Study Guide

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Themes

  • Absurdity

    In The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the galaxy is a pretty messed up place, where very few things end up fulfilling our expectations—and most things turn out wrong. The existence of an Infinite Improbability Drive means that lots of strange things happen, like a pile of eggs dropping on the planet Poghril, which feeds the last Poghrilian, who then ends up dying of cholesterol (9.5-6). As you can see from that example, the universe in this book is a pretty absurd place. Even the basic facts of your life may turn out to be wrong, like when the planet Earth turns out to be a giant computer operated by mice who are bored with the program Earth is running. You might think that this is depressing, but in Hitchhiker's, when you're confronted with some dangerous absurdity, you might as well laugh.

    Questions About Absurdity

    1. Is there anything in this book that isn't absurd? Any person, object, institution (religion, school, government), or philosophical position that is taken seriously?
    2. What techniques does Adams use to deal with absurdity? For instance, is the digressive omniscient narrator a technique that makes the universe seem absurd?
    3. Is absurdity always related to comedy? Are there any tragic aspects of absurdity in this book?
    4. How does Adams's style of absurdity compare to other famous absurd works, like Waiting for Godot and The Stranger?

    Chew on This

    The Hitchhiker's Guide plays with the idea of absurdity but ultimately shows us a universe that makes sense.

    In Hitchhiker's Guide, the universe is absurd and depressing—no joke. The humorous stuff is there to distract us from how sad it really is.

  • Sadness

    When your planet blows up, you might get depressed. This is totally normal, especially since most therapists and antidepressants probably got blown up, too. This is Arthur's situation, but he's not the only sad character here. In fact, sadness seems pretty common here, as we might expect in a universe that doesn't make a lot of sense (see our discussion of Absurdity in "Themes"). But Hitchhiker's Guide isn't a totally depressing book. Even in the darkest, weirdest depression, there's often something to laugh about, like when Marvin depresses a computer into committing suicide, which is funny as long as you're not a computer.

    Questions About Sadness

    1. What makes characters sad in this book? How do the characters deal with that sadness?
    2. Do all computers and robots have the ability to get sad? Why do you think that is?
    3. Does Douglas Adams make sadness funny in this book—or is it still sad? How does he make it funny? Is it funny when the sadness seems exaggerated or understated?
    4. Does this book present any way to be happy? Are any characters happy?

    Chew on This

    Hitchhiker's Guide shows us that sadness is the basic condition of the world. Yay?

    Happiness is impossible in Hitchhiker's Guide, but still worth trying to get to.

  • Foolishness and Folly

    If you like yelling back at books and movies when characters do foolish things, then have we got a treat for you: on almost every page of Hitchhiker's Guide, characters are doing dumb things. Zaphod is probably the gold medal winner in the Foolishness Olympics, but that doesn't let others off the hook. In fact, in Hitchhiker's Guide, whole groups of people are presented as fools, from the alien Vogons to the ridiculous and delusional philosophers. In Hitchhiker's Guide, almost everyone is a fool, and that's just something we're going to have to learn to live with. Though it might kill us.

    Questions About Foolishness and Folly

    1. What character seems most foolish to you and why? For instance, is Zaphod, with his hope of finding Magrathea, more foolish than Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz, with his plan to destroy Earth to make a space-road?
    2. In this book, does folly always lead to defeat? Or are there situations where folly might be helpful and lead to success?
    3. How do different characters measure intelligence in this book? How do different species measure intelligence—say, humans vs. mice vs. dolphins?
    4. Does Hitchhiker's Guide ever punish people for being foolish? Does it make being foolish seem like a bad thing? Or is everyone foolish on some level?

    Chew on This

    Hitchhiker's Guide shows us that intelligence is overrated—foolish people can get along fine as long as they've got some other good quality, like niceness or a stolen spaceship.

    Intelligence is the best thing in the universe, but the bummer is that perfect intelligence is impossible in Hitchhiker's Guide.

  • Awe and Amazement

    The galaxy in Hitchhiker's Guide is a pretty amazing place, full of binary stars, vast empty spaces, and aliens that want to destroy your world—which is actually a giant computer. There may even be one or two times where Adams describes something amazing without turning it into a joke, which may be the most amazing thing of all. Now, it's easy to be amazed by a universe so absurd that it will never be comprehensible. Awe is the appropriate response to recognizing how tiny and unimportant you are to the galaxy—or at least one appropriate response, since, as we've seen, the same information might make you sad or depressed.

    Questions About Awe and Amazement

    1. How do characters react to amazing things? What other feelings are involved in awe—horror, fear, wonder, hope, hunger?
    2. Who is most amazed by the universe? Is it Arthur, who is new to it all? Do you have to be new to something to be amazed by it? When are the other characters amazed?
    3. Is there anything amazing (or unbelievable) about the characters' relationships? Do any of these relationships not make sense to you?
    4. Was there anything you were amazed at in this book?

    Chew on This

    Adams doesn't let the characters be amazed for long since amazement isn't laugh-out-loud funny.

    The smarter a character is in Hitchhiker's, the more they get amazed.

  • Defeat

    In Hitchhiker's Guide, defeat is the natural condition for all of our favorite characters. This makes some sense for a comedy, since it's usually funny to watch people fail—as long as they don't die after they get ejected out of an airlock. Adams has to perform a careful balancing act: he has to keep his characters alive while showing them failing in funny ways. We might want these characters to succeed—and sometimes they do (often through a bit of luck)—but in an absurd universe, the very idea of success and defeat might need some rethinking. After all, if Earth had defeated the Vogons, what then? Earth would still be a giant computer running a program that no one on Earth knew about for the benefit of a bunch of mice. Is that success?

    Questions About Defeat

    1. Is defeat ever a good thing in this book? Does being defeated lead our heroes (using the term loosely) on to better things?
    2. Does defeat mean the same thing for each character? For instance, does everyone agree on what it would mean to be defeated by the Magratheans?
    3. What techniques does Adams use to keep defeat humorous? Does he tell us how bad characters feel about being defeated or avoid that? 
    4. Does he show us improper responses to defeat? Does he make it clear to us that defeat won't really hurt our favorite characters? Is defeat in this book ever serious?
    5. How do characters respond to defeat? Do different characters always respond in the same way? For instance, does Ford always make a joke when he's defeated?

    Chew on This

    In Hitchhiker's Guide, defeat is just a law of the universe, and so it's never sad. No one cries over gravity because it's just the way things are.

    Hitchhiker's Guide teaches us never to accept defeat, because we don't know what's going to happen next (or because we're too stupid to know what's happening).

  • Art and Culture

    Art and culture are great things in Hitchhiker's Guide, especially if you want to hurt people. That's what happens with Vogon poetry, which probably should be prohibited by the Geneva Convention, since it seems like torture. In Hitchhiker's Guide, we sometimes find art and culture in strange places—like Norway's fjords, which are an old Magrathean's art project—or doing strange things—as in the Vogon torture poetry. There are also times when Adams presents our own culture to us to emphasize our ridiculousness. Remember that story about how everyone wants to meet the President of the Galaxy just because he's a celebrity? It doesn't matter that he has no power. The important thing is just that he's famous—famous for being famous.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. What types of art are represented in Hitchhiker's Guide? Do we see any sculptures or paintings? Or is it mostly literature?
    2. Are there any times when Arthur's culture comes into conflict with alien cultures? How does Arthur deal with different cultures? Is there any culture shock?
    3. Besides the Vogon poetry, does art have any power in this book? Can art do anything but hurt people?
    4. Besides poetry and art, how else does culture express itself in this book? Food? Games? Television programs? Spaceships?

    Chew on This

    In the absurd universe of The Hitchhiker's Guide, the only thing that gives life meaning is art.

    To be all technical for a moment, in The Hitchhiker's Guide, art is just plain bad.

  • Science

    In Hitchhiker's Guide, science is mostly about proving how unimportant we are or how wrong we are about the universe around us. In that way, it's basically like science in real life: it makes us constantly revise our theories (like the series of theories about how the Earth is flat, or it's round, or it's a giant computer bought by mice who didn't bother to get the extended warranty), and it makes us feel pretty small. Hitchhiker's Guide also shows us some amazing technology, like the Infinite Improbability Drive, but this tech rarely gets put to the best use. People may invent new technology, but they remain people—which is to say, foolish. Science can't change that.

    Questions About Science

    1. What scientific assumptions get disproven in this book? Are there any patterns showing that humans are less smart than we thought?
    2. What technologies are most dangerous in Hitchhiker's Guide? What technology is purely helpful? In general, is tech a good thing in this book?
    3. Are all computers and robots in this book emotional? Are there other examples of technology that operates differently than we would expect it to?
    4. How would Hitchhiker's Guide be different technologically if it were written today?

    Chew on This

    Science shows us how small and unimportant we are, which is why the scientific viewpoint is the best in Hitchhiker's Guide. No offense, but we really aren't very important.

    In an absurd universe, science is just a hobby for these characters who really should try something less dangerous, like painting or quilting.

  • Language and Communication

    We might as well call this the theme of "Miscommunication," because in Hitchhiker's Guide, characters have a lot of trouble understanding each other, even with the Babel fish translating all languages for them. For instance, Ford has trouble explaining things to Arthur, partly because they're using different vocabularies: Ford says that Arthur is "safe" on the Vogon ship, but Arthur's version of the word "safe" doesn't involve his planet being destroyed (5.22-25). There are several ways of communicating in the book—slang, body language, writing—but it hardly ever works out, and that's what we'd expect from an absurd comedy. In other words, in Hitchhiker's Guide, communication is just another way for things to go wrong.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. What are the costs of miscommunication? What's the worst thing that happens in this book because of a miscommunication?
    2. Do each of these characters have their own way of speaking? If so, what do those individual styles tell us about the characters? Or do most of the characters speak the same? How does that affect your reading experience?
    3. When does communication go right in this book, if ever? Do people with similar backgrounds find it easier to communicate (for instance, the Earth-people, Arthur and Trillian)?
    4. Is the language in Hitchhiker's Guide ever hard to follow? Is it harder when the narrator is discussing scientific issues? When the narrator is making a joke? Do you think this book is written differently because the idea started out as a radio show?

    Chew on This

    As the Babel fish shows us, communication in Hitchhiker's Guide is often dangerous, so we should all just be quiet.

    Hitchhiker's Guide shows us that communication is impossible because everyone speaks his or her own different language. (Do not use this thesis to try to argue a better grade out of your teacher.)

  • Exploration

    Exploration in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is about moving out into the unknown and experiencing new things, which are almost always scary or dangerous. For instance, remember the cheerful, intelligent, friendly whale and his exploration of what it's like to fall from a great height? While the whale and Arthur may be trying to explore in order to figure out where they fit in the universe (answer: the whale fits very nicely in a whale-shaped crater), other characters may have less pure motives for exploration, like greedy Zaphod and the money-grubbing mice.

    Questions About Exploration

    1. What role does curiosity play in exploration? Do characters explore because they are curious or for other reasons? Do some characters get forced into exploring and have no motives at all?
    2. How do different characters react to new experiences? Do characters always react the same way? For instance, Arthur is sometimes nervous, but is he always nervous with new experiences?
    3. How does exploration relate to the other themes, like sadness? Are explorers sadder and more defeated than non-explorers?
    4. Does exploration ever lead to bad things—secrets that shouldn't be learned? Alternatively, does exploration ever lead to good things—does it ever help people?

    Chew on This

    Like science and art, exploration is a waste of time in Hitchhiker's Guide—it's better just to stay warm and comfortable.

    In Hitchhiker's Guide, we may never find the meaning of life or a really comfortable dress shoe, but the search gives our lives purpose.

  • Politics

    In Hitchhiker's Guide, politics is a giant mess, which is very different from how it is in real life. Politics has to do with how groups of people live together, and it's not a pretty sight. For instance, there's the absurd bureaucracy that would knock down a house (or a planet) without letting anyone know. That's politics here. There's also the fact that the president of the galaxy is ridiculous: his role is basically to distract people from the real sources of power. And did we mention the insane way the Magratheans have of dealing with recession? In Hitchhiker's Guide, living in a political society is a form of compromise and misery. But the solution—pulling out of society—hardly seems any better.

    Questions About Politics

    1. Are all political arguments in this book settled by the exercise of power? Or do people ever convince each other with discussion?
    2. Do characters have good reasons for their political positions, or is all politics just a way to disguise selfish motives?
    3. Is there any example in this book of politics working out for the good of the people involved?
    4. Are there any happy political systems in this book? Can you tell what political system the Magratheans have? Is the old Empire a better political system than the new presidential system?

    Chew on This

    In Hitchhiker's Guide, politics is a worse pastime than art or science.

    Although Hitchhiker's Guide makes fun of everything, it also shows us that we have to organize ourselves and work together to survive—a surprisingly unfunny and serious message.