Study Guide

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Foolishness and Folly

By Douglas Adams

Foolishness and Folly

This planet has—or rather had—a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy. (Introduction.3)

Foolishness is clearly related to sadness here: we're not happy, but we're too foolish to find a way out of that unhappiness. Notice also that Adams gets in a little dig about something that a lot of people think will make them happy—money, those "small green pieces of paper." We only think money will make us happy because we're not smart. Does this make anyone else want to take a day off and go to the beach?

Pages one and two had been salvaged by a Damogran Frond Crested Eagle and had already become incorporated into an extraordinary new form of nest which the eagle had invented. It was constructed largely of papier-mâché and it was virtually impossible for a newly hatched baby eagle to break out of it. The Damogran Frond Crested Eagle had heard of the notion of survival of the species but wanted no truck with it. (4.42)

Foolishness isn't just for humanoids anymore. Here the Damogran Frond Crested Eagle has used parts of Zaphod's speech to make a nest that won't work. But note that this type of foolishness is associated with some type of smarts: the eagle has invented this new nest type, which must take some intelligence to do.

Meanwhile, the natural forces on the planet Vogsphere had been working overtime to make up for their earlier blunder. They brought forth scintillating jeweled scuttling crabs, which the Vogons ate, smashing their shells with iron mallets; tall aspiring trees with breathtaking slenderness and color which the Vogons cut down and burned the crab meat with; elegant gazelle-like creatures with silken coats and dewy eyes which the Vogons would catch and sit on. They were no use as transport because their backs would snap instantly, but the Vogons sat on them anyway. (5.4)

And foolishness isn't just for individuals anymore—now you can buy it in bulk for a whole species. The Vogons are foolish bureaucrats (see our breakdown of Politics in "Themes"), but they're also foolish and cruel. That is, here they are, totally abusing the natural resources of their planet, because this is either all they can think to do or because they're jerks. Notice how Adams uses adjectives to make sure we know who is beautiful here: "scintillating jeweled" crabs are pretty; "iron mallets" aren't so pretty. Heck, the Vogons can't even cook their crab properly but end up with "burned" crab meat.

One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about human beings was their habit of continually stating and repeating the obvious, as in It's a nice day, or You're very tall, or Oh dear you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot well, are you alright? (5.18)

But just because Vogons are dumb, doesn't mean humans are off the hook. (We're not smart enough to figure a way off this hook.) Though Adams gives this observation to the alien Ford, this is the kind of thing that we all probably have some experience with. But notice that Adams uses the pattern of three things here: he says one normal, then another normal thing, but then finishes off with a strange thing. We might say "yes, yes" to the first two ("It's a nice day," "You're very tall"), but then we hit the third statement about falling down a well—and that should give us a moment to reconsider: maybe it is foolish to keep stating the obvious.

Trillian had come to suspect that the main reason why he had had such a wild and successful life that he never really understood the significance of anything he did. (11.9)

Then again, maybe a little foolishness is a good thing. Take, for example, Slartibartfast and his fjords: making Africa with fjords is foolish, but if it makes him happy, who are we to complain? Here, Trillian wonders if Zaphod's foolishness is what keeps him from defeat. Is that just for Zaphod or can we all benefit from being a little foolish?

One of the major difficulties Trillian experienced in her relationship with Zaphod was learning to distinguish between him pretending to be stupid just to get people off their guard, pretending to be stupid because he couldn't be bothered to think and wanted someone else to do it for him, pretending to be outrageously stupid to hide the fact that he actually didn't understand what was going on, and really being genuinely stupid. (12.25)

Zaphod may be the most foolish character in the book—especially compared to the whale, who is a model of wisdom—but there are lots of different types of foolishness—or types of seeming foolish. Here there are a couple types of foolishness that turn out to be useful for Zaphod: he can be tricky, lazy, or just plain foolish.

Ford's copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy smashed into another section of the control console with the combined result that the guide started to explain to anyone who cared to listen about the best ways of smuggling Antarean parakeet glands out of Antares (an Antarean parakeet gland stuck on a small stick is a revolting but much sought after cocktail delicacy and very large sums of money are often paid for them by very rich idiots who want to impress other very rich idiots), and the ship suddenly dropped out of the sky like a stone. (17.73)

There are a couple layers of stupidity here, one of them nicely marked out by a parenthetical remark. (1) Here the crew of the Heart of Gold is being pretty foolish, stealing a ship that they can't drive very well, leading to it dropping like "a stone." (2) Here's a potentially unhelpful article in the Guide (which wouldn't be the first unhelpful article—see our write-up in "Symbols"). And (3) rich idiots try to impress each other with disgusting Antarean parakeet glands. Nobody comes out of this quote looking smart.

"I freewheel a lot. I get an idea to do something, and, hey, why not, I do it. I reckon I'll become President of the Galaxy, and it just happens, it's easy. I decide to steal this ship. I decide to look for Magrathea, and it all just happens. […] And then whenever I stop and think—why did I want to do something?—how did I work out how to do it?—I get a very strong desire just to stop thinking about it." (20.71)

This is a central problem of Zaphod's character: it's hard to know how dumb he is since he locked part of his brain away. He certainly doesn't sound like a mastermind here—and yet he's the one with the plan. It makes you wonder how foolish the other people have to be to follow him.

It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem. For instance, 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. (23.1)

In Hitchhiker's Guide, all the things that we think make us smart—"the wheel, New York, wars"—actually might be examples that we're not so smart after all. This is an example of Adams's comic style: taking something we think and turning it around so it's the reverse. Note that the narrator starts off this section by noting a general truth that we can all agree on—"things are not always what they seem"—but then jokes that maybe the dolphins had it right, and we should've spent all our time frolicking. It's a slippery slope from agreeing with the first part to agreeing with the second.

"That's right!" shouted Vroomfondel, "we demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!" (25.68)

Our favorite foolish minor characters are the philosophers, Majikthise and Vroomfondel, who even have silly names. (Of course, they might say the same about us. After all, "Shmoop" might seem like a funny name, but it's a family name passed down from generation to generation.) Here Vroomfondel misunderstands some pretty basic concepts and words: "doubt and uncertainty" are pretty vague things, so it would be hard to get "defined areas" of them. And Adams drives the joke home by saying "rigidly" on top of "defined."