Eddie personality is totally annoying, so Zaphod switches it… to another really annoying personality. Adams drives home this defeat by giving us Zaphod's plan and then immediately showing us that it has failed. No waiting, here: we get to see pretty immediately that this is another defeat.

"We're going to get lynched aren't we?" he whispered.
"It was a tough assignment," said Deep Thought mildly.
"Forty-two!" yelled Loonquawl. "Is that all you've got to show for seven and a half million years' work?"
"I checked it very thoroughly," said the computer, "and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you've never actually known what the question is." (28.2-6)

If we actually saw Phouchg and Loonquawl get lynched, that might be kind of a buzzkill. Luckily, that doesn't happen, but what does happen is that we learn how deep this defeat goes. Deep Thought has succeeded in finding the answer to life, but Loonquawl and Phouchg are still defeated since they never knew the real question. Even when you think you've succeeded in Hitchhiker's Guide, there's usually a defeat waiting just around the corner—and you didn't even know there was a corner there.

For thousands more years the mighty ships tore across the empty wastes of space and finally dived screaming on to the first planet they came across—which happened to be the Earth—where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog. (31.8)

Boy, Adams really loves his anti-climactic let-downs, especially to express defeat. The first half of this sentence is full of exciting words that ramp up the action: the ships are "mighty," they "tore" through space, they "dived screaming." The second half, though, starts to introduce a little defeat when it mentions terrible miscalculation" and "accidentally swallowed." Then Adams hits us with the full force of this defeat: the whole battle fleet was swallowed by a "small dog." That's one heck of a defeat.

"The only thing we can do now," said Benjy, crouching and stroking his whiskers in thought, "is to try and fake a question, invent one that will sound plausible."
[…]
Then Frankie said: "Here's a thought. How many roads must a man walk down?"
"Ah," said Benjy. "Aha, now that does sound promising!" He rolled the phrase around a little. "Yes," he said, "that's excellent! Sounds very significant without actually tying you down to meaning anything at all. How many roads must a man walk down? Forty-two. Excellent, excellent, that'll fox 'em. Frankie baby, we are made!" (32.2-11)

After all that defeat, we thought it would be nice to end on a victory, like when Benjy mouse and Frankie mouse come up with a fake question to pass off to unsuspecting rubes back in their home dimension. The whole section is worth looking at just to see what questions they reject. But we mostly pulled this because their victory—coming up with a fake question—is kind of a defeat for the whole project, not to mention for science and philosophy. Now there will be tons of talk shows and books about this question, and only these two mice know the question is bogus. So after all those defeats that make us laugh, here's a victory that makes us cry.